Previous Issue | Search TidBITS | TidBITS Home Page | Next Issue

TidBITS Logo


The 3rd part of our three-part review of Nisus.


Copyright 1992 TidBITS Electronic Publishing. All rights reserved.
Information: <> Comments: <>

More Bells

If you want just one or two side-by-side paragraphs, or a short stretch of material in a different columnization from your document, you can have it, provided it does not involve run-over to a second page: the Paragon people have gone to the elaborate trouble of building a Place Page facility into the program. This means that you can attach to a page an image of another document. Double-clicking this image opens the other document itself for editing, and any changes made to the other document are reflected in your image of it. The image can be placed as a graphic, which means you can put it virtually anywhere on the page (with no deterioration in font quality). You can even play graphic tricks with it: have it appear upside down or sideways, and so on (though these do cause deterioration of font quality, at least on my StyleWriter). This is no substitute for real side-by-side paragraphs, or real change of columnization, and in my view it uses a bazooka to kill a gnat - if something this powerful and elaborate could be built in, why not just plain ordinary table-making? - but for what it does, it works beautifully, is easy to use, and has no noticeable disadvantages. (It's true that every Placed paragraph represents a file on disk of at least 3 or 4K, and that if you move that file you lose your link to it, but I don't regard this as much of a price to pay.)

Nisus comes with a black-and-white graphic drawing facility, so you can make rudimentary PICT structures from within Nisus, or import and edit them; you can import bit-mapped graphics, of course, but they will remain uneditable bitmaps. A graphic is considered to live on the "graphics sheet" or the "text sheet." A graphic in the text sheet functions as a character in the stream of characters (this is good for fancy initial majuscules, for example), while a graphic in the graphics sheet is an independent entity: text can be made to flow around it or just cross right over top of it, and the graphic can be associated with a particular location on a particular page, or with a particular return-character. As most users probably own a more powerful graphics program (for example, in Nisus rotation must be through a multiple of 90), the graphics facility may not prove much of an attraction; the versatile interaction between graphics and text may prove valuable to some users, though, and Nisus does just fine for the occasional box or for creating graphical text blocks and dragging them around on the page for rudimentary layout.

Adam adds that although Word 5.0 added a graphics module it has some bugs, and in true Microsoft style, it is a separate window, which makes it just about useless for creating graphics while visually interacting with the text. You can't move Word graphics around on the page without using the Frame command and going into Print Preview or a dialog box. So Nisus's graphics may not be Canvas, but they're decent and well-implemented.

Cross-referencing is provided. If you attach a marker to text, you can then cause a number to appear elsewhere in your document which is the page number, line number, paragraph number, or actual content of the marked text. This number is updated automatically. However, there is no way to make visible the fact that text is marked, so you can easily delete or in some other way munge your marker without knowing it. You cannot find out the name of the marker that a cross-reference references; hence you cannot jump to the referenced text. Even worse, your marker and your cross reference to it have to be in the same document, but since Nisus provides no facilities for dividing your document into sections, you won't be able to maintain cross-referencing over a long document if it is to have any sections. For example, if you're writing a book, then if you have a section (such as a Preface) that involves a different style of page-numbering from the rest of the document (say, it uses Roman numerals), then you won't be able to include it as part of the whole book, because a Nisus document, having no sections, can only involve one style of page-numbering. And so you can't cross-reference between the Preface and the rest of the book. Since a fairly common thing to do in a Preface is refer to other parts of the book, this is a pretty stupid state of affairs. Furthermore, cross-referencing does not recognize footnote numbers - you can cross-reference to a footnote, all right, but you can't obtain the footnote number as part of the reference. So you can't say, "See p. 58, n. 7." But since this is the kind of thing I need to say all the time, Nisus's cross-referencing doesn't do me much good. Considering the fact that Word has absolutely no cross-referencing features at all though, Nisus will still be more useful than Word, especially at the more simple cross-referencing tasks.

There is a Table of Contents facility. You mark the text that you wish included in the table of contents; such marking can be made visible. When you are ready, you use Make Contents to create a rudimentary document consisting of text followed by page numbers. The text loses all styling, and every entry looks the same. You will have to play with the look of this document before you can use it, so the lack of support for automatic hierarchical contents may not be of any great concern.

