Home Computer: Ball-point finds niche market on the margins: Using a pen can be a drag. Mike Hardaker transcribes some notes from the back of an envelope on the advantages of using word processors for writing your magnum opus

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The Independent Online
LET'S LOOK at the advantages of the ball-point pen. It is inexpensive - a pretty suave example can be found for a quid or so - it is magnificently portable, replacements are easy to find and the running costs are non-existent. On the down-side, the results can be illegible - in my case, anyway - and editing your work is a clumsy process, with a full rewrite needed for any big change.

The word processor, on the other hand, is an excellent editor. Because the words you type into it sit only in the computer's memory until you opt to print them, you can make whatever changes you like to a document with the minimum of fuss, only committing the beast to 'hard copy' when everything is just as you want it. This makes it much easier to change documents - since you know that it is a trivial undertaking to move a paragraph from page two to page three, or to replace 'amethystine' with 'blue'. Therefore, you are more likely to end up with the document you want rather than a compromise born of laziness.

Word processors provide tools for making the editing of text as easy as possible. You can select blocks of text or 'cut and paste' them to a different part of a document - or even a different document. With the latest word processors, you can even 'drag' selected blocks of text around the document using a mouse: the mouse is great for word processing because it behaves rather like, well, a ball-point pen.

You can 'search and replace' to change every instance of 'PC' to 'PC-compatible' or vice versa. You can even, with most word processing packages, check the spelling of your document. The program will go through the text word by word and compare the characters you have written with its dictionary. Recently, it has also become common to have a grammar-checking tool built in to word processors, so your computer can tell you if you are splitting infinitives or overdoing it with the passive voice - even tell you what the passive voice is. And it can tell you that you should not start sentences with 'And'.

However, the ball-point still has a bit of life left in the editing process. It is much better for making quick scribbled annotations in the margin or on the back of the envelope. Computers which use a pen-like stylus instead of the mouse are beginning to appear on the market and some word processing programs support these 'pens' for old-fashioned annotating. However, it is early days yet and a 50p Bic still has the edge.

Because your word-processed document makes it on to paper via a mechanical printer, it will almost certainly be more legible than a handwritten text. But legibility, is only one facet of your document's appearance and the word processor gives you control over many more. Once again, any changes can be made before committing anything to paper.

If you decide that you would rather have your magnum opus printed with double-line rather than single-line spacing, it is a matter of seconds to change this.

Equally, you can decide whether given bits of text should be centred, justified - spaced with a neat edge on both sides of the column, as on this page - or printed with a ragged right margin - a straight edge on the left of the column only, as in the address box. You can also specifiy that certain parts of the document should be printed in bold, italic or underlined characters.

Even greater typographical control is becoming standard. If you feel a given piece of text would look smarter in a serif typeface - using characters rounded off with short lines or ornaments like the typeface used here - or with a sans serif face, like this, which is unadorned and reckoned to be harder to read in large chunks - you can change it.

This is particularly straightforward when using a word processor designed to work with a graphical user interface like Microsoft's Windows on PC-compatible computers or the Apple Mac's standard operating system, as the different typefaces are provided by the computer's operating systems rather than the word processing package, which runs more efficiently for not having to bother with them.

More and more sophisticated formatting options are also becoming available. With today's top-range word processors it is possible to create documents which are as complex (and elegant) as this page - produced on an Apple Mac - mixing several typefaces and sizes of text, with words flowing from column to column and using discrete 'frames' for boxing-out parts of the document.

You can even include pictures, whether computer-generated illustrations (as used on this page) or photographs which have been 'scanned in' to the computer - turned into a series of electronic dots - as on other pages of the newspaper .

To get the best results from a word processor, you need a high-quality printer. There is no point in creating the smartest document in the world if you then show it to people as a screed of badly printed dots on a roll of fan-fold paper. Today's inkjet and laser printers can print a wide range of typefaces and illustrations at a quality which gets close to that of the typesetters used by newspaper and book publishers - even some of the newer dot-matrix printers do a pretty good job. Do your document a favour and make sure your printer is as good as it can be.

When you have finished work on your document, you can file it on the computer's disk storage system, which is another advantage the word processor has over pre-electronic technology. Generally speaking, it is much easier to find something which has been filed on a computer than in a pile of dog-eared papers.

However, word processors are not perfect at everything - they do not like working with non-standard paper sizes for a start. Therefore, you will probably need an additional tool to make your envelopes look as smart as your letters. It is called a typewriter - or for those who have mastered the art of joined up writing, a ball-point pen.

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