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27 Chapter 2. The Nisus Writer Philosophy

In this chapter, you’ll learn…

One question I get asked a lot is what the target market for Nisus Writer is. Put a little more broadly, what’s Nisus Software’s vision for the program? Who do they expect to use it? And how can users approach the program in the way that makes the most sense? In this chapter, you’ll find answers to these questions. But more importantly, you’ll expand your horizons. By the end of this chapter, you should expect, as I do, that nearly anything is possible with Nisus Writer, if you just look at it the right way. The philosophy of Nisus Writer presented here is a series of principles that explain some of the assumptions of the program and at the same time tell you what you can and should expect from it. You will 28 find that these principles overlap somewhat, and sometimes they look at the same topic from several different angles. But they all contribute to a vision of the program as a powerful, if unusual, document-processing tool.

The Swiss Army Knife

Nisus Writer has been called the “Swiss Army knife” of Macintosh applications. It seems to have a tool to do just about everything, including some things that are not obviously useful. I sometimes say that if I were stuck on a desert island with my Mac and just one application, it would have to be Nisus Writer. Why? Well, think of the knife analogy. The can opener in a Swiss Army knife is not a great can opener, but it gets the job done, and on a desert island that’s all you need (O.K., I guess you’ll need a can, too). Considering that the knife is compact, durable, versatile, and relatively cheap, this is a pretty good trade-off. Likewise, you could say that any one of Nisus Writer’s features, taken individually, is not that impressive, but when you think of the great number of useful features rolled into a compact, durable, versatile and relatively cheap package, the utility becomes clear. For students, home users, and anyone without a large software budget, this analogy is especially apt. For example, Nisus Writer’s math capabilities don’t match those of Excel; but they are quite handy for most kinds of math tasks, and you don’t have Excel’s heavy system requirements or high cost. So for a person looking for a single program to meet a variety of computing needs, Nisus Writer is an excellent choice. We’ll talk more about this “do everything in Nisus Writer” approach in Chapter 18.

Text is Plastic

Recently I was standing in line for the monorail at the San Diego Wild Animal Park, and a man standing next to me noticed my Nisus T-shirt. He asked me what was so great 29 about the program, and I gave him some examples. He then told me that he was using an old version of MacWrite on a 1-MB Mac Plus, and while it was fine for most tasks, there was one thing he found especially annoying. Sometimes, he said, he would accidentally hit the Caps Lock key and type for a while, only to find out that a whole paragraph was uppercase. The problem was that there was no way for him to fix it; he had to retype the whole thing. Could Nisus Writer fix this problem, he asked? I said that it certainly could, and it would only take one mouse click (simply choose lowercase from the Convert submenu of the Edit menu). What this man wanted to do wasn’t strange, and it wasn’t rocket science. It was a basic word processing task, but his tool didn’t allow him to do it.

In Nisus Writer, the guiding principle is that text is plastic—flexible, malleable, changeable. You should never have to retype anything, and it should always be easy to get your text from the way it looks now to the way you want it to be. A number of Nisus Writer’s unique tools are specifically designed to shape text in ways that would be difficult and time-consuming in other applications. One example is the Convert submenu of the Edit menu, mentioned above, which lets you change the case of selected text to UPPERCASE, lowercase, Capitalized, or Toggled (converting all lowercase to uppercase and vice-versa). There’s also the Remove Gremlins command, which deletes all “garbage” (upper-ASCII and control characters) from your document—handy when you’re dealing with files downloaded from mainframes and some on-line services. And, of course, the legendary Find/Replace can perform all kinds of magic on your text. I would also place in this category Nisus Writer’s autonumbering and cross-referencing functions, which allow you to keep track of, and dynamically update, many different kinds of references as your document evolves and changes.

Roll Your Own

Marty bought a miniature grandfather clock by mail order. When the box arrived, he was upset to find that it had been damaged in shipping and contained, instead of a clock, 30 about 30 pieces of a clock. While he went off to write a letter of complaint to the company, his teenage son walked into the room and saw the pieces. He stared at them for a few minutes, puzzled, then suddenly brightened. “Oh, I see. It’s a kit!” he said, and he proceeded to put the clock back together. When Marty came back, he was startled to see a completely restored clock that actually looked a bit better than what he thought he ordered. He asked his son what happened; his son replied, “I hope you don’t mind; I put this together for you. I couldn’t find the instructions, but it was pretty easy once I figured out the design.”

