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ATPM 17.07
July 2011


How To



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How To

by Sylvester Roque,

Make the Most of TextEdit

I’ve had TextEdit, or its predecessor SimpleText, on every Mac I’ve ever owned. That’s not unusual given that it is pre-installed on every Mac. I tried removing it a few times, but loading behemoth word processors just to open a Read Me file didn’t make sense. After a few days, I’d declare the experiment a failure and reinstall TextEdit.

Sometimes I went several days without opening TextEdit. When there was real work to be done I wanted a real, “full-featured” word processor. Well, I must admit, that when it comes to what you can do with the current version of TextEdit I was wrong. TextEdit is quite versatile and can probably do more than you expected. Let’s explore a few of its capabilities.

What’s on the Menu?

One of the prejudices I have to get over when using TextEdit is that I expect some type of ribbon or toolbar with all of the formatting options—à la Microsoft Word and others. The problem is that TextEdit’s interface is a bit more spartan than that. Open a new document in TextEdit and the familiar ribbons, toolbars, and buttons I’ve come to expect in modern word processors aren’t there. Most of the features are, but the buttons aren’t. In order to access these features, you need to know what’s in the menus. Rather than go through each menu item, let’s take a look at some that you might find useful.

The File menu contains most of the file opening and saving commands expected in a basic word processor. In addition to text, rich text, and OpenText document formats, TextEdit also open .doc and .docx files from Microsoft Word. If you receive a Word document but don’t have Word installed, this might be just the feature you need.

One of the features I forget about in TextEdit is the “Save As PDF…” option that’s also found in the File menu. You can create basic from most Mac OS X applications by choosing Print, clicking the PDF button, and choosing “Save as PDF.” TextEdit’s “Save As PDF” option skips a few mouse clicks by going directly to a save dialog.

You Actually Want to Edit Something Before You Save It?

Let’s face it: everyone makes mistakes, and most documents need at least one revision. If you’re editing a document, TextEdit has some nice features for that as well.

If you create documents with many hyperlinks, you’ll appreciate this feature. Choosing “Add Link” from the Edit menu brings up a sheet into which you can paste a hyperlink. When the sheet is closed, a properly formatted link appears in your document. Although you can also use the keyboard shortcut (Command-K), that’s not my favorite way to insert links. Drag a Web link from Safari’s address bar into your TextEdit document and the link appears properly formatted.

In addition to the usual Copy, Cut, and Paste commands, the Edit menu contains an entry called Substitutions. From here, you can control the use of Smart Quotes, Smart Dashes, and Smart Links, among others. The options that are currently enabled are checked.

Enabling Data Detectors from this menu allows TextEdit to use the data detection features also used by many other Apple applications. With data detection enabled, TextEdit looks for contact-related data as you type. Enter an address or phone number, and the program outlines the data with a popup menu. From that menu, you can create or update a contact, view a map, or view an enlarged version of the contact information. Enter a date and time with data detection enabled, and it is treated the same way. Instead of contact information you get iCal-related options for editing and creating events.

Before we leave the text-editing functions behind, there are two other features that shouldn’t be missed. In the version of TextEdit included with Snow Leopard, a Transformations item has been added to the Edit menu. This is an easy way to make the selected text all uppercase, all lowercase, or capitalized (the first letter of each word is capitalized). There isn’t an option yet to apply sentence case (the first word of each sentence is capitalized), as far as I can tell. I don’t use these options often, but it’s nice to know they’re there.

TextEdit can also create lists and tables with relative ease. The List and Table menu commands are found as separate items in the Format menu. Basic tools for creating these items are there and behave in much the way as they do in other word processors.

There are many more features in TextEdit that make it extremely useful, including basic support for styles, as well as the spell checking and dictionary options that we’ve come to expect in so many Mac OS X applications. If you really want to delve into some of the features we don’t have time to discuss now, give Marius Masalar’s Discover The Hidden Power of TextEdit a read.

I knew some of Marius’s tips, but I didn’t know about this one, and it’s almost enough to make me switch word processors right now. If you are a horrible speller, or just a bad typist as I am, try the auto-complete feature in TextEdit. Type part of a word and press the Esc key. A list of words beginning with the letters you’ve typed appears. You can navigate the list using the arrow keys or type more letters and refresh the list by hitting Escape again. Forget useful, this feature was just plain fun the first time I used it.

What’s Missing?

One of the problems I’ve always had with the various incarnations of TextEdit is setting margins for new documents. It’s one of the reasons I why usually use a “serious” word processor. There is a solution, but you’ll need access to a full-featured word processor that gives you control over a document’s margins. Open a blank document in another word processor and set the document’s margins the way you like. Save the file in Rich Text format. You can now open that document in TextEdit and form a template of sorts for any documents needing the same margins. I would love to take credit for this idea, but I actually read it here.

