If you're looking for word processing software, you don't have to look far for advice. Virtually every computer magazine carries exhaustive (and exhausting) reviews of the latest programs, and anyone who uses a word processor will be more than happy to bore you for hours with his opinions.
But what if your needs are more specialized? Maybe you're looking for something to help you write a TV script, or even come up with an idea for one. What if you have to manage a large bibliography or need a German spelling checker? What if you're desperate for a program that will write in Russian, Greek or Hebrew, or all three at the same time?
To find the answers, serious scribes need look no further than "Essential Software for Writers" by Hy Bender, a comprehensive and surprisingly entertaining new volume from Writer's Digest Books ($24.95).
Bender is an experienced free-lancer and computer book author whose other life experiences range from programming and designing spelling checkers to writing for Mad magazine -- a good background for anyone willing to tackle this topic.
Naturally, Bender deals with word processing software, reviewing a dozen popular programs, all for IBM-compatible computers. But unlike magazine reviewers who seem bent on torture-testing their products and producing voluminous tables of silly feature comparisons, Bender is more concerned about how a writer would react to using each one, as well as each program's overall approach, strengths and weaknesses.
He'll also tell you some things you won't read in computer magazines, most of which are dedicated to hyping the latest and flashiest. For example, he notes that DOS word processors are much faster and easier to use for basic text editing than Windows programs, not to mention far easier on the eyes.
A word of caution here. Because of the long lead times involved in book publishing, this volume doesn't cover the latest versions of some popular programs -- in particular, Word Perfect 6.0 for Windows, which is vastly improved over the previous Windows release.
But Bender devotes surprisingly little space to word processors per se. He's more interested in add-on and stand-alone tools that help writers practice their craft. You'll find sections on idea generators, outliners, electronic dictionaries, indexers, thesauri, rhyme generators and grammar checkers. There are also chapters dealing with specialized tools and lexicons for scientists, doctors, journalists, engineers, academics and multilingual writers.
He pays particularly close attention to script writing -- which requires unique formatting tools -- and deals extensively with research sources, including electronic encyclopedias and on-line services that can cut down on research time, albeit at a cost.
There are also brief but informative chapters on layout and desktop publishing, as well as a discussion of printers and other hardware.
Besides the wealth of specific information (names, addresses, prices, phone numbers), the beauty of Bend
er's book is his style and tone. Without sacrificing detail and accuracy, Bender is chatty, humorous and nontechnical. The book is also sprinkled liberally with amusing old engravings and quotes about the craft of writing. A couple of my favorites:
* "There's nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein." -- Red Smith.
* "Get your facts first, and then you can distort them as much as you please." -- Mark Twain.
In short, this is a volume aimed squarely at writers who want to use computers, rather than computer experts who want to write. It hits the mark. If you can't find "Essential Software for Writers" in your book store, contact F&W; Publications, Inc., 1507 Dana Ave., Cincinnati, Ohio 45207, or call 1 (800) 289-0963.
Speaking of writing, I've had several calls and letters lately from readers who want to know what I think of the dedicated word processing machines that office supply stores sell for prices ranging from $300 to $800.
Obviously, there's a market for these machines among people who don't want the expense or hassle of learning how to use a regular computer. If your needs are modest -- and that's very important -- they can be an acceptable choice.
Dedicated word processors are, in fact, computers that run only one program, which is usually built into the machine's Read Only Memory (ROM). Some look like standard typewriters with monitors attached, others more closely resemble computers with impact or thermal transfer printers built into the top.
The word processing programs built into these machines are slow and rudimentary by today's standards. The size of a document is also limited by the computer's memory, often to 60,000 characters, or 10,000 words.
But the software is menu-driven, easy to use and fine for simple correspondence.
You also don't have to worry about getting it to run: The word processing program is there when you turn the machine on. This alone is worth the price of admission for many users confused by the command lines, directories, mice, windows and other distractions of standard computers.
The output from dedicated word processors varies in appearance. Most will produce what used to be known as letter-quality text, meaning something that looks like it came from a good office typewriter. Others offer some control over point size and other text attributes.
Baby-sit the machine
Unfortunately, all of the built-in printers are slow, and most will accept only one sheet at a time. That means you'll have to baby-sit the machine to change paper on long documents.
There's also a question of storage. Most word processors store your documents on floppy disks. A few, but not all, use a format that can be read by IBM-compatible computers, so you can pass a document to someone who has a standard computer without retyping. Others use proprietary storage formats that only those with similar machines can read.
This is an important consideration for professional writers, because many editors would rather receive an article on disk today. Also, if you ever decide to buy a general-purpose computer, you'll be able to take your past work with you.
In fact, many people who start out with dedicated word processors eventually wind up with real computers once the limitations of the original machine begin to bug them.
But if you don't need much, a dedicated word processor can get you started without a major investment of time, effort or cash.
(Michael J. Himowitz is a columnist for The Baltimore Sun.)