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The Art of TextEdit

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Need a fast and easy-to-use word processor/page layout program with lists, styles, tables, advanced typography, and support for multiple languages? Ladies and gentlemen, Neale Monks wants to introduce you to TextEdit, which is a viable, attractive alternative to heavyweight word processors.
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It is easy to overlook TextEdit. As one of the freebie applications that comes with OS X, it is assumed to be primarily a utility application rather than a productivity one—a tool for opening Read Me files and other bits of documentation. But TextEdit is so much more than that. As a word processor, it has most of the key tools you’d expect, including user-configurable styles and a ruler bar with settings for tabs and indents. Throw in tables and advanced typography, and TextEdit can even be used for basic page layout as well. TextEdit is also delightfully flexible in terms of how documents can be shared with others. It not only reads and writes plain text, RTF, and Word files but also happily exports documents to HTML and PDF formats.

Better yet, TextEdit is clean, lean, easy to use, and perfectly stable. Compared with some of the heavyweight word processors, it doesn’t consume acres of screen space with palettes and buttons you’ll never use. Being optimized for both Intel and PowerPC platforms, it runs like greased lightning on any Macintosh, something that cannot be said for certain other word processors—particularly those written for PowerPC only. Users with portable Macs also appreciate the fact that TextEdit works entirely from memory, accessing the hard drive only to read and write files. There’s no constant use of the hard drive for scratch space, so battery drain is kept to the absolute minimum.

Out of the box, there’s really only one essential feature that TextEdit lacks: a word count feature. It is inexplicable (to this Mac user, at least) why a word processor that has styles, tables, and other relatively high-end features as those should lack something as fundamental as a word counter. But adding one isn’t difficult, and any number of bolt-on goodies will do the job. One of the neatest is an AppleScript written by John Gruber at Daring Fireball that is added to the Services menu using the freeware tool ThisService waffle software. Once installed, a keyboard command Command+Shift+K will fire up this word counter within TextEdit or indeed any other application that uses the Services menu.

Beyond the Basics

TextEdit has two modes: plain text and rich text. In plain text, the program is essentially a text editor, and the documents produced lack formatting of any kind at all. Text editors are primarily of interest to programmers and people who hand-craft HTML code. We’re more interested in TextEdit when it is rich text mode because this is when it behaves like a traditional word processor. Toggling between these two modes is quickly achieved using the Command+Shift+T keyboard shortcut or by selecting the relevant menu item (under Format in the menu bar).

In rich text mode, TextEdit has a toolbar along the top of the document window, with all the standard-issue tools including a rule for setting tabs and indents, buttons for setting justification, and pull-down menus for things like the spacing between lines. These work in exactly the same way as those on any other word processor and need not be commented on much further.

Figure 01

Figure 1 TextEdit in two minds: rich text above; plain text below.

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