The Indexing facility is more flexible. You can either mark text for direct inclusion in the index, or mark the text and associate it with the phrase that you wish entered in the index (so that stretches of text can be referenced by the subject they discuss). At the same time you can also designate a heading to be added to a "See Also" list that will appear at the end of the index entry. If you wish to reference one stretch of text under more than one index entry, though, you have to resort to trickery; the manual suggests you enter the index headings right into your text, mark them for indexing, and then make them invisible. The find-and-replace facilities "know" about indexing; you can automatically find for particular words and index them under particular entries, find for text already marked under particular headings, and so forth (you could even index every word in the document if you wanted). Finally, as with the Table of Contents, when your text is marked as you want it, a single command generates your index. Disappointingly, however, you can only have two levels of indexing; worse, you cannot index text in footnotes at all (which is ridiculous, since most of what I want indexed is probably in the notes). Nevertheless, if you are willing to plan ahead and to add a goodly quantity of manual labour at the end, you will find that the indexing facility generates a very decent basis for composing your index.

You can automate powerfully the marking-up of your document both for indexing and for table of contents. A User-Defined Style can include a Table of Contents designation that will cause text marked with it to be collected when the table of contents is built; by marking text with several different Styles (not necessarily with any visible effect), you can mark for several different tables of contents, collecting each separately by turning on the Table of Contents option for just one Style at a time. The same is true for indexing, so you could create multiple indexes this way; but you can do this only if you want the text from the document used directly as the index entry. More likely you would build multiple indexes by using the Find/Replace facility (perhaps with the help of Colors or Styles) and marking up your whole document for one index, building it, then unmarking it and marking it up for a different index.

There is a Sort command, but it is very rudimentary; the only thing you can sort by is paragraph-start. The sort knows the difference between words and numbers, and will separate paragraphs that start with words from those that start with numbers. You can also force an ASCII-order sort. But the sort is not font-sensitive, and there is no way to tell it that you might be using a different alphabet.

The current date and time can be inserted in the document. They are not automatically updated, which can be a good thing; if you want them updated, you can either cause it to be done yourself with a menu command, or set a preference that causes it to be done just before every Print. A few formats are provided for the date, but not enough; fortunately the date format responds to your setting in the System's "itl1" resource, so you can make up for this to some extent.

Nisus comes with the usual mail merge facilities. It is no harder to use than any other mail merge facilities I know about, and seems to be very full-featured (it has conditionals, Include, prompting, and so on). Word 5.0's mail merge was significantly improved from Word 4.0, but according to the people at Macworld Australia, who swear by Nisus, Nisus's mail merge is cleaner than Word's mail merge.

A line-numbering feature is included, but I can't imagine what it's good for. You cannot pick a stretch of lines to be numbered: you can only number the whole document, by page or in full. And you don't get much control over where the numbers are to appear.

There is an automatic parenthesis checker, to make sure your parentheses are balanced. I find this sort of useless because even though it is somewhat configurable it doesn't take account of the fact that the code for parenthesis delimiters may differ for different fonts, and so if I'm using any Greek it gets the answer wrong.

Spell-checking is included. I've never seen a spell-checker I liked and this one doesn't change my mind. I am told that the User Dictionary is limited to about 3000 words, although this has not proved to be a serious problem in normal use. Paragon also has foreign language dictionaries available, though I've never used them and can't comment on how well they work. The spell-checker has some bugs: it highlights words with punctuation within them (such as apostrophe) incorrectly, so they can't be replaced or corrected properly, and if the checker asks you about a word and you tell it to Ignore other occurrences of that word, it sometimes fails to do so. Adam contends that Nisus's spell-checker is very fast, much faster than Word's for instance, and is more full featured than most. For instance, Nisus has a built-in Ignore Spelling style, and when you click the Ignore button, that word will be ignored for the rest of that document's life (or is supposed to be; bugs remain), an incredibly useful feature in comparison to word processors that can only skip words or add them to the dictionary. Adding words to the User Dictionary is easy, but removing them is a slow and tedious task if you have any number in there. Luckily Paragon ships some macros with Nisus that can export a User Dictionary and import a list of words into a User Dictionary, so you can fix the list and then let it import at its leisure.

