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Are you getting the most out of Apple’s free OS X word processor?

Sections: Features, Hands On / First Looks, Mac Software, Originals, Writing / Publishing

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Notwithstanding that many Mac users consider a full-featured word processor application like Microsoft Word—or at least Apple’s Pages—to be a necessity, a fairly substantial proportion of Macs have neither installed.

For example, several months after recommending a MacBook to a co-worker of my wife’s, I asked her how she was enjoying her Mac, and what was she using for software. She was liking the MacBook just fine, thank you. Apps? Pretty much what came bundled with OS X. Word processor? TextEdit.

That got me wondering what proportion of Mac users—especially new ones—do likewise. I still don’t know scientifically, but I deduce that it would be a significant cohort. Indeed, I recall once reading about someone who published a community newsletter using just TextEdit’s extremely rudimentary Mac OS Classic ancestor, TeachText.

These days, TextEdit imposes much fewer compromises than TeachText did. It’s actually an amazingly capable mini word processor, and there’s no question one could easily desktop publish a quite professional-looking newsletter with it, although it wouldn’t be my first recommendation for that purpose. That said, TextEdit actually now supports some pretty advanced near page-layout functions, such as text kerning, ligatures, baseline adjustments, shadowed text, and style copying and pasting. If you aren’t familiar with those terms, you’ll more than likely never miss the capabilities to which they refer. But if you have use for them, they are there, and you don’t have to pay a cent extra to get them.

Today’s TextEdit also supports creation and application of style sheets, insertion of inline tables, charts, and TIFF, PICT, JPEG, and GIF inline graphics into document pages, and conversion of documents to HTML format, although there’s not much in the way of HTML markup tools. More on that below.

Powered by OS X’s built-in text editing engine, TextEdit has access to the system’s full suite of proofreading tools—spelling and grammar checking, plus OS X’s built-in dictionary and thesaurus.

TextEdit can be used to create standard lists via a Lists dropdown menu in the main toolbar. There is a Tables tool for defining your table configurations and adjusting how they integrate into your document. TextEdit supports hyperlinks, so if you highlight a word or phrase, you can define a URL by using the Link option and typing or pasting in the desired destination.

As fore-noted, being a full-featured RTF editor, TextEdit allows you to insert inline media into your document such as audio files and video—the latter of which inserts an integrated QuickTime player—which are fully functional from within the document.

TextEdit’s Styles menu offers a basic selection of pre-defined styles, but you can also define your own—including full paragraph styles, specifying fonts, line spacing, justification, any other attributes you want—and save it as a style that you can apply to any text. On the other hand, if you prefer plain text and want to purge formatting from copied or downloaded styled text, just select it and press Shift + Command + T to convert it.

Another not immediately obvious TextEdit feature is that you can change the background colour of your document via the Font menu, or even add shadows to your text. Select some text and press Command > T.

nanocount

One tool that’s oddly missing is a word-count command. However there’s a free and tiny (104 kb!) third-party solution called NanoCount, that watches the front TextEdit document and displays total words (or total characters).

TextEdit can also instantly convert snippets of text from the web, a PDF document, or wherever into an instant new document by dragging it onto TextEdit’s Dock icon, upon which the new document containing your text will appear with no muss or fuss.

If you have occasion to work in languages that require it, Text Edit’s text direction feature allows you to switch from standard left-to-right direction to right-to-left, which is necessary for proper transcription of various languages.

TextEdit can also open and save an array of document file formats, including .TXT, .RTF, .HTML, .OTD (Open Text Document), and Microsoft Word’s .DOC and newer .DOCX formats, although the latter not with all formatting (eg: footnotes and tables) intact, but still a solution for viewing the content of Word documents that are pretty much unavoidable.

Things have changed pretty radically from when I got my first Mac back in 2002. At that time a word processor was by a wide margin my primary software application. It would be another five years before the Internet made its way to this neck the woods,  I’ve never been much of a numbers–cruncher, and I hadn’t really yet discovered computer graphics, let alone digital photography, so word processing was the marquee PC feature for me. Indeed, my Mac—a used Mac Plus—was a replacement for a gargantuan Wangwriter II dedicated word processor.

On the Mac, Word processing in those days pretty much meant Microsoft Word. There were a few alternatives, like Apple’s own MacWrite and later MacWrite Pro, Write Now, a Mac version of WordPerfect, and the original Nisus Writer, among others, but then as now, MS Word was the word processing standard.

I started with Word 3, then Word 4, and in 1994 I bought an upgrade to Word 5.1, which still works in OS X 10.4 classic mode on my two old Pismo PowerBooks, handy for accessing with full format fidelity the thousands of Word file format files I still have archived.

However, while I experimented with Nisus Writer for about a year in the late ’90s, and tried other word processors like MacWrite and even the word processing module of AppleWorks after Microsoft temporarily ruined Word with Word 6 (a.k.a. “Word for Windows 98 on the Mac”), after the Internet arrived here in 1997 I found that my practical need for a full–zoot word processor had plummeted, and I’ve never really used one a whole lot since about 1999. These days I rarely have occasion to print documents in hard copy, and I work mostly in unformatted plain text.

Consequently, I haven’t bought a copy of MS Word since v5.1 19 years ago, and my word-crunching mainstays since then have been more nimble and speedy text editors. In particular is Tom Bender’s superb $15.00 shareware Tex Edit Plus, but also Bare Bones Software’s excellent (in different ways from Tex Edit Plus) freeware TextWrangler. Since all of my journalistic production for more than a dozen years has been either for web publication or submitted to editors of hard copy publications electronically, my document formatting needs have pretty much evaporated. I do most of my correspondence by email as well. Most everything is composed in left-justified plain text, and any formatting I do is pretty much limited to HTML, which Tex Edit Plus handles masterfully thanks to extensive customization with AppleScript over the years. However, you can do basic HTML editing in TextEdit.

TextEdit defaults to RTF (Rich Text Format) by default, but optionally allows you to specify Plain Text as its default working format, and can also be configured to display HTML code as Plain Text instead of rendering it as it would be displayed by a web page.

When you specify Plain Text as your working format (you’ll need to quit and re-launch the app for the format change to take effect) you’ll notice the RTF formatting bar will no longer appear at the top of the interface window—a reminder that you’re now only using basic, un-formatted text.

To create a new HTML file, you compose and mark up your text, then save it with the suffix .html added to its name.

TextEdit is nowadays a decent basic HTML editor. As noted, I prefer my tweaked and customized Tex Edit Plus for HTML markup, but if you really need Web composition power, consider Bare Bones Software’s venerable BBEdit, or one of several coding-oriented text editor apps, which are usually commercial software.

For more word processing oriented users, another alternative is Bean, a free, small, easy-to-use word processor designed to make writing convenient.

Bean is Open Source and fully Cocoa, has word count on an in-depth statistics panel, autosaves and more. Bean doesn’t do footnotes or use stylesheets and is only partially compatible with Word’s file formats.

Unfortunately, Bean’s developer has moved on to other priorities, and has announced that Bean will no longer be actively developed, although the app will continue to be available as a free download.

However, for the price (which is free with any Mac system purchase), TextEdit is the quickest way to get up and running with HTML editing and web design, and to use as a general purpose utility text application. You may discover it’s all the text cruncher you need.

If you haven’t checked out TextEdit recently, it’s probably worth a fresh look.

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