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'Creative Writer' engages children's imaginations

THE BALTIMORE SUN

While we use computers for many different things, almost all )) of us use them for word processing.

Whether we're churning out personal notes, business letters, fliers, reports, novels, instruction manuals, newsletters or academic papers, there's a word processor or add-on tool to make our work easier -- or at least more productive.

Any child who can learn the keyboard will be able to use a !B standard word processor -- after a fashion -- but those adult tools are often too stuffy, complicated and intimidating to make youngsters comfortable enough to want to write.

So it's interesting that Microsoft -- a bastion of powerhouse business software -- has come up with a writing program for young people that's easy to use, delightfully goofy and surprisingly powerful.

In designing Creative Writer, part of the company's new Home software collection for the consumer market, Microsoft says it spent a lot of time talking to kids and watching them work. Kids, as most parents know, don't think in the linear way adults think -- or liketo think they think. Kids get inspirations and crazy ideas. The trick is to encourage and capture those ideas.

Microsoft also must have spent some time looking at some older, successful writing tools for youngsters, including Broderbund's Print Shop, the Children's Writing and Publishing Center from the Learning Company and Davidson's Kid Works.

The $49.95 Creative Writer borrows a bit from their approaches and combines them with a variety of sophisticated new tools, pictures, sound effects and animation as it takes youngsters to a city called Imaginopolis, where they're encouraged to create letters, stories, reports, greeting cards, newsletters and banners.

Although it's available in both Windows and Macintosh versions, Creative Writer throws out the standard user interface of pull-down menus common to both environments, and substitutes cheerful building full of strange characters, including a proboscidianly-gifted (big-nosed) supernerd called McZee, whose carpetbag full of tricks and helpful hints is always a mouse click away.

In the Project Studio, kids can create a Moosepaper, ask the Cardvark for help with a party invitation, or for a really big project, consult the Banneroceros -- all using ready-made templates.

The Writing Studio is more like a regular word processor, with icons instead of pull-down menus for page layout, text formatting and clip art. The program can handle multiple columns for a newspaper layout and automatically wraps text around graphic images.

More than 100 pieces of clip art are included. The Windows version can import standard bitmap or metafile images, while the Mac version can import artwork in PICT format.

An elementary drawing tool allows kids to modify the program's pictures or create their own. A click of the mouse and the program searches out all the image-connected words in your story and turns them into little pictures.

Text formatting also conforms to the way kids like to do things. While adults like to define a block of text and do something to it, such as change its size, font or color, kids like to pick a tool, paint over their words and watch them change as they work. Creative Writer does it both ways.

Instead of boldface or italic type, kids can choose "dark" or "slanty." Instead of choosing a point size, there's a choice of tiny, big, huge, and so on. Microsoft also includes a version of its Word Art tool, which lets kids expand, contract, bend and squish their letters, with shadows and 3-D effects.

And then there's noise. Kids love it. So does Microsoft. If you have a Mac (all Macs have sound capability) or an IBM-compatible with a sound card, Creative Writer provides lots of it. Every time you do anything, there's a boink, bong, sploosh or explosion. Kids can also choose from a menu of sounds and attach one to any word. If they write a sentence that says, "The lion roared," they can click on "roared" and hear the lion. Again and again and again.

Given the noise level, I estimate that the average adult can survive about 20 minutes in a room with a kid using this software -- particularly when the kid discovers the 100-decibel vacuum cleaner that sucks up mistakes in the drawing program. (Sanity-saving hint: to learn how to turn off the sound, look for "Control Room" in the instruction book).

Another nifty place for kids to visit is the Idea Workshop. The authors realize that kids, like everybody else, get stumped now and then when they're trying to find something to write about. So the Idea Workshop gives them the "Splot Machine," a slot machine of ideas that mixes subjects, verbs, objects and pictures to get them started.

For example, a couple of tugs on the one-armed bandit produced:

"The weary nurse squirted the strange liquid into the controls of the space ship."

"The sagacious baby sitter turned on the mysterious machine behind our back yard."

Not exactly Hemingway. In fact, it's more like the old Mad Libs game, if you're old enough to remember that. But it's a beginning.

The instruction manual is brief but contains enough to get you started. It's also written for children, which means adults should be able to understand it with only minor assistance from the kids. There's also plenty of help available on screen -- in fact, a help bubble pops up every time you do something and tells you what to do next.

I tried out Creative Writer on my kids' computer, a 386DX/40 with eight megabytes of memory. The machine is a bit slower than the low-end 486SX units on the market today but well above the minimum Microsoft recommends. Creative Writer ran with acceptable speed, although I found I could type faster than the program could display characters for a while whenever I switched fonts. Unless your kid is an experienced typist, this is not likely to be a problem. My guess, however, is that Creative Writer would try your patience on anything slower than a 386/25 with four megabytes of memory.

All things considered, Creative Writer delivers what it promises -- enough fun to keep the kids interested and prod their creative juices -- and enough power to produce some totally awesome documents, dude.

(Michael J. Himowitz is a columnist for The Baltimore Sun.)

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