In a similar way, you should think of Nisus Writer not as an immutable whole, but as a set of pieces and tools for you to design your own dream word processor—a virtual Erector Set, if you will. The basic elements are all there, but so is the capability to mold and extend what you’re given. As we saw when discussing the evolution of Nisus Writer, one of the main reasons for including macros from the beginning was so that users could add their own features—since there was no way the company could include everything everyone wanted. In fact, in the very first version of Nisus, there was no “mail merge” feature, but there were macros that accomplished that task. Even now, a number of features, like Remove Gremlins and Break Lines, are actually macros that have been built into the program and given their own menu commands. You would be—indeed, you will be, if you read Chapter 12—amazed at the cool things macros can do for you and the degree to which you can expand Nisus Writer’s functionality with just a bit of effort.

All you tech heads might want to check out Nisus Writer’s NMac resource with ResEdit or Resorcerer (at your own risk, of course). This lists the built-in macros, which you can modify to your taste with very little effort. (If you understood what you just read, you can figure out how to do it yourself; if you have to ask, you don’t need to know.)

While the structure of the program seems to encourage the “roll your own” approach, most users never move beyond the built-in features. The biggest reason for this is that the macro capability, while quite powerful, is not made very accessible to the user, either in the design of the interface or in the documentation. One of the goals of this book (and particularly of Chapter 12) is to debunk the myth that you have to be a programmer to customize Nisus Writer with macros. Ordinary mortals can do it too, and you’d be surprised how far you can extend your capabilities with a little bit of guidance. It can even be fun! Nisus Writer’s macro editing window is shown in Figure 2.1.

Figure 2.1. The macro-editing window in Nisus Writer.

Remember that every macro discussed in this book has already been written, tested, and included for you on the enclosed CD-ROM. These will do a lot for you as they stand, and they will serve as starting points for you to add your own unique features.

31 Everything in Its Place

While Nisus Writer is a very flexible and customizable program, there is another angle of which you should be aware. A number of features were designed for very specific uses, and they work well only when put to those intended uses. Unfortunately, this is often not obvious. Let me give you a few examples. There is a special kind of tab stop in Nisus Writer called the Forced Justify Tab (see Figure 2.2). It spreads out text to fit exactly between two arbitrary points.

Figure 2.2. A block of text left-justified, fully justified, and force-justified using the Forced Justify Tab.

While you might, with some effort, conceive of times this effect might be desirable in English, those times are quite rare. The intended use was for Arabic poetry, which needs to be justified in that manner. (It also turns out to be quite useful in Japanese.) Most people who don’t write in Arabic have a hard time understanding the point of this feature, yet there’s nothing in the design of the interface to suggest its specialized usage.

Similarly, the Gloss… command was designed for Japanese, which has four distinct writing systems. It is often appropriate to use one of the systems to explain or clarify text in another one, hence the glossing feature, which can add a smaller block of text above a given selection. Users in the United States who have unwittingly tried to use this feature to make multiline interlinear texts have given up in frustration that it “doesn’t 32 work right.” Well, actually, it works exactly right, but only if you’re using it for very brief selections, as was the intention for Japanese.

Perhaps the most striking example is the Page as Graphic… command, which places a graphic image of a page from one document inside another document. The reason for including this feature was to work around the limitation that columns can’t be of unequal widths or appear side by side in Document View. Using this feature, a rudimentary form of page layout can be simulated. The problem is that placed pages don’t act like text blocks in PageMaker or QuarkXPress, even though they look like they should. They aren’t linked so that text flows from one to another, and they can only contain text that is on a single page in the original document. So when someone tries to use this feature in Nisus Writer as a substitute for a page-layout program, confusion and frustration are often the result.

These examples are meant to illustrate the point that while you can coerce and cajole Nisus Writer into some pretty neat tricks, there is also such a thing as the right tool 33 for the job. If you want to do wild and wacky typographical stunts, use FreeHand or TypeStyler. If you want to create complex page layouts, use FrameMaker. And if you want to create interlinear texts…punt—I have yet to encounter a good Macintosh tool for doing this (although WordPerfect’s Subtitle command is a step in the right direction). But if you want to process text, use Nisus Writer. By all means, experiment with features like these if you’re interested, but be prepared to admit that they are appropriate only for their intended uses. I will point out, as we examine each feature, which ones were designed for specific tasks such as the ones mentioned here.

Let the Computer Do the Work

Let’s suppose that you have a document that includes 100 or so dates, but in a variety of formats: 2 April 1984; April 2, 1984; 02 April ’84; and so on. You’d like to convert them all to the same format, and perhaps make just the year of each date bold while you’re at it. What do you do? Answer: unless you’re using Nisus Writer, you will have to do it manually, and it would probably never occur to you that it could be done automatically. Yet I can think of several ways of doing what I just described, and none of them would take longer than a couple of minutes, no matter how long your document is.