A thesaurus is included; it too is about as mediocre as these on-line thesauruses usually are, and of course you can't modify it in any way, but on occasion it can be helpful if you like thesauruses.

There is automated hyphenation, but it never prompts you for help with a word, it just goes ahead and hyphenates: you cannot set how much of a word you think needs to be washing over the margin before hyphenation should be invoked, or correct Nisus's hyphenation of a word as it sets it. Since I don't think any machine knows better than I do how I want words hyphenated, I never use this feature.

The glossary facility is good. You can create multiple glossaries (though only one can be loaded at a time), and glossary files are themselves editable. A glossary entry may include character styling attributes, or can be set to take on the attributes of surrounding text. Even a graphic can be a glossary entry. You cause a glossary entry to go into your text just by typing an abbreviation; you can then cause the actual text to be substituted for the abbreviation immediately, by a menu command, or later on, by selecting text and ordering all abbreviations within the selection to be expanded to their equivalents.

A Get Info command obtains such data about your document as the number of pages, paragraphs, lines, words, and characters; also included are the average and maximum length of sentences, and something called Flesch Reading Ease and Resulting Reading Grade Level. You'll be happy to know you're mastering a grade 16 document here, whatever that may mean. But do you really believe the average length of a word in this review is 4? Other word processors either don't reveal this information or, like Word 5.0, make you jump through hoops to get it.

A number of interesting preferences can be set. You can have backup and autosave of documents. The autosave, which is regulated by number of characters typed (though one would like a combination of that and time and actions, since you don't type much when making a lot of editing changes), can save the original file, a .bak file, and even a copy of the original file to another location of the hard drive. Under System 7 there is a clever trick to make Nisus save its secondary documents in the Trash, where they'll stay until you consciously delete them: you boot under System 6, select the Trash folder for the secondary save, and then save the preferences. When you reboot under System 7 again, Nisus will stuff those secondary files in the Trash where they'll sit until you throw them out or until you lose an original file. No other program except WordPerfect lets you do this, but it's the ultimate backup technique. The whole autosave milieu is a lot better than Word 5.0 with its auto-reminder that pops up every few minutes and asks you if you want to save. "Of course I want to save, you idiot program!"

You can set the size of the Undo list (important if you are running short of memory). You can supposedly regulate the maximum scroll speed for when you hold down a scroll-arrow but I think this is broken; I couldn't get the actual speed to rise above about 6 lines at a time. Adam also especially appreciates the Auto Indent preference. With this turned on, if you indent a line with a tab or a few spaces and hit <return>, Nisus will automatically indent the next line by the same tab or number of spaces. If you're typing in a list of things, Auto Indent is invaluable. If you want to avoid extra spaces, Nisus can also remove leading and trailing blanks as you type, but Adam admits he finds this a tad disconcerting.

Nisus page headers and footers work in a simple and powerful way. A header (or footer) is considered to be "attached" to a paragraph of the document (actually to the Return at the end of it), and it affects pages only after that paragraph appears, supplanting any earlier header. This means that as part of the act of creating a section heading you could attach a header to the section heading; the header on each page would then reflect the current topic. A given header or footer can be set to appear on all pages, even pages, or odd pages. A minor thing that I dislike is that headers and footers are regarded as inviolate separate regions of the page; they cannot infringe vertically upon the main text, meaning that they are useless for achieving certain layout effects.

Printing in Nisus is remarkably good. The Page Setup dialog lets you dictate a completely custom paper size. The Print dialog lets you print just the odd or even pages, thus making double-sided printing easy, unlike even Word 5.0. Further, the Page Layout window, in addition to extremely flexible facilities for setting or changing the document margins (including a gutter so that the look of left and right pages can mirror each other), includes a Two-Up option which permits two pages to appear on one sheet of paper, automatically rearranging the page order at print time so that if you print on both sides of the paper you will end up with sheets that you can staple in the middle to make a booklet. (You can also cause a frame to appear around every page of a document, but it can only be very rudimentary, and you have only rudimentary control over what it will look like.) If you wish, you can even set a preference so that Nisus prints Last to First.

