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For those of us who have been asking, "When should I, the writing group with which I am affiliated, or the student I teach put aside our pads and pens, typewriters and white-out, and begin writing with a word processor?" It's clear that the time is now! Writing on a computer isn't just a fad. Word processors do make it possible to write more in less time, and do make us better writers. But once we've decided to make the plunge into word processing, very real concerns remain. What kind of computer should we, our school, or business buy? Can we use a $499 discount special for professional writing, as the ads suggest? What kind of printer do we need? Does it have to produce typewriter quality, or can we get by with dot-matrix printing? If we allow timidity to reign we're liable to throw up our hands and succumb to sticking with our typewriters. So instead let's catch up with the times and plunge in.
Choosing the right word processing system begins by appraising desired objectives, needs, and available funding. The most common and least expensive word processing equipment, the type most frequently installed by schools and smaller businesses, operates on personal computers. As distinguished from home computers, personal-grade microprocessors come standard-equipped with the essential features required for professional word processing.
All microcomputers designed for word processing provide an 80-column screen capable of displaying a page-length line of print. In addition, the terminal must contain adequate memory to hold both the word processing program and a sizable text file--128K bytes is the current baseline.
A detachable keyboard, connected to the processor box by an elastic telephone-like cord provides the convenience of typing from your lap or eased back in a comfortable chair. Keyboards containing auxiliary keys that can be used to perform common word processing functions such as inserting a space in a line of text or deleting a character make writing easier.
Individuals purchasing a personal computer for writing associated with their business or profession will find that present tax laws encourage that investment.
Larger companies and educational institutions equipped with mainframe or mini-computers frequently provide word processing capability via on-line interactive terminals. In situations where the computer hardware is already in place, the approach may have a cost advantage. It can also bring added benefits in file sharing and uniform back-up procedures. Interactive terminals tied to a single central processing unit (CPU) and file base do
present disadvantages, however. Response time may be slow when all terminals are in use, and a mechanical malfunction of the central unit is likely to render all terminals inoperative.
Just as there are basic functions one would expect to find when selecting the computer hardware, so too, there are basic expectations to hold when evaluating word-processing software.
It is essential that the program allow you to move backward and forward in files at will. The single disadvantage of writing on a word processor is that you can only see one screen of text (typically 24 lines of 80 characters) at a time, so you have to hold prior and subsequent pages in your mind while working in a given text location. In order to review prior writing, you must scroll through the file to desired locations. It is mandatory, then, that the word processing software allow you to relocate anywhere in the text, at will, without having to exit from the file.
While basic functions enabling you to insert, delete, copy and move single characters or blocks of text are now found universally in all professional-grade word processing software, the way programs move text varies greatly. In some, the portion of text to be deleted, copied or moved can be defined regardless of whether it contains full or partial lines. Other software is less versatile, limiting this function to full lines of text. While either approach gets the job done, the former puts you in control. Efficient software also provides a rejustify feature, meaning that when you disrupt the text by inserting or deleting words or phrases, the program should be able to reassemble the copy at the press of a keystroke.
Other desirable features include the software's ability to recognize commands activated from the terminal's auxiliary keys now included in most personal computer keyboards. In this way such common procedures as copying and moving a block of text can be performed in a minimum number of keystrokes. Well-designed programs that minimize the number of keystrokes necessary to execute a given function are far less tedious to use than those that don't.
Although for most writing it makes little difference whether the word processing software controls format design by rulers or embedded characters, many writers prefer to work with software that displays text exactly as it will be printed.
The ability to link the word processing software to a spelling dictionary is highly desirable. While spelling dictionaries do not, of themselves, eliminate all misspellings (most are unable to check names, for example) they are far more adept than most humans in pointing out hard-to-recognize typographical errors and spelling blindspots.
The ability to index is also useful. However, where a specific index building capability is lacking, the standard search function can be used to locate key words, thereby eliminating the tedious work of thumbing through pages of text to compile an index manually.
Helpful frills include a "swap" function that will transpose mistyped characters.
Above all, any word processing software should protect its user from inadvertently destroying files. For example, it should be impossible to trigger an abort or reset command by a single keystroke. Early Apple computers had this flaw--now corrected. For even the most casual use, provisions to prevent file tampering must be maintained. While on-line systems typically require a password to gain system access, file security should be practiced by those working on personal computers as well. The methods can be as simple as locking diskettes in a desk drawer.
Selecting the right hardware/software combination is but one of the steps in the change-over to word processing. All who use the equipment, you, your students, secretaries, and others, need to understand the benefits word processing brings to them and put these benefits into practice. While important, rapid typing and lightening printing speeds are minor gains; in comparison with word processing's ability to hold words and ideas in a fluid state during the initial composing and later revision stages. No other
writing device functions as compatibly with the human mind. But unless those working with word processors experience the ease with which text can be altered to achieve maximum clarity, many will consider the terminal and its software as little more than a video-typewriter.
Of course, some individuals catch on to word processing's revision capability right away. Those writers may not have been overly prolific using standard writing tools, but chances are they understood that writing involves grappling with words, as Ernest Hemingway once said, "To get the meaning right." For them, writing on a word processor opens the door to striking advances in productivity.
To ensure that all those who write on word processors use the equipment to its fullest advantage, a short training period should precede serious writing. A suggested training session would begin with an explanation of how to use the terminal and software, and include such basic instructions as backup procedures necessary to prevent file loss and a description of the key strokes required to input and revise text. Thorough operating instructions are important. Some form of quick reference card containing command sequences, format codes, and a diagram showing designated key locations should be distributed to all those using the word processing terminals. Marking special function keys with key caps gives new users confidence in their ability to adjust to writing on a computer, thereby smoothing the transition phase.
Once the mechanics are mastered writers need to experience the ease with which a word processor can help reorder thoughts until sentences ring with the clarity of glass. Possibly the best way to demonstrate this is to have a writer who is experienced with word processing rework a sample of stiffly worded, confusing, or ambivalently expressed text, breaking up longer sentences, eliminating trills of prepositional phrases and other extraneous constructions, inserting needed information, and gradually reordering the text into direct, declarative sentences. A demonstration of this sort shows writing suspended in a fluid state, allowing its language to be molded for maximum clarity. With larger groups, this demonstration can be presented using transparencies.
Along with explaining how to operate the hardware and software, and demonstrating the ease with which text can be revised and edited, a third training step may also be necessary. In any group of writers, whether students or working professionals, not all will possess adequate typing skills. If these individuals are simply thrust onto word processors, frustration, lost productivity, and unwarranted stress are likely to result. So that all writers may make a smooth transition to word processing, typing instruction should be offered to those who need it.
In addition to acquiring the skills needed to use the word processor efficiently, those writing on computer terminals need to be reminded that they should vary their activities in order to avoid spending large blocks of time in front of the display screen. For many, a computer has a mesmerizing effect, similar to that which video game addicts experience. The compulsion, felt by some, to feed the machine can distort even the most stoical writer's pace and creativity, causing anxiety and related stress. Moreover, even after switching to word processing many writers still prefer to outline and draft on paper, then type their copy into the computer. Combining former practices with new often helps writers retain continuity and ensures times away from the machine. Where strict format rules apply, as is often the case with publication activity, instructors or supervisors should make sure that all writers, new staff especially, understand these constraints.
Machines can be abused and abusive. In any mechanical environment, human beings must be the masters. Where writers fully understand the potential of word processing and enjoy the benefits of working with a trouble-free, well-designed system, the results will include not only increased productivity, but more important, clearer, more readable writing.