Tools for Students: Word Processors

For most of those who read this blog, writing is (and will continue to be) a daily part of life.  We write papers as an undergrad, theses and dissertations as grad, and articles, book reviews, and books as professors and researchers.  Even for those who chose to pursue futures as preachers/ministers/rabbis/etc, they will end up writing sermons, bible classes, bulletin articles, and other materials.  No matter what, for most of us, we are doomed to produce for the rest of our lives and our key tool for such will be our pen (or, as in my case, the computer). However, as we all know–writing is hard.  It\’s tough to make yourself do it, it\’s hard to get anything done once you set down to do it.  However, it doesn\’t have to be quite so hard.

So, I\’m writing a series of posts on some tools to help us write better, easier, quicker, and with less frustration.  The first post will cover word processors, and we\’ll go from there.

Microsoft Word: Most of us use some sort of word processor to write our documents.  And, thankfully, we\’re a long way forward from text edit.  Most of us have only heard of (or used) Microsoft\’s Word.  Word is pretty robust.  It can outline, import images and tables, and it comes standard on most computers.  It\’s got one problem; it gives me a head-ache.  It attempts to auto-format (which is bad enough in your footnotes, but is murder when trying to use other languages), it\’s a RAM hog on my computer, it\’s expensive ($150), and it\’s a huge file.  However, the main thing I don\’t like about it is that when I\’m trying to write on my laptop, I need 3-4 different documents open all at once and I\’m constantly having to alt-tab (or, as I have a Mac, use Spaces) to get from one window to the other.  The best thing about it is that most people use it and therefore require documents to be submitted in Word. Bottom line?  This is still the standard and looks to continue to be for quite a while.

Open Office: However, it seems like every year brings more healthy competition to Word\’s seeming monopoly.  My first alternative, back when I was an undergrad, was OpenOffice.  There are a lot of great things about OO.  It handles a lot like Word, so the learning curve when switching over is very slight.  It\’s also open source.  While this may not be terribly important to some of you, I think this is really the way of the future for a lot of software development.  You can suggest fixes, report bugs, and even ask for new features.  However, the best part of OO is that it\’s completely free.  Unfortunately, like most freeware, it does come with some side-effects.  First off, it\’s ugly.  The icons look like they came straight out of the nineties, and many of the tool bars are busy.  Second, though they finally have a Mac download (which they did not have when I first used it), it\’s still pretty clunky on a Mac and it\’s not unknown to crash (though that can be said of Word as well).  Bottom line?  Don\’t expect anything too fancy or groundbreaking from this one.  However, if you\’re cash-strapped and need something to write with while saving up for something else, or even if you\’re just tired of Word, then download this and try it out for yourself.  It\’s free, why not?

Pages: Apple\’s Word substitute, Pages, is a great alternative for those who have a Mac.  First off, it\’s powerful.  I\’ve yet to find something that I needed to do in Pages that I couldn\’t… but figuring out the \”how\” might drive you nuts.  Oddly for Apple products, I didn\’t find Pages to be very intuitive.  Maybe it\’s just my Word-trained brain, but I had a hard time learning how it worked.  However, when I did I much preferred it to Word.  (And don\’t even get me started on PowerPoint versus Keynote.) It also easily beats Word in terms of price ($20 for just Pages, or $80 for the whole suite).  Bottom line? I think Apple created something that\’s better as an overall publishing tool (creating posters, calendars, bulletins, invitations, etc., that it is for scholarly writing.  But, for $20 it might be more in your budget than Word is.

Mellel: Mellel represents a completely distinct approach to word processing.  Created in Israel, Mellel is easily the best processor that I know of for handling non-Roman fonts such as Hebrew.  Instead of forcing one to write backwards, press space to skip a word, and continue on (which becomes a huge head-ache when including blocks of text) like Word, Mellel automatically re-orients itself to handle the shift.  It\’s also quite powerful.  Anything that you\’ll need to do for aspects of technical/academic writing, Mellel will be able to handle.  Need footnotes?  No problem.  Need footnotes and endnotes? No problem.  Need two types of footnotes (say one for content, the other for textual variants, etc) and endnotes?  No problem.  That\’s great.  However, this power is not without responsibility.  There\’s a huge learning curve.  Most of the reviews I\’ve seen recommend reading (or at least skimming) the 100+ page instruction manual prior to use in order understand what\’s under the hood.  From the amount I\’ve used it, I can understand why.  However, that\’s really the only complaint I have to level against it.  The new version (2.6) has taken out almost all of the bugs, it looks great (think iTunes in a word processor), and it\’s dirt cheap for an education license ($29) that comes with unlimited free updates for upcoming versions.  Bottom line?  If you\’re working heavily in multiple languages, need a heavy-duty processor, and aren\’t scared of a learning curve, buy it. If not, you might want to stick to something easier like Word.