I wouldn’t lead you on and dump you. A macro that does exactly this, and a file to try it on, are included on the CD-ROM.

In Nisus Writer, your default assumption should be that no matter what you want to do, there’s an easy way to do it. The Nisus way is to let the computer do the tedious work for you. Macros are the most obvious means of getting the computer to work for you. But other kinds of shortcuts—glossaries, keyboard shortcuts, noncontiguous selection, and PowerFind, for example—are all powerful ways of saving time, effort, and aggravation. One of the best examples of letting the computer do the work is a true story I heard recently. A Spanish-speaking, vision-impaired college student had an assistant take notes for her in class on a PowerBook. Since this student couldn’t read the notes, she used Nisus Writer’s text-to-speech capability to speak the notes back to her aloud—with correct Spanish pronunci-34ation! Not only did this enable the student to study more easily, it actually replaced the services of a human assistant.

No Modes

One of the most significant innovations in Nisus 1.0 was the fact that for the first time in a word processor, graphics and text could be edited in the same window. Simply activate the Graphics Bar, and draw to your heart’s content, right on top of (or behind) your text if you wish. A single menu command can then make your text flow around a graphic. But that is just the beginning of the range of integration the program offers. Did it ever occur to you to perform a Find for a graphic? Or to run a spelling check on your glossary list? Or to edit what’s on your Clipboard (see Figure 2.3) without first pasting it? Nisus Writer may be as close as you will ever find to a modeless application, meaning that there are very few occasions when only one window is active or only one option is open to you. Consider, for example, that you can (if you have enough screen real estate or don’t mind switching windows) keep all of the following windows open all the time: Document, Layout Page, Find/Replace, Spelling Checker, Thesaurus, Catalog, Clipboard, Macros, Character Graphic, Glossary, and Character Table (not to mention all of your floating tool bars). In nearly all of these windows, furthermore, you can check spelling, perform a Find/Replace, run a macro, insert a glossary entry, or draw a graphic. Many of these tasks are impossible in other word processors. Most of us have simply grown accustomed to this limitation, but in Nisus Writer, a whole new realm of possibilities is open to you.

Figure 2.3. Editing text on the Clipboard.

Can’t think of any good use for this way of doing things? To help get your neurons firing, here’s a little example of what you can do. Copy some text. Choose Show Clipboard from the Edit menu, and while the text is on the clipboard, make some changes to it. Perform a Find/Replace on it. Check the spelling. Meanwhile, you can still see the original version in your document for comparison. When you’re satisfied with the changes, simply click back in your document and choose Paste. You 35 can even compare several variations, on different clipboards, before settling on the one to use!

Form Before Content

When I was in eleventh grade, I wrote my first real term paper. I remember it well: Mr. Krupa’s English class. Perhaps you recall a process like this. First, get a stack of books out of the library. Go through the books, jotting down quotes and comments, each on an individual index card. Mark the cards with color codes and other labels according to their source and category. Then sort the cards into a logical order and write an outline based on that order. Next, write out your paper, filling in the details under the outline heads. Finally, type it up, being careful to keep the margins straight and leave enough space at the bottom for footnotes!

Now that we all have computers, the process of writing documents and preparing them for print should be a lot easier, but somehow most of us still get caught up in the same old system. Organize your thoughts first, then figure out what 36 you want to say, then type it in, and finally format it. Now it is true that computers are great for taking notes and organizing your thoughts because you can do so without paying much attention to format—you can always go back and change things later, without retyping. But now we also have the luxury of taking care of formatting first and worrying about content later—and there are good reasons for doing so.

How could I possibly advocate such an upside-down approach? Let me give you a couple of reasons. The first is simply conservation of energy. Most of us use the same two or three formats for lots of different documents. For example, I write E-mail messages, academic papers, and HTML documents a lot; other people might create primarily faxes, reports, and memos. But the kinds of documents most people create follow pretty specific patterns. If you can set up a stationery document that follows these patterns right at the start, you can reuse all those elements in future documents and save considerable work. Along the same lines, taking some time before you get deeply into your writing projects to create glossary entries, styles, and keyboard shortcuts can save you time later. There’s no reason you can’t add or change things as you go along. But many people, myself included, find that if all those annoying details like footnote style and paragraph formatting are set up before writing ever begins, the writing process actually becomes easier because it feels like “filling in the blanks.”

