My Word Processor Doesn't Understand Me

by Matt Neuburg, November 1994

Ah, yes, the same old line: the same old self-deluded excuse for infidelity. But it's true, I tell you: my word processor doesn't understand me. And that's why, despite a long marriage to Nisus, I'm now happily involved in a wild affair - with Microsoft's Word 6.0.

This has meant overcoming a lot of prejudice, and not just mine. No one seems to approve of my new sweetie; you should hear what they say to me on the nets and in the press. But I don't care. Word 6 understands me; the golden age of Mac word processing has come, and I plan to live happily ever after.

Pride and Prejudice

The vitriolic accusations levelled at Word 6 make no sense to me. True, Word is hardly backwards-compatible, snubbing users with System 6.x, small screens, limited hard disk space, slower processors, or minimal RAM; but we all knew this was the coming trend. It imports from Windows an aesthetic which apparently startles those accustomed to its predecessors, and unaccustomed to its sisters Excel and FoxPro; I don't mind it, and unlike most other programs, it doesn't mess up my 16-grey screen's "colors". There are clamors of "starts/runs too slow" or "doesn't work with my favorite extension," very little of which is borne out by my own experience. (I'm pretty sure that evoking the Open or Save dialog with SuperBoomerang doesdoes cause crashes, though.)

The most groundless, yet commonly repeated, criticism of Word 6 is that, as an upgrade, it merely piles on extra bells and whistles. The truth is just the opposite: although Word 5 certainly did add many irrelevant extras to Word 4, what is new in Word 6 is the improved implementation of the program's basic purpose of word processing.

So prejudice is overcome by the sheer joy of being understood. I want to create a certain kind of entity: a text-based document which is large, formal, publishable, or some combination thereof. Word's structures and behaviours mirror, like no other program I have ever used, the natures and structures and objects and conventions that constitute that entity. I want my computer to compute, not just be an expensive typewriter: I want cross-references and macros. With "fields" and a macro language, Word gives me that programming power.

I Know What Boys Like

Word 6 sure knows what this boy likes, anyway - because Word knows what a large, formal, publishable document is, and what makes it easier to create and maintain.

Word's inheritance hierarchy of "Normal" (global) template, "attached" template, and document, plus the "master document" letting large documents be split into multiple files, makes it easy to handle a large book, to maintain stylistic consistency amongst multiple documents, to base a document on boilerplate, and to avoid shuffling extra glossary or macro files. Template elements are easily transfered with the "Organizer," and I can open multiple templates. With Nisus, maintaining stylistic consistency is a nightmare, and macros and glossaries live in special files which can only be open one at a time.

Word documents contain "section-level" features such as page numbering, footnote numbering, number of columns, headers and footers, margins, and page orientation. Any of these features can change in mid-document just by starting a new section. Nisus has no sections; page numbering can be restarted, but if you want to collect endnotes, or restart footnote numbering, after each chapter, you've had it: you have to juggle multiple documents, with no cross-referencing between them.

In Word, paragraph and character styles (defined sets of formats) are hierarchical, and generated document elements (such as footnotes, footnote references, headers and footers, and page numbers) automatically use styles. This helps maintain uniformity easily as you alter formatting. No hierarchical styles in Nisus, and if you want elements to have a style you have to apply it yourself.

Word allows precise control over the placement of page elements. Paragraph indents can extend into the margins - impossible in Nisus. Header and footer position can be precisely set, and vertical justification lets you center a title vertically; in Nisus you have to munge by inserting extra paragraphs.

Word "frames" (placed text or graphics) can be positioned precisely relative to margins, page, and the paragraph to which they are anchored; and you can change what paragraph the frame is anchored to. In Nisus you can only drag to position a graphic, and I've never grasped how it decides what paragraph it's anchored to. Besides, in Word, frame positioning can be part of a style, whence easily replicated.

Control extends right down to the character level. A character can be set to any height above or below the line, and to any degree of distance from the character that follows it (great for placing diacritics precisely over or under their letter). Also, you can cause the internal kerning settings of TrueType fonts to be accessed. That's very important to me: I have a Greek font that I wrote myself, but I have never until now seen it kerned as I designed it, since Nisus never showed me the kerning.

Word has three chief views, each with its advantages - Normal for speed, Outline for organization, Page View for WYSIWYG. If you split a window into panes, you can even have different views in each pane. Nisus has only Page View.

In Word, footnotes are edited in a pane; in Nisus they replace the main window, so you can't see the main text your footnote is commenting on. Word can have both footnotes and endnotes; not Nisus. In Word, you can change your mind at any time about the auto-numbering method for footnotes; in Nisus you must set your preference before inserting any footnotes. And Nisus knows nothing of auto-numbering footnotes with non-arabic numbers, or symbols.

Word can caption a table, equation, graphic, embedded element, or whatever, with any label; for each label type, the caption numbers are auto-sequenced, and can be used to generate an index.