A Miscellany of Nits

I have said nothing up to now about the manual. I'll try to be brief about this: Unless it has been heavily rewritten since the version that came with Nisus 3.01, the manual is frankly bad. Inconsistencies and errors abound. On one page an option in the find/replace syntax is described as finding any character that is "not alphabetic, nor diacritical, nor underscore" when in fact it does find underscores; there are about ten more such errors on that page, which I had to straighten out by trial and error. Explanations are frequently written in a weird, substandard English. Paragon seems to need an academic professional both to advise it on features for Nisus and to rewrite the manual. Say, guys, for a small consulting fee At least Paragon ships a couple of small reference booklets to the macro and programming commands, so you don't really have to use the manual much.

[Adam: We'd like to be able to say that the online help is great, but it's really clumsy. Actually, the online help and the manual suffer from the same problem - they were both done entirely in Nisus. Nisus is just not a serious publishing tool. Do you think Microsoft completely does their manuals in Word? Not a chance - for one thing it doesn't do color separations or page impositions. You write a manual in Nisus or Word and then import it into a real page layout program for layout and printing. Same thing goes with the online help. Sure Nisus can do it with a little funky programming, but I'd far rather have a slick custom-programmed (or even HyperCard) help facility. I admire Paragon for using Nisus for everything, but in this case, I'd recommend that they go to a good graphic designer for the manual and whip up a clever help facility in their spare time. Matt didn't mention this, but he whipped up an electronic cheat sheet for a lot of the more obscure commands in Nisus along with the syntax and options for the Find/Replace functions. It's terribly useful little DA - Matt used Bill Steinberg's Text DA - and one which I consider invaluable if you're using macros in particular.]

When you start up Nisus it takes a full 30 seconds (on my LC) from double-clicking the application or a document until it is ready to work. I wouldn't describe this as unconscionably long, but it certainly does mean that when I have something I just want to jot down quickly, or a large text-only document that I just want to look into quickly, I reach for Microsoft Word (or I used to: now Word 5.0 is slow as well). What can these programs be doing all that while?

Nisus is a mighty hog of CPU time when in the foreground, and can even slow things down a bit when in the background because its windows can be a mite slow to redraw. It can also be a mighty RAM hog; your whole document and anything else that has to be open during a project must be in memory all at once, for there is no facility for chaining small documents together. But of course this is only true if you want to work on lots of documents at once or on very large documents; and as Adam points out, considering the amount of memory that Word 5.0 wants and needs, Nisus no longer looks like such a RAM hog with its 700K minimum request. Perhaps one should call Nisus a RAM snob; if you need to use cross-referencing, you're only going to write a book with Nisus if you've got the money to buy the RAM to hold the whole thing.

Nisus Conclusions

Adam and I each get a separate say here, since our differing uses for a computer give us differing orientations on Nisus (though we are in agreement over the details of Nisus's strengths and weaknesses).

[Matt] For large documents with layout needs such as tables, Nisus cannot compete with Word. But it is perfect for what I bought it for: conversion of documents from other formats into Mac format. On the other hand one would rather compose the basic text of a document in Nisus than in any other word processor I know. In fact, Nisus's find-and-replace and macro facilities are so handy and powerful, and its Rulers and Styles so convenient, that one is actually tempted to use it also as a sort of front end for Microsoft Word: Nisus can read Microsoft Word files with some small loss of information, and (surprisingly) can write files as Microsoft Word 3.0, again with some loss of information. (It can also read MacWrite I files and carry formatted text across to MacWrite via the clipboard.) It can actually be worth the slight loss of information across the boundaries to convert a document from Word into Nisus, edit it, and convert it back again.

[Adam] Since I don't create formal documents as Matt does, I don't use Word at all. In the past I used Word occasionally to convert those Fast-Saved documents that Nisus couldn't open. Now I don't even have to do that, because there is a completely undocumented feature in Nisus 3.06. If you have Claris's XTND translators installed and hold down the option key when opening a file, Nisus will open any document for which you have a translator. Since there is an XTND package available for anonymous FTP on, I recommend that anyone who has had to deal with different document formats in Nisus check it out. In addition, if your XTND translator has export capability (not all do, I gather) you can do an option-Save As to export a Nisus file to another file format using XTND!