There are also some technical reasons for setting up your work environment carefully before working on content. For example, styles can be defined so that when you type a paragraph in Style A and press Return, the next paragraph is automatically placed in Style B. The catch, though, is that this works only as you type, and not retroactively—you can’t go back later and apply Style A to an unstyled paragraph and expect the following paragraph to figure out that it needs to be in Style B. For another thing, it’s a lot quicker to apply rulers and styles using keyboard shortcuts than using the mouse. If you determine what these elements will be and configure them beforehand, you’ll avoid interrupting the flow of your writing later to surf around the menus.

37 Nice Little Touches

My car has power mirrors. I didn’t care about that when I bought the car, and as far as I was concerned it was just a frilly extra. What’s so hard about adjusting mirrors manually? After driving the car for a few weeks, though, I came to appreciate the mirrors. My wife is shorter than I am and has to re-adjust the mirrors every time she drives; the power mirrors make this much easier. And I found that while I had never before bothered adjusting the mirror on the passenger’s side because it was too inconvenient, now I was able to use it regularly. A frilly extra had become a major advantage. Although big Nisus Writer features like Find/Replace and macros are very important to me, one of the things I appreciate most about Nisus Writer—and miss most when using other programs—is the abundance of little extras that make common editing tasks so much easier.

It’s very hard to put a value on something like noncontiguous selection—the ability to select multiple ranges of text, even though they’re not touching, by holding down the Command and Option keys. It seems like a very minor feature, and it probably doesn’t do much to help sell the program. But it is so handy and saves me so much effort in my daily work that I can’t imagine doing without it. Nisus Writer has a lot of “optional extras” that you’ll soon grow dependent on. Look for them, and get in the habit of using them from the very start, and you’ll soon feel like your computer truly understands you.

Let me give you some additional examples. First is Keyboard Shortcuts (see Figure 2.4). This command allows you activate any menu command, control, or macro with one or more keystrokes, eliminating the motion of reaching for the mouse every time. All word processors have some kind of keyboard shortcuts. But only in Nisus Writer can your shortcuts include up to three consecutive characters. For example, Save As… can be Command-S-A. Show Catalog can be Command-C-A-T. Superscript can be Command-S-U-P, and so on. (You can, of course, add Shift, Control, and/or Option to your shortcuts and use function keys or your numeric keypad 38 as well.) The great thing about this is that your shortcuts can be easy-to-remember mnemonics rather than obtuse, arbitrary combinations. Which makes more sense for Display Footnotes: Command-Option-Shift-S (as in Word), or Command-F-N? In the same way, every button, checkbox, and option in Nisus Writer dialog boxes can be activated from the keyboard. Simply press the Command key, and all the shortcuts will appear in the dialog box next to the options they control.

Figure 2.4. Keyboard Shortcuts dialog box. Notice that a single command can contain up to three consecutive letters.

Other nice touches include the ability to keep track of whether your parentheses and quotes are balanced, a built-in list of ASCII codes and their associated characters, and the ability to automatically “stack” or “tile” any number of windows on the screen. As in many programs, holding down a modifier key (Shift, Control, Command, or Option) can change the function of some menu commands. In Nisus Writer, these changes are instantly reflected on the menu, even if you have already pulled it down. And for PowerBook users, a battery indicator, Sleep command, and extra-large cursor are built-in options.

The Biggest Mouth Gets Fed

Having said all of that, there will probably still be things you wish Nisus Writer did—or did differently. Fortunately, Nisus Software is still a small enough company that customers’ 39 input can have a real effect on the shape of the product. But as it is, there are many requests competing for attention. If there’s a feature you’d like to see in Nisus Writer, send an E-mail message to features@nisus-soft.com (or write to Nisus Software, Attention: Features). Describe the feature clearly and concisely, say why you need it, and make a case for how much it will improve sales to have that feature. This last point is important—I’ve sat through enough marketing meetings to know that every decision has to be justified in terms of income. And be persistent. The more users who ask for something, and the more loudly and clearly they make their case, the more likely the feature is to appear.


My goal in this chapter was to familiarize you with the principles that lend themselves to a successful relationship with Nisus Writer. At the same time, I hope that I have tantalized you with possibilities you may never have considered and made you expect more from your word processor. In the coming chapters, we’ll discuss each of these features and techniques in detail. First, I want to offer some realistic advice to those of you switching from another word processing program: what you’ll like, what you’ll miss, what you’ll need to approach differently, and how to make a smooth transition. If you’re not switching from another word processor, you can safely skip Chapter 3 (you don’t need to be “deprogrammed”—pun intended) and you can move on to Section II, Text Basics.

Copyright © 1995, 1996, 1999 by Joe Kissell

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