In Word, paragraphs can have borders (useful for separator lines and marginal markers), and shading. An auto-numbering format can be applied, causing successive paragraphs, or headings, to be numbered, with multiple levels if desired, with tremendous flexibility as to format, and with designated paragraphs unnumbered if desired; numbers remain auto-sequenced as items are rearranged or moved to a different level.

Word "fields" can refer, inter alia, to marked text ("bookmarks"), to the most recent incarnation of a style, or to a particular instance of an auto-count sequence, and thus can implement such niceties as running headers and cross-references. Cross-references can refer to many kinds of entity, such as the page or number or text of a heading or bookmark or caption or footnote, and may appear anywhere in the document, including within footnotes. In Nisus, you can't reference a footnote number, or use cross-references from within a footnote, though inspection of any scholarly book would show that footnotes of the type "See above, p. 7, n. 4" are essential.

Word also understands something of the temporal aspect of document development. It can track revisions as you work, marking deletions and insertions; you can then later incorporate or undo any of these. It can also combine two or more versions of the same document into one, generating marked revisions; the feature is a bit buggy, but useful for multiple users or a user with several computers. Word also allows you to attach post-it notes ("annotations") to passages; a friend of mine working on a doctoral thesis blesses the day he discovered them.

That First Careless Rapture

I bought Nisus for its programmability, and then, when Word 5 came out (which I heartily disliked), I tried to be faithful to Nisus as my main word processor. It was a love-hate relationship, because Nisus often wasn't up to the task. Still, perhaps I would have stayed faithful if Nisus hadn't teased me, when its new version (Nisus Writer) appeared at about the same time as Word 6, with ads hubristically billing Nisus Writer as "Word 10 years from now."

A successful relationship needs communication, change and compromise. But Nisus Writer shows that literally years of complaints and requests from its most dedicated users have dented not a whit the stubbornness of the program's planners. Nisus Writer has a more rational interface than its predecessors, but it concedes not one step towards helping its users generate a large publishable text document. Nisus doesn't seem to understand any of the basic concepts that such a project involves.

Nisus doesn't understand what a "word" is. It has "smart" cut-and-paste (ie, with awareness of word separation), but it's quirky and often fails to insert spaces where it should; moving the insertion point word by word from the keyboard works less conveniently than Word.

Nisus doesn't understand what a "sentence" is. If two sentences have a dash between them, triple-clicking in Nisus to select one of them wrongly selects both. There is no built-in way to navigate sentence by sentence from the keyboard.

Nisus doesn't understand what a "footnote" is. I've given some examples already. And Nisus cannot implement the standard convention of a special separator if part of a footnote is carried over from the previous page.

Nisus doesn't understand what "paragraph formatting" is. It has no style option for Keep With Next Paragraph (essential for headings); nor for space after a paragraph (ditto); nor for widow/orphan control, which must be simulated by a macro. Nisus has no simple way to set all default tabs for a paragraph.

Nisus doesn't understand what "hidden" (invisible) text is. Invisible text often leaves visible white space, and is still "present" in the document during keyboard movement of the insertion point.

Nisus doesn't understand what a "table" is. You cannot easily make a table that runs over the page boundary; among other things, this makes extended side-by-side paragraph formatting impossible.

Nisus doesn't understand what a "window" is. Tiling two document windows puts them side by side, not one above the other, so you cannot see complete lines in either window.

Nisus doesn't understand how to give the user control. You can "mark" text so that you can jump to or cross-reference it, but you cannot make visible the fact that it is marked, so you may easily delete a marker unawares. Nisus doesn't remember the last several places in the document where you were working, so you can't get back easily; even an Undo may not return you to where you were. You can't control the way Nisus performs automatic hyphenation.

In all these cases and many others, Word does understand what Nisus does not.

The Battle of the Bulge

Nisus remains unchallenged for automated processing of simple text, thanks to its powerful grep find-and-replace facilities (which operate even on closed files on disk), its editing features (multiple clipboards, swap paste, non-contiguous selection), and its macro language. And Nisus has features that Word lacks, such as the ability to apply more than one user-defined character style to the same text (though I can't decide if this is valuable or confusing).

What frustrates me about Nisus' development over recent years, though, is the bulge of features piled on top of this, features making Nisus look like it might also be used to write a large publishable formal document, but in practice showing no awareness of what this entails.

Perhaps Nisus' reluctance against users' stated needs might be fear of identity loss: "if we did it that way, we'd be like Word." But by contrast, Word has adopted some of Nisus' basic editing features. There are now multiple undos/redos. Word has had rectangular selection for many years, though not, alas, other non-contiguous selection. There's a kind of append-cut, "the spike" - though this is clumsy, and there is no append-copy. You can now see paragraph style names down the left side of the document, going Nisus' "named rulers" one better. Keyboard shortcuts can include two characters, though the first must not be in use alone for anything else.

Cherchez La Format

Word's find-and-replace can include formatting and styles, and even some grep, and in some respects is actually more flexible and powerful than Nisus. Word remembers where you were before you started a series of finds; remembers your last several search strings; allows a "not" search on character formatting; can search text and footnotes all at once; and can find and replace any formatting feature, such as the way text is framed or bordered, its right-indent value, its line-spacing, or the location of a tab stop! Simply astonishing, and beats the pants off Nisus.