[Matt] But although I love Nisus's look-and-feel, and give its creators an A for effort in their rethinking of how a word processor can operate on the Mac, the point I keep returning to is that despite my genuine longing to use Nisus as my sole word processor of choice, I cannot. Things that I find constantly necessary that are easy in Word - the writing and appearance of footnotes, placing paragraphs in complex ways, tables and side-by-side paragraphs - are clumsy, difficult, or downright impossible in Nisus. These things won't change until Paragon recognizes the problems and makes time to fix them, something which can be difficult for a small company that provides at least seven different language versions of its software. Those of us who want a word processor with the features needed to write a book without the expense of a full page-layout program are going to have to go on, for better or for worse, riding a different train. But don't forget: I wouldn't be writing these words if I didn't love so much about Nisus as to wish fervently that it would fix its tables and footnotes and beat the pants off the Microsoft juggernaut.

[Adam] Here's where Matt and I differ most strongly. I agree the footnote facilities could be lots better, and there are some quirks with the way styles and rulers interact at times, but when it comes right down to it those are document processing and page layout features. I feel that Paragon added those features to compete in the advertising check box wars with Word, not because they wanted to make Nisus into a serious page layout tool. Nisus is and always has been a text processor, not an document processing tool.

The Mac helped break down the classical division between writers and printers, and that was good, but it doesn't mean that the division should be taken to the extreme so that every writer must also be a graphic designer and a printer. For those that dabble in it, like me, Nisus will do a little page layout and I find that I can use the graphics feature solely for my graphics needs. True designers seldom use anything less powerful than PageMaker or Quark XPress or FrameMaker for good reason - today's do-it-all word processors can't compare. However, if you need to produce formal documents and need sophisticated text entry and manipulation features, no one program can do that right now. Perhaps you should use Nisus as a front-end to Word, as Matt is tempted to do, or perhaps you should use Nisus along with FrameMaker, although that's more time and money than you may want to invest in the final document. Nisus just won't do it all now - so send your suggestions to Paragon. But should Nisus do it all?

I applaud Paragon's unique approach in writing a program that is not just another word processor because a large portion of the time spent creating any document must perforce be spent writing it. We need better writing tools and Paragon has provided that. I'm even willing to jump to the other side of the fence and suggest that they should strip out the graphics and the Place Page feature and all those things that are merely lip service to the great god of desktop publishing. Rulers and styles can stay, because although you'd think they are only for formatting a document for printing, they do have plenty of other uses in manipulating and editing text that are not initially obvious. [Matt: And in a way I agree; my whole point is that Paragon should either make its bells and whistles fully useful or eliminate them altogether.] I'm sure that Paragon is considering these comments and those from other users seriously and will deal with many of them in future versions of Nisus, although I have no idea when we might see that next version.

Nisus's true calling will come when Nisus XS, the module for 3.06 that will enable full AppleEvents and interapplication communication, ships sometime this spring. What I'd like to see is all those programs that require sometime significant amounts of text editing, QuickMail, uAccess, FileMaker, PageMaker, etc., all link to Nisus's text editing and manipulation tools so we can have an advanced writing environment no matter where we're writing. Too many programs use Apple's limited TextEdit routines. Let's face it, Nisus stands no chance of taking over the word processing market from Word, but it would be an incredible coup if suddenly all the major programs could link to Nisus and use its full power in whatever context made sense. I congratulate Paragon on providing a program that stands out, a program with a difference, and I encourage them to continue on their unique and often misunderstood path.

Nisus Details

Nisus 3.06
Paragon Concepts
990 Highland Dr., Suite 312
Solana Beach CA 92075

Price and Availability: -- Nisus is readily available from most mail order houses for approximately $250. Educational discounts for $99 are available directly from Paragon, and sidegrade offers may also be available directly from Paragon if you already own another word processor. Contact Paragon for more information.

Non-profit, non-commercial publications and Web sites may reprint or link to articles if full credit is given. Others please contact us. We do not guarantee accuracy of articles. Caveat lector. Publication, product, and company names may be registered trademarks of their companies. TidBITS ISSN 1090-7017.

Previous Issue | Search TidBITS | TidBITS Home Page | Next Issue