Bank Street writer. (evaluation) John J. Anderson.
Bank Street Writer
Many of you out there in microland have already grown to know and love at least one word processor in your lives. You know, then, that a relationship with a word processor is an experience not unlike a torrid human relationship-- with its ups and downs, satisfactions, peeves, elations and disappointments. In many instances, the finality is a breakup, often resulting from the user having become fed up or having found "something better.' I myself recently went through the strain of a change in word processors, and believe me, there were some tense moments.
My feeling toward old document disks is akin to the feeling one might have toward "old flames.' Those disks just won't work on any current system. And yet there is a lingering and undeniable attachment to the spurned, older formats. Some of the best text of our lives resides there, you know.
Till Crash Do You Part
Similarly, the selection of a word processor is an extremely personal transaction, a marriage of sorts. In all honesty, I have recently shied away from reviewing word processors for that very reason. In this arena, one man's meat is truly the other man's poison. I have found things that drive me mad about one system that seem to pose no problem to other users.
Conversely, features I find easy to deal with others will tell me are impossible to tolerate. It is enough to render one silent on the topic.
One thing I will readily acknowledge is how pivotally my own writing depends on the process of processing words. I was given the popular label of "underachiever' at more than one point in my early school days, which meant that I was bright but applied myself only to things in which I was interested--I didn't have much patience for things of a previous moment when my attention had passed to the next. This is surely a poor trait for a writer, though it is often a prevailing one.
Writing, Rewriting, and Kids
Sure, brainstorming can be quite a bit of fun; it is the thinking part of creative writing. But revision is the backbone of coherent writing. I am not speaking here of proofreading and necessary correction of typographical errors. I am speaking of revision. Without revision, the Declaration of Independence would lack its crystalline inspiration ("we think these facts are obvious'). Without revision, Tolstoy would probably read like an ad in the subway.
Now let's bring kids into the equation. Being the underachiever that I was (and probably still am), whatever flair I had for writing was always tinged by my disdain for rewriting. This drag lowered my academic coefficient on all but those papers I cared about passionately enough to actually examine closely and rework. Merely having a typewriter was no help at all. And I know I was not alone in this dilemma. Many of my compatriots had even worse habits. It was a shame. And it need not happen to my kids.
We now know, of course, that a good word processor makes revision a snap, a pleasure, an obvious component to the writing process. It is a truth we hold to be self-evident.
In the world of word processing today, however, things are rarely easy. With the exception of a very few systems such as Apple's mouse-based Lisa Write, a word processor is going to take substantial time to learn. On the average, I'd guess it takes about 10 hours to begin feeling confident with a given system.
Then there are those systems that seem to require extra user appendages (such as noses) to complete cryptic command codes--the user-hostile category, you might say. What about John Q. Public? How about a word processor for him? How about something that a third-grader can learn and love? If I had had access to a simple, easy to learn, but powerful word processor when I was in third grade, I might have been President by now.
It is of major importance, therefore, to bring word processing to kids in an accessible way. It can revolutionize their entire outlook concerning the sphere of reading and writing. It can show them that expressing themselves clearly and well is not only possible, but rewarding.
But what are we to do? Teach seven-year-olds to use WordStar? That's simply not feasible. Fortunately, another package has recently appeared; it is so simple, accessible, forthright, and consistent, that kids are begging to write "What I Did on my Summer Vacation' on it, even in the off-season. It is Bank Street Writer, from Broderbund Software.
Developed in conjunction with a research and design team from the Bank Street College of Education in Chicago, Bank Street Writer was designed to embody the word simplicity, and it does so quite admirably. Selecting from screen-based menus with the keys <, >, and the spacebar, the user chooses whether to enter or correct, manipulate, delete or save text.
And although it has been designed for ease of use by children, Bank Street Writer is quite capable of producing professional results with any short document. I wouldn't want to use it for a novel, but for ten- or twelve-page reports, it does just fine. Up to 2300 words can be stored in any single text file. Of course, files can be linked, so that larger documents can be stored.