This tip also solved another problem for me. TextEdit seemed to always open new documents with tiny font sizes on my system. Fixing the problem meant a trip to the Format menu to set a new font and size. While testing the previous hint about saving margins in a template I created a document with the font and size I prefer. I then saved the document in Rich Text Format and opened it in TextEdit. The new font and size were preserved. No more trips to the Format menu just to set the font size for every new document. I could also have changed this setting by going to the program’s preferences and changing the rich text font in the New Document tab.

Like easily set margins, Word Count is another feature conspicuously absent from TextEdit. Word Count is important for many writers trying to meet specific requirements. If this missing feature is stopping you from using TextEdit, you might want to, try NanoCount. Kudos to Marius Masalar for finding this solution.

Many writers often find it helpful to work from an outline. Since I usually write documents from templates, I had never tried to write an outline using TextEdit. In fact, your first instinct would be to say it can’t be done. But the solution is astonishingly simple: press Option and Tab simultaneously to put the program in outline mode. You can now use the Tab and Return keys to quickly navigate through a basic outline.

What Else Can You Do?

TextEdit is primarily a text reader/editor, but that’s not all it can do. The basic document creation and editing features are in the menus, but you’re not limited to text-only documents.

Suppose you want to send someone a document with some text, the contents of a PDF, a picture or two, and a short video clip. There may be no need to launch a behemoth word processor or page layout program, or to send multiple files to be opened in different programs. Give TextEdit a chance to build your document. In the course of testing TextEdit for this article, I have dropped text, PDFs, images, and video clips into a new document. TextEdit handled all of these files easily. It places the object at the current insertion point. Instead of a true word wrap, it treats the object as though it were a large text element.

Did You Know TextEdit Can Speak?

Speech functions have been part of the Mac’s capabilities for some time now. VoiceOver and speech recognition are invaluable tools for some users. Well, TextEdit also makes good use of your Mac’s speech capabilities. How would you like to have a document read to you? It’s as simple as opening a document in TextEdit, selecting the text to be spoken, and choosing Edit ‣ Speech ‣ Start Speaking. If you don’t like the voice TextEdit is using, open the Speech pane in System Preferences and choose a different system voice and rate of speech.

If you find this feature useful and would like to batch process files into your own “mini audiobook” it should be possible using AppleScript or Automator. I’m working out a kink or two in the process, and I will post the results when the problem is solved. If you would like to try this on your own, read the comments by chrischarm and ephramz in this thread.

Final Thoughts

Given that I have used other word processors for so long, you might be wondering why I took a look at TextEdit at all. First, it fits splendidly with the theme of this series: before you buy other software, take a serious look at the software already installed on your Mac. It might meet your needs nicely. Second, TextEdit often loads faster than its larger word processor cousins. On my MacBook Pro, for example, TextEdit opens to a blank document in about two seconds. Some word processors haven’t even gotten past the splash screen at this point.

That’s it for this month. Thanks to Professor Michel Clasquin-Johnson for suggesting this article. Next month, we’ll look at a few remaining items in the Utilities folder, examine the iLife suite, or get a first impression of Lion, depending on when it’s released.

Also in This Series

Reader Comments (5)

Salvatore Quartararo · July 2, 2011 - 07:29 EST #1
Great article! I also use TE to write fast HTML simple pages.
Sylvester Roque (ATPM Staff) · July 2, 2011 - 12:16 EST #2
Thank you. I read about that feature but have not had an opportunity to test it. TE will also let you change the writing direction to right to left if needed.
Valter Viglietti · July 2, 2011 - 22:37 EST #3
Talking about smart text editors, I love iText. I find it much more friendly than TE, and more useful (and it's free). Even after reading all this new stuff about TE, I'd go for iText anyday. :-)
Heather Isaacson · October 31, 2011 - 22:13 EST #4
I like text edit. I use it for ideas.
it is quick to open. I have nothing to set up before typing.
If I want to save a poem or something I've composed on facebook, or chat, I just copy and paste it on text Edit, pictures and all.
It has enough features for me to get the complete idea writen down. I can rewrite the idea, and save. I can copy and paste into pages if I decide to expand on that idea.
It is a great little program to save sticky note ideas.
I can file them and open to use any time. I hope they never take it off Mac computers.
The only problem is if it is a large idea. It will squash everything on one page, if I decide to print. Sometimes it will be less that # 7 size print.
Michael Tsai (ATPM Staff) · November 1, 2011 - 12:38 EST #5
Heather, to prevent TextEdit from trying to squeeze the entire window width into the page width, go to the Format menu and choose “Wrap to Page.”

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