I Am Joe’s Blog:

September 11, 2004 • 3:16 PM

Nisus Writer Express 2.0

Here’s a bit of irony for you. I’m using the newest and flashiest word processor (Microsoft Word 2004) running on the world’s most advanced operating system (Mac OS X), and still I have to contend with writing tools that are more awkward and less powerful than the ones I was using 10 years ago. I miss the days of Nisus Writer 4 and 5 in the early 1990s, because that tool, quirky though it was, made the job of writing (whether an academic paper or a 600-page book) as easy as I could imagine it to be. Those were the days.

The old Nisus Writer still runs in Mac OS X’s Classic environment, but with some limitations. And for a variety of reasons, I prefer never to use Classic if I can possibly avoid it. Meanwhile, as a professional writer, I am required to view and edit Word files, including comments and revision marks, which for all practical purposes restricts me to using Word as my word processor. Unfortunately, even the newest version of Word is a poor writing tool; for all its bells and whistles, it makes the basic writing and editing tasks I need to do most frequently unnecessarily difficult.

Over the past few years, Nisus Software, my erstwhile employer, has been recreating Nisus Writer from scratch as a native Mac OS X application. The first couple of versions of what they’re now calling Nisus Writer Express were too limited to be of any real use to me, but they recently released version 2.0, and I was eager to give it a try and see if it held any promise.

Among the newly added features are character and paragraph styles (an absolute necessity), footnotes and endnotes (which I really don’t use anymore), and a number of new or enhanced editing capabilities. There’s also an integrated table editor that is actually quite usable (unlike the atrocious stand-alone Nisus Table Tool from the old days), though still not up to the level of Word’s (you can’t, for example, orient text vertically within a table cell). But the program’s interface is an odd mixture of brilliant and inscrutable. For every feature that works in the most intuitive possible way (word count, let’s say), there’s another one (the interface for editing styles, for example) that is utterly bizarre. On the whole, I’d have to say the problematic interface items outnumber the delightful ones, though I am quite relieved to see that a few of the worst interface features from earlier versions are either gone or easily disabled.

Nisus Writer Express’s inability to deal with Word’s comments and revision marks takes it out of the running for me as a tool for writing books, ebooks, and technical articles. (An outliner, of course, would be fabulously handy too.) Because it doesn’t support line numbers, syntax styling, and the like, it can’t replace the text editor I use for programming. That leaves the writing I do for Interesting Thing of the Day and this blog. Both of these normally involve typing into a text field on a Web page, an extremely primitive editing environment. And yet, it gets the job done. So I’ve been wondering if the additional editing capabilities of Nisus Writer Express would outweigh the bother of cutting and pasting articles from another application.

Having written this post in Nisus Writer Express 2.0, my intention at this point was to say that during my 30-day free trial period, I would attempt to do all my personal and ITotD writing in Nisus Writer Express, to see just how close it can come to being a truly useful tool, one worth spending money on. Unfortunately, in just these last six paragraphs of really basic writing, I’ve encountered more frustrations than if I were writing in a Web form. The Smart Punctuation feature wasn’t; some macro commands didn’t function as described in the documentation; attempting to use QuicKeys or ICeCoffEE produced an unhelpful “Internal Error” message; and attempting to report same using the built-in Feedback feature appeared to hang the program. I really want to like it—more importantly, I really want to use it. I want that truly fabulous word processor of the past back, fully functional in Mac OS X, and able (as Nisus Software’s advertising implies) to be a viable alternative to Word. We’re definitely closer…but still not close enough.