The top of the Bank Street Writer screen always displays the choices which are available to the user. Among these are options to delete or undelete, move blocks of text, find and replace character strings, save, kill, rename, or print files. All of these modes can be selected straightforwardly by moving the highlighted bar to the desired choice, then hitting RETURN. It is that simple, and it becomes second nature very quickly.
Below the menu bars is a text box, in which your text appears. Entering text is as simple as, well, entering text. Full cursor control is available using the arrow keys on the Atari, and the I, J, K, and M keys on the Apple. Lowercase is generated through software in the Apple version.
Special cursor control keys are also provided, to move to the beginning or to the end of a text file, or in jumps of 12 lines in either direction.
In addition, other keys allow for centering of lines and indenting of paragraphs, and indicate how much RAM storage space remains. You can even protect personal files with a password, so that others will not be able to access them from Bank Street Writer. (Because text resides in conventional DOS files, however, it is not too secure, and perhaps that is good, because kids have a way of forgetting passwords.)
Let's take a closer look at the estimable friendliness of the program.
I have decided, for an example, to move a block of text from one place to another. How to do it? First I move the selector on the top menu portion of the screen to "move.' I do that using the <, >, or spacebar. Then I press RETURN. I have now entered the move screen. It prompts me to place the cursor at the beginning of the text to be moved. I do so, then press RETURN again. The move menu prompts me to move the cursor to the end of the block to be moved. I do so, and the text that will be moved is immediately highlighted. The screen prompts me to hit RETURN. I do so, and am prompted to move the cursor to the desired location of the transplanted text block. I do so, then hit RETURN. The text is moved there, and I am asked, "Is it OK to move text here?' If I say no, it will put everything back the way it was. If I say yes, it will effect the move. Even then, I can put things back by using "moveback.' Now that's friendly.
If you hold down ESCAPE while the program is loading, the utility program will boot up instead of the word processor. Through this, special disk drive or printer configurations can be custom-tailored. Even optional keyclick is offered, though I can't imagine why you would want it.
Documents can be printed in draft or in final format. In draft format, the document prints out precisely as it appears on the screen, so that corrections can be entered easily and located. In the final print format, the user is guided through a series of questions that will determine the shape of the printout. Here it is determined how many characters will be printed to a line (40 to 126, with a default to 65), along with line spacing, chaining, truncation, and page previewing parameters. A short header line is available, as is page numbering.
Indicative of the friendliness of the package is the polished, five-lesson tutorial that appears on the flip side of the disk. It takes the user painlessly through entering text, cursor movement, erasure and "unerasure,' text movement and "moveback,' and find and replace functions. The lessons are interactive, and offer to send you back for extra help if you are having difficulty following the instructions.
The tutorial is well-constructed and handsome to watch. Although it does not render the manual dispensable, it certainly does clearly cover the basic aspects of the program by walking the user through certain operations. I wish we could see more on-line helps of this caliber.
Token Picky Criticism
Unfortunately, the quiz bits of the tutorial are slightly unforgiving, demanding exact compliance with questions in order to advance. I included a period in a certain text alteration and incurred its wrath. It took me a while to figure out the mistake, because I am a dummy. The manual, on the other hand, is utterly unflawed, even for the likes of me.
I cannot think of any features I would demand from a $70 word processor that are missing from this package. Actually, a few features could have been omitted from Bank Street Writer, like the fine tutorial, and $70 would still be a bargain. If we were to name a category "low-end, easy-to-learn word processors with 40-column or less display,' and identified a real need to bring the power of word processing to the student, housewife, and John Q. Public, it wouldn't take long to reach the conclusion that Bank Street Writer is the leader of the pack. For the Atari machine, which has until now lacked an easy system, the product is surely a relief. In fact, according to Broderbund, Atari has chosen it for use in its own summer camp program.
Teach Your Children Well
Working with the product is a pleasure, and if that pleasure rubs off on your kids, they will undoubtedly do better in school. I remember two-finger typing the wrong letter sometimes in my first writings as a babe, then feverishly straining to alter my sentence to fit the typo. Childish indeed, but to my mind, too much of today's world runs in just that way--bending the intention to match the error. It is a priceless lesson to teach your childern otherwise--and Bank Street Writer presents an invaluable tool with which to do so.
Products: Broderbund Software Bank Street Writer (editing equipment)