Scrivener: First off, let me say that I haven\’t personally used Scrivener before.  However, it is definitely what I plan on buying once I get home (I\’m currently visiting family in Texas). It truly looks fantastic, and answers most of my desires for a processor.  Unlike the other processors in this list, Scrivener seems to have been produced with large projects in mind.  It hosts a unique approach to document creation that seems intuitive and powerful.  The idea behind Scrivener is that you need a place to help you easily arrange your thoughts, not just write them down.  It has a \”cork board\” function that allows you to place a thought, no matter how small, into some place in the paper without loosing a sentence or two in the midst of a page and without resorting to what I commonly do–REMEMBER TO FIX THIS BEFORE PRINTING \”thought I want to include\” BACK TO THE BODY OF THE PAPER.  (Yes, my approach is jarring to the eyes. That\’s the point.)  It also enables you to easily categorized, save, and view your various drafts of a project (something near and dear to my heart, since I often label drafts oddly in my documents folder), and even allows you to take periodic \”snap shots\” of your project that you can return to later should something go horribly wrong (think: writing at 3am powered solely by coffee).  Scrivener also seems devoted to the modern age: it syncs easily with mobile apps such as SimpleNote, Dropbox, etc.  But, most importantly to me (I would have bought scrivener for this alone), it allows a split-screen view in which I can view uploaded PDFs (think: articles from ATLA), notes, or other resources alongside my paper and easily move between them without switching windows.  The only thing I\’m unsure of is how Scrivener will handle multiple fonts, specifically the coding nightmare that is Hebrew.  However, it\’s pretty cheap ($45, but it also allows a 15% education discount) and I plan on testing it fully once I get home and writing a more in-depth review then (complete with screen shots!).  Bottom line: this looks amazing.  It\’s well-priced, adjusted to the future of mobile teaching and writing, and includes innovative features. However, if you\’re a Windows user (my condolences), then you\’ll have to either jump into the beta (for free!), or else wait for it to come out.  (In depth review from the Chronicle of Higher Education here.)

Are there any other notable word processors out there that I should know about?  Do you have an in-depth review of one of the above that you\’d like to submit for me to publish here?  Or do you have any comments, disagreements, or additions?

P.S. Nathan Collier has been trying to get me to write in LaTeX for awhile now, but I\’ve been hesitant.  Any of you used that in non-scientific writing?

Published by Jared Saltz

Biblical Studies Faculty (Florida College). PhD candidate at HUC-JIR. Husband, father, student.

3 thoughts on “Tools for Students: Word Processors

  1. I recall discussing with you about unicode and mellel and all of that fun stuff. I've found that if I do my Hebrew work in textedit, and then copy it into pages, it works fine. Yes, it's an extra step, but for now it's working for me.I ran the trial version of Mellel, and while it does work differently, I don't think it was as complicated as people say. I rather like how it separates character and paragraph styles. That makes sense to me. Ultimately, I decided against buying and using it to save money and to not have to worry about adding yet another file type to my library. I didn't test out how well it exports to .docx or pdf. Have you tried that yet?I'm happy with pages for now. It's clean, pretty snappy, and well designed. I may switch to Word once I start submitting papers again, but Word for Mac REALLY messes up the unicode Hebrew so badly the textedit workaround doesn't even work.For my sermons, I've actually started using google docs over the last month. I just tried it for fun, but actually like it. It makes it easier to backup online and to share with people who want my notes. I was happily surprised by how well it works for simple word processing. For sermons all I care about is pretty much having paragraph styles and spell-check, which gdocs does well enough. The only small downside is not having a decent sans-serif typeface to use…

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  2. From Jonathan Engel (Posted on Facebook):[I] don't know anything about the last two, but I tried OpenOffice for Mac, and Pages, and finally came back to Word for Mac because (at least for academic papers) Word made my life WAY easier. You write stuff in OO and Pages – but they just don't work as well in the end.[I tried to comment on Ben Neviim, but it didn't work. Not wanting to retype my long comment] The short of it was that OO is too slow and clunky and not always fully functional. Pages is mostly nice, but failed when ever trying to save in .doc format, or when opening files saved as docs on other computers – indentations changed, footnotes changed, number of pages in the document somehow changing. It was the source of many headaches. For this historian, Word for Mac is totally worth the price tag, because you're paying to avoid all the headaches you'll get if you try to pinch pennies with OO or Pages.Maybe someday Pages or OO will equal Word…but that day is not today.

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  3. I am currently using Scrivener to write my dissertation, but only as a note-taking and first / second draft software.A word processor has too many robust features which Scrivener cannot adequately handle (e.g. tables, automatic TOC and indexing, columns, integration with bibliographic software, outline and many others). Having said that, Scrivener is a beautiful piece of software for doing research. It combines the flexibility of a file manager with the qualities of a good word processor. This allows you to nest folders within folders (for organization) but then all of your documents are visible at once without having to open each one.You can view your information in outline form, index cards (to move around) or by selecting several documents, as one combined document. These combinations of docs can be saved for later retrieval (think Chapter 1, 2 or Section 1.2)It allows for attaching unlimited comments, notes, links, even PDFs and all of it is searchable. In short, it gives me the flexibility to work in a very non-linear fashion, moving documents around at will, viewing different sections at will all while providing a robust organizational infrastructure.

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