So does the speed. When I draft a piece for TidBITs, I emphasize by italics; before sending it off to Adam, I change all italics to this sort of emphasis, which is visible on the nets (and shows up underlined in EasyView). So I used this as a test. To find and change 1000 instances of italic text to plain text surrounded by underline marks took Word 30 seconds; Nisus Writer took 60.

Nonetheless, Word finding is in many ways still inferior to Nisus'. Word can't Replace one instance without performing a further Find, which is inconvenient for testing. Word cannot do certain Grep searches that are Nisus' bread-and-butter, such as OR-searches, or searches that specify maximal vs. minimal strings. And Nisus lets you nominate a list of files to be searched on disk.

Empowering Relationships

Here is what made me examine Word 6 in the first place: at last it has the macro language which Word for Windows has long possessed. How powerful is it? TOTALLY! The reason is that all internal user-triggered behaviours, from hitting the left-arrow key to selecting a menu item, are in fact macros.

This has two implications. First, since you can trigger a macro by a menu choice, a keyboard shortcut, or a toolbar button (or even a button in text), and since all of these can be completely customised, you can rearrange Word's behaviour and appearance without writing any new macros at all. (And it may be a good idea to do so; Word ships with a number of its best behaviours unaccessed, such as navigating by sentence.)

Second, macros that you write can access (or override) all Word's internal behaviours, including getting and setting any information which can appear in a Word dialog box, meaning just about everything. Nisus' macro language can't access many document features: for example, it can't get or set the left-indent of the current paragraph, or tell you the font of the current selection.

Word wins for speed as well. A macro of the "cut, move over, paste" type, doing 1000 repetitions, took 45 seconds in Word, 2 minutes in Nisus. I suspect that part of the reason is the level at which the respective macro languages are tied into the program. A Nisus macro performs user actions (choose from a menu, click a key); a Word macro by-passes this level and performs the actions which user actions trigger.

Word has a fairly nice macro debugging environment, including step/trace, and peek/poke variable values while the macro is paused; Nisus has nothing like this. And Word is scriptable via AppleScript, and extensible with "add-ins" (compiled modules, like XCMDs). The mind reels.

Love Without Trust

Adam points out that Word is dangerous: you can save a document as "Microsoft Word" and wipe out the application! True enough; I like Word, but I don't trust it. It's a Windows port; this means that it interacts oddly with the Mac's file system, and that bugs and shortcomings and quirks and undocumented behaviours from the Windows version are included in the port. About a zillion of these are studied in a great book about WinWord 2.0, the Hacker's Guide by Leonhard and Chen (Addison Wesley 1993); some are fixed, but many remain.

A major shortcoming is that it's hard to get the big picture. If you override the paragraph formatting of a styled paragraph, nothing tells you that the paragraph is exceptional; for example, if you manually change the indents of one MyStyle paragraph, the paragraph is still labelled MyStyle, not MyStyle+ as earlier. You can't get Word to build you a list of all keyboard or toolbar shortcuts, which makes it hard to customize intelligently.

Actually, there is a built-in command (macro) called ListCommands that will generate a list of all of the commands and their respective menus and keystrokes. This is available in both MacWord 6 and Word 6.0 for NT.
- David Carson (a friend of Tonya's at Microsoft)

Some behaviours are unintuitive, such as the "toggling" effect of character formats contained in paragraph styles: if a paragraph style containing a "toggle" character format, such as Bold, is applied to a paragraph which already contains some text in that character format, that text often loses that format. I have figured out the rule, which is incorrectly stated in the manual, but it's still upsetting.

This manual, as usual with Microsoft, is compendious and dull ("click this, then this, then this, then this") rather than instructive, or even accurate. For example, we are told that shift-right-arrow extends a selection one character to the right, and shift-left-arrow extends a selection one character to the left; this is simply false (ask me what the real rule is, it's amazing). Vital information on installation and cooperation with other Microsoft products is lacking, sometimes online help is a better reference, and Word 6 does not come with any discussion of the macro language (a second manual must be purchased separately)! Being a conspiracy-theorist, I suspect a grand strategy to sell more Microsoft Press books.


Old affections die hard. I have a soft spot for Nisus; for four years, after all, I've sweated over it, criticised it, defended it, explained it. Very often I see "How can I...?" queries on the nets, and automatically respond: Nisus can do that. But the acid test for me is to go to the library and study some books or articles of the sort I would write, and ask myself how easily (if at all) my word processor could help me generate a document with this typography and these conventions. Microsoft Word 6.0 acts like its authors at least tried to do the same; Nisus' authors seem not even to know where the library is.

Word 6.0 is described with incisive clarity by Tonya in her The Word on Word 6 article, first published in TidBITS#239; see also TidBITS #246 for information about her Word 6 Starter Kit. An earlier but very similar version of Nisus is described at mind-numbing length by me and Adam in #116, #117, and #118.