Computers: Wordprocessing made child's play: Bill Raines is elbowed aside by a program that makes writing fun

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The Independent Online
IF YOU HAVE kids, prepare to treat them now. Microsoft's new word processor for children, Creative Writer, is a delight. It is aimed at the 8 to 14 age range and my two children, aged 8 and 10, both love it. I had to haggle to get my share of computer time during the half-term holiday.

Creative Writer runs under Windows, Microsoft's graphics-based operating system for PC- compatibles, and the familiar Windows control elements are present. There are icons to click which produce pop-up menus, you highlight text for changes by dragging your mouse and so on. However, this is not Windows as we know it, but Windows as it might have been designed by Dr Seuss.

The program starts inside a four-storey house in the fantasy town of Imaginopolis. The different levels represent different parts of the program: the Lobby and Library, the Writing Studio, the Project Workshop, and the Ideas Workshop. You move between the different floors by climbing up or down a firepole or by using the lift, which the program - being American - insists on calling an elevator. The lift is slower, but the sound effects are great.

Imaginopolis has inhabitants, notably a cartoon character called McZee, distinguished by his blue skin, a nose like a gourd and what my son calls a 'truly weird fashion sense'. McZee initially greets and identifies you, which is both friendly and necessary because each user's files are stored in a separate sub-directory.

Thereafter, McZee and his mates, Max, Maggie, Spike and Ratdog, are around to offer instructions and advice - the personalised equivalent of a Windows Help file. Refreshingly, there is no manual with Creative Writer. Everything has been designed so that children can explore what the program does by themselves, without adult supervision or intervention.

The word processor itself, the Writing Studio, is great fun and surprisingly functional. Several extra typefaces are provided, including one that looks like joined-up handwriting. Typesetter's jargon is out, so 'bold' and 'italic' become 'dark' and 'slanty'. Similarly, you don't choose between 6-point and 48-point type sizes, but between 'micro' and 'GIANT', with various other options in between. The bee-shaped ('spelling bee') button leads to a spell checker and there is also a thesaurus included.

When you make a mistake, the undo button - a cracked egg - allows up to 20 actions to be reversed, which is more 'undos' than most adult programs provide. For security from prying siblings or classmates, work can be jumbled up with a password code by clicking on the secret agent icon.

Pictures and text can be mixed and the words will automatically wrap around the image. And if your PC has a sound card, sounds can be attached either to words or pictures. Plenty of sounds are provided, including musical chords, animal noises and a selection of whistles, explosions, whizzes and farts. You replay the sounds by clicking on a magic wand and running it over the text.

Children get great pleasure out of how words look and there are lots of gimmicks in Creative Writer to make words look special. You can change the colours of letters or words, stretch them into curious shapes, add shadowing and background colour, or produce special effects such as sparkle, shimmer and fade-out. The word 'hot' feels hot when you construct it in shimmering yellow on red and attach a sizzling noise. Of course, you lose these effects when you print, but they look splendid on screen.

One of the more thoughtful features is that the descriptive titles you use to save work can be of any length and can include spaces. Children should not be expected to struggle with the PC's conventional limit of eight letters for filenames.

The Project Workshop exists for producing fancy layouts such as newspapers, banners and folded cards. Banners can spread over up to eight printed pages and the newspaper styles allow printing in up to four columns. The Manchester Bugle was an early production in this household and the kids started to sell copies to our visitors at 10p a pop (negotiable). The cards come with a choice of fancy borders and frills, but there is a serious flaw somewhere here, because they take ages to print out, which makes them almost unusable.

Up on the top floor, in the Ideas Workshop, there is a picture window which displays numerous inspirational line drawings, mostly done in a mock-Tenniel, Victorian style. A picture of a dog chewing up homework was my favourite, but my daughter immediately homed in on a map of some coastal elfland and began composing an 'Adventure by the Sea'.

This room also contains the 'splot machine'. Click on this one-armed bandit and up pops in three little windows a silly sentence, such as 'The tender turtle was abandoned close to the edge of a cliff'. The subject, verb and location parts of this sentence can then be varied randomly by further clicks on the machine until you hit something that starts you off. Quite hilarious. As you browse in the Ideas Workshop, you can copy splot machine sentences and pictures from the window into a small notebook for later recovery when you are back in the Writing Studio.

Apart from the bug in the card printing routine, the only other limitation is that it is not easy to move files from Creative Writer to other word processing programs and you lose most of the formatting - columns, bold text and so on - when you do this. In contrast, you can 'import' clip art pictures and basic text from elsewhere by telling the program to search 'outside Imaginopolis'.

Creative Writer takes up about 8 megabytes of disk space and requires a good Windows-compatible PC. For maximum enjoyment, a sound card and speakers are essential. The program is littered with funny sound effects, but it will not play any sounds through the PC's weedy internal speaker. For the near future, Microsoft promises a companion program called Fine Artist, but this has not been released yet.

Will Creative Writer make your child creative? That is probably asking too much, but it certainly allows children to express their innate creativity easily and it has the attractive pulling power of a good computer game. Also, it teaches all the elements of modern computer word processing in a painless way. I just hope my children can be convinced that handwriting practice is still important too.

VITAL STATISTICS

Creative Writer

System: PC-compatible.

Requirements:

Hardware: 8 megabytes of

hard disk space; sound card

for best effect.

Software: Windows.

Publisher: Microsoft.

Availability: Dealers, high street retailers, superstores.

Price: Street: pounds 45 (including VAT).

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