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Back to School: Writing tools, part I

TUAW's going Back to School! We'll be bringing you tips and reviews for students, parents and teachers right up until the bell rings in September.


This is the last installment in a mini-series highlighting some research and writing software of interest to students, especially those in college. We've covered research tools, as well as note taking and information organization tools. Now, let's take a look at some great tools for writing. Whether you're hammering out a research paper or penning a story for Advanced Lit., there are plenty of applications available to make life easier, if not a little bit more fun.

We're going to look at three basic categories: general word processors, structured writing tools, and utilities. Covering such a broad range of applications ended up getting a bit lengthy, so I'll be breaking it up into three posts; a sub-mini-series, if you will. This first post will offer you, our discerning readers, a few word-processing applications for your consideration. Read on ... and who knows, you might discover something new.

For the purposes of this article, word processing applications are ones which specifically target formatting and page layout, as opposed to information organization or specialized applications. There are scores of applications in this category, a handful of which definitely deserve to be highlighted. These apps range in price from free to probably out of range of anyone living on pizza and bubbly beverages. We'll start at the low-end of the cost ladder and work our way up.

Free Ones

Among the freely available editors is a gem called Bean. It's a word processor and nothing else, which is why I like it so much. It loads quickly, takes up few resources and provides all of the basic formatting I generally need. Even though I frequently use more advanced tools, I keep Bean around for these reasons. It's certainly worth a look if you haven't already given it a shot.

If you need a more complete solution, NeoOffice and OpenOffice are full suites along the lines of Microsoft Office (I'm omitting Microsoft Office because I don't know of many students who aren't already aware of and quite familiar with it). They provide the array of tools needed for most word processing and data manipulation purposes, including graphing and charting. Both are free, but I prefer NeoOffice (which is actually based on OpenOffice, see the feature comparison) for its wide array of native Mac features and superior OS X integration. It also does a great job of importing and saving Microsoft Office formats, although you shouldn't expect your Word files to look quite the same in NeoOffice.

There are other free applications, but many aren't Cocoa-based, which makes them difficult to extend and incompatible with the native system tools such as the OS X system-wide spell check. This is actually a primary consideration in my own personal writing tool decisions; you'll see some of the benefits of using native Cocoa applications when we get to the utilities in part 3, many of which won't work at all with non-Cocoa applications.

Schreiben

At €6,95 (about $10USD as of this writing), Schreiben is a good deal for a good application. Again, it's a native Cocoa application, which makes it easy to incorporate. It has a very basic feature set, a clean interface and the necessary functionality for completing any basic writing project. It does lack the image placement abilities of Bean (mentioned above), and while you can drag images into documents, you can't easily manipulate them or control text wrapping. I like its lack of floating palettes (inspectors) and attention to certain details, though. There's a free demo available (use link above) so you can make your own comparisons.

Mellel

Mellel is a very popular word processor and this isn't its first time being mentioned on TUAW. With educational discounts, it's also pretty affordable at $29USD. It has a ton of formatting options, including the ability to build full style sets which define formatting (font, size, alignment, etc.) for all of the various elements in the document (headlines, sub-headlines, paragraphs, annotations ...). It has a full-screen editing feature -- which we'll see more of in other applications -- designed primarily to reduce distraction.

It's not easy, as far as I've been able to tell, to navigate with just the keyboard, which is where my hands tend to be when I'm writing. It also uses strange, recessed elements in the actual interface which I find aesthetically unsettling. Aside from that, it's (again) Cocoa-based and also gets along nicely with Spotlight.

Mellel's real strength is in its citation and cross-referencing abilities. It's really easy to add references and build bibliographies, and it interfaces with BookEnds for additional citation-management power. In fact, students can pick up a Mellel/BookEnds combo deal for $89USD.

Nisus Writer Express

Nisus Writer Express ($45USD), and Nisus Writer Pro ($79USD) have some of my favorite interfaces. The standard configurable toolbar can be adjusted to your liking, and all of the options are contained in a sliding palette side-drawer. I've come to dislike floating palettes, which is a personal preference, but this can make or break an interface for me. Nisus offers most, if not all, of the features you'd find in Microsoft or Apple's standard applications. While the Pro version adds a plethora of additional useful features, the more affordable Express version has all of the basics you'll need. Its output options include a range of document types, from Rich Text files to great looking PDFs, as well as Microsoft Office formats. Steven covered some of the more advanced features of the Pro version back in May.

Pages

Of course, there's always Apple's own Pages, part of the iWork bundle. With a student discount you can pick up iWork for $79 and get Numbers (spreadsheet) and Keynote (presentation) as well. If you just need a word processor, it adds up to a little more than some of the other applications, and you don't get the warm fuzzies associated with supporting indie developers. It does, however, make really, really pretty documents. And, quite obviously, it interfaces well with the rest of the OS.

There are plenty of applications to consider, of course. Hopefully this post will help you narrow the field down when you start looking, but I'd love to hear from our readers about personal favorites which I may not even know about yet! My next post will dig into some writing tools which specialize in project organization to make lengthy writing tasks, dare I say, easy.

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