Computers: Getting a handle on desktop publishing: As the cost of going into print at home comes down, 'Independent' writers try their luck as cut-price media moguls

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The blurb on the Serif Pageplus package promised 'You will be creating pages in hours.' And what pages they would be - covered with whacky graphics, using strange typefaces with names like Florentine and Hobbit, writes Karen David.

Never mind that I could not immediately envisage a need for a document written in Florentine script incorporating a graphic of a bunny. Never mind that in 12 years as a journalist the only page I had ever designed was the Ealing Gazette's motoring page, with those high- tech tools pencil, ruler and - especially useful - a rubber. I eagerly loaded the disks for Pageplus, Fontpack and Artpack and awaited instant skills.

Well I did produce pages within hours - pages with giant uncontrollable graphics and tiny, tiny text. Pages with huge gaps for words and headlines that insisted on stacking up into three decks. I felt - as I often do when trying to teach myself to use a computer program - like someone hacking their way through an impenetrable jungle, knowing full well that a new highway runs through the undergrowth and if only I could find it I could easily catch a bus.

Pageplus is packed with features that ought to be incredibly helpful and useful and I am sure they will be when I understand them. A tool box floats at the side of the page with all the instructions you need to draw boxes, add lines and text. It unfolds with more little boxes for adding graphics and pictures.

When writing text, another box pops up with all the options available. This is the Change Bar, Pageplus's pride and joy. There is also a status bar which tells you exactly what you are doing. All this information is confusing at the start, but does offer huge flexibility. I got the impression that Pageplus could probably do almost anything you would want it to - if only you could work out how to do it.

But I was disappointed that there was no on-screen tutorial - at least I could not find it. And although the getting started booklet was thorough and clear, it takes longer to learn if you are constantly glancing from book to screen.

You start with a blank page you can make any size you want. Then you learn to draw boxes and ovals, write headlines and body text, lines and curves. You pick the feature you want to work with by 'selecting' it - clicking the mouse button as the on-screen pointer is over the item. The 'handles' attached to the box that then surrounds the graphic or piece of text make it easy to drag around or resize.

Then things get more complicated. I set as a task creating a page of the Independent. I seized upon an eagle graphic in the huge list of illustrations and planted it on my page. But when the eagle landed it was enormous - and the name of the newspaper seemed to shrink alongside it.

Back to the instructions. I eventually found out the importance of 'dragging out' the graphics box to make it the right size. A bit of reading up on headline writing and a careful browse through the typfaces or fonts and I had created - near enough - an Independent masthead.

This was my moment of glory. Then things went downhill. I learnt to make text frames and import words. But although you can bring in files from a long list of word-processing packages, Microsoft Works, which came with my Dell Dimension PC, was not among them. This did not worry me too much, as I was about to load Word for Windows, but if I had had to go out and buy it, I would have been annoyed.

Columns were the next thing and although I successfully created an eight-column grid, I have yet to work out how to stop everything on the page following it.

To make life easier, I abandoned the pastiche page and called up one of the many 'templates' on offer. A friend had asked me to design a flyer advertising her aerobics classes and with the help of a template supposedly for a display advert I managed one easily - in fact so quickly, I felt slightly kinder about the claims of the blurb.

I even found a graphic of a plump woman touching her toes that went perfectly with her target audience and imported it at exactly the right size. But try as I might I could not find how to eliminate the printers' latin text on the headline that ran across the corner of the page.

Before trying Pageplus my only experience of desktop publishing was with Microsoft Publisher, supplied along with my Dell. It is simpler, but much more limited in scope. I have used it successfully for elegant letterheads and instruction sheets and such like, but even as I stumbled along with Pageplus I could see its scope was far wider.

If you have ambitions to create newspapers, magazines, newsletters or posters at home, then Pageplus definitely has everything you could need - and I am looking forward to hacking through the jungle to my destination.

(Graphic omitted)

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