GUI Bytes

SpecProcessor! part 1 - more than a typewriter

Today's word processors are amazing programs, offering a remarkable set of tools to make our work easier - most of which remain unused. In this series, we're going to look at ways to make better use of our word processors, with particular attention to creating and editing specifications. When you're done with this introductory article, pick up the March issue of the Construction Specifier and read David Lorenzini's "Unlock the Power of Word - A guide to word processing", a good overview of Microsoft Word. Although David's article and this series are based on the use of Word, the principles can also be applied to most other current word processors.

Aside from the need to press keys to make letters appear, typewriters presented their users with a few basic problems. The first was learning the keyboard layout, a problem that remains today. According to one account, the apparently random arrangement of letters was used to make it difficult to strike the most commonly used letters in sequence, to prevent keys from jamming when one arrived before the previous one left the paper. Despite this arrangement, many people are able to type without looking at the keyboard, some at speeds over one hundred words per minute.

The common keyboard layout, standardized long ago, is not the only one. Another arrangement of keys, known as the Dvorak keyboard, places the most frequently used keys where they are easiest to strike. This keyboard reportedly allows its users to type at even higher rates. Windows users can easily convert to this keyboard by changing the keyboard settings in the Windows Control Panel, then moving the key caps to the locations required by the Dvorak layout, or buying a Dvorak keyboard. If you already use this keyboard, please send me an e-mail and let me know what your experience has been. I learned to type on a manual typewriter - for you youngsters, that's one that doesn't use electricity - so I'm too much of an old dog to learn where the keys are all over again.

A typist also had to learn how to judge when to hit the carriage return bar. A bell warned of the approaching end of the line. When it rang, the typist had to decide if the remainder of the current word would fit on the line, if the current word could be finished and another short one added, or if a word had to be hyphenated.

Obviously, a good typist not only had to be fast, but had to be able to quickly decide when to hit the return bar. A good knowledge of the language was required; mastery of both spelling and hyphenation was a prerequisite for those who typed anything that had to be read by others.

every silver lining has a cloud

Electric typewriters eliminated the need for finger strength and made it easy to type faster, and word processors largely eliminated the basic problems of typing. Integral spell checking and hyphenation, combined with automatic word wrap, were arguably the most useful benefits offered by computers to the ordinary person. People now need only to learn the keyboard to become reasonably proficient typists.

But those who already knew how to type were so enamored with these new capabilities that they didn't think to look for other features. And, until recently, those who taught typing, or "keyboarding", still thought of the word processor as a typewriter, albeit a better one than they had before.

The result is that many (most?) people who use word processors still use it as a typewriter. A few people have learned a few of the more advanced things that a word processor will do, but most of the enormous capabilities of the word processor remain unrealized.

2002 Sheldon Wolfe, RA, CSI, CCS, CCCA, 
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