When you think about doing any kind of writing, the software that probably comes to mind is Microsoft Word or OpenOffice.org Writer. They’re powerful, they’re big, and they pack a lot of features and functions. But many of us don’t use a fraction of those features and functions. Let’s face it, writing a letter in Word is overkill.
Luckily, Word and Writer aren’t the only games in town. If your word processing needs are modest, then you have a number of lighter and free alternatives.
On the desktop
There was a time when a large number of lightweight word processors were available. Sure, many of them were of dubious quality, but they gave you other options. Most of them have been swallowed by a digital black hole. That said, you still have some solid choices — two of which are AbiWord and Yeah Write.
AbiWord is an Open Source word processor that runs on multiple operating systems. There are versions for Linux, Windows, MacOS, and QNX. There’s also a version for the PortableApps suite.
AbiWord looks like a stripped-down version of Word — you can access all of the major features from the toolbar. These include bullets and numbering, text justification, printing, paragraph and character styles, and columns. From the menus, you can use AbiWord’s mail merge and add tables to a document.
What’s really impressive about AbiWord is its range document import and export filters. It can pull in documents in such formats as Micorsoft Word, OpenDocument (which can be read by OpenOffice.org Writer), WordPerfect, plain text, and HTML. AbiWord can save documents in the same formats, along with a few others including PDF, LaTeX, and KWord.
Keep in mind that the import and export processes aren’t perfect. With simple documents, it works well. But with more complex Word and OpenOffice.org Writer documents, not all of the formatting will come through. Or, AbiWord may choke on a file and crash.
Another interesting and useful feature is AbiWord’s set of plugins. These are small programs that expand AbiWord’s capabilities. Many of the plugins are for importing and exporting documents. The rest do other things, like look up dictionary definitions or translations of highlighted words, open images in graphics software, and even do some text to speech conversion.
One weakness that AbiWord has, though, is a lack of templates. It comes with about a dozen simple templates, most of which you’ll probably never use. If you have any special needs in this area, you’ll either have to create the templates yourself or import documents in other formats and then save them as templates.
Yeah Write isn’t like any other word processor that you have ever seen. Developed by some refugees from WordPerfect Corporation, Yeah Write is designed to be an application that anyone can use immediately. It’s meant for people who need to quickly write a letter or a memo without having to worry about dealing with a dizzying array of templates and wizards and options.
Instead of the usual menus, toolbars, and files Yeah Write is set up as a series of drawers. Each drawer — there are five of them, and you can set one up for each member of your family or for a different set of tasks — includes a set of document types that a grouped as tabs. The tabs include Diary, General, Journal, Letters, Memos, and Notes.
To get going, you open a drawer and then click on a tab. From there, double click in the field and a document window pops up. Each window has a set of pre-defined fields — for example, when creating a letter, there are fields for the salutation, text of the letter, and the closing.
Aside from being able to change text styles, changing spacing and fonts, and adding lists, Yeah Write doesn’t support any complex formatting. There are no tables or columns, and you can’t insert graphics or change the layout of a page.
On top of that, Yeah Write only has a limited number of import and export filters. These include WordPerfect 5.1 (anyone remember using that?), Rich Text Format (RTF), and plain text. In this case, though, simplicity wins out over advanced features.
On the Web
Many people, myself included, believe that the desktop is slowly becoming a thing of the past and that we’ll eventually be doing just about everything on the Web. The number of Web applications is rapidly increasing, and one area in which there’s a lot of growth is word processing, something that Google Docs and BuzzWord (among others) are demonstrating.
I use the word processor component of Google Docs quite extensively for writing articles (including TechTips), for drafts of longer documents, and even for the occasional blog post. What Google Docs offers, among other factors, is simplicity. You can pretty much log into Google Docs, create a new document, and start writing.
As you need to, you can add formatting by clicking a toolbar button or choosing an option from a menu. Every feature that you need is literally a click or two away.
The layout of the default view is like a spartan version of the word processors you may know and love. The layout is a fixed width, but there are no visible page breaks. If you find that layout a bit cramped, you can switch to one that spans the width of your browser window.
With Google Docs, you get the usual formatting — tables, lists, graphics, indents, and the like — as well as the ability to insert links, comments, bookmarks, and special characters. You can even select the language for the spelling checker and count the number of words in a document.
If you need to save a document to your desktop computer or laptop computer, you can do so in the following formats: Word, OpenDocument, RTF, PDF, HTML, and text. Or, you can upload Word, OpenOffice.org Writer, StarOffice, text, or HTML files to Google Docs. You might lose some formatting, depending on the complexity of the document.
In July, 2008, Google added a template gallery to Google Docs. The templates are a mixed bag — some are good, and most you can ignore. But they do expand the options available with this application.
BuzzWord is a recent entry into the Web-based word processor space. Its developer, Adobe Systems, has incorporated BuzzWord into the Acrobat online service.
BuzzWord is a flashy application, literally. It was created using Flash, but I have to admit that it’s one of the smoothest Flash-based programs that I’ve ever used. The interface is very slick, with toolbars that stay out of your way until you need them and a well-defined text area. You’ll have to install the latest version of Flash (18.104.22.168 at the time of writing).
While BuzzWord’s interface is very slick, it’s also very simple. Like just about every other application out there, it has a set of menus and toolbars. But the toolbar are unique in that they stay out of your way until you need them. Click on a toolbar icon and it expands to show you the available choices.
Formatting is limited. You can change fonts and paragraph styles, add lists, as well as insert images, tables, and comments. BuzzWord doesn’t have real paragraph styles like Body Text or Heading 1. Instead, it forces you to apply manual formatting to create headers and the like. This is cumbersome and can cause problems if you decide you want to change a style that’s been applied throughout your document.
When it comes time to share your document with the world, you can export it as a PDF, or any of these files: Microsoft Word, RTF, HTML, text, or OpenDocument. On top of that, you can import Word, text, or RTF. Not all of the formatting comes over properly. For detailed information about the problems, you may encounter, check the BuzzWord help.
Lightweight word processors aren’t for everyone. But if you need to quickly write something and don’t want the overhead of one of the big guns of word processing, then they’re a great choice. Best of all, most (if not all) of them are free. Small, fast, inexpensive, and easy to use. That’s a killer combination!