Flex the power of TextEdit

10 December, 2007
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Everyone writes. Whether you draft reports, make grocery lists, or author scholarly works, the tool you use for text may be the most important program on your Mac. Some people need a full-featured word processor, such as Microsoft Word, especially if they use advanced features like revision tracking, comments, or footnotes. But you already have a capable word processor that might fit your needs — Mac OS X’s TextEdit. Here are some of the surprisingly advanced things it can do.

Work with Word Files.

If you receive Word files from colleagues or friends, and you don’t own Microsoft’s ubiquitous word processor, TextEdit makes it possible for you to open and in many cases edit those documents. Since OS X 10.3, TextEdit has been able to open and save documents in Word (.doc) format. The version that comes with OS X 10.4 can also handle Word XML (.xml) format.

When you open a Word document in TextEdit, you will see text, and even tables, with their original formatting. However, TextEdit won’t display graphics, footnotes, endnotes, headers, or footers (see the illustrations “From Word to TextEdit”). It won’t display tracked changes, but it will show comments at the end of the document. And if the document contains a table of contents or any other linked or repeating text that uses Word’s field codes, you will see some strange numbers and letters in the text (for example, PAGEREF _Toc11153167 \h 6).

When you’re done working on a document, select File: Save and choose from the options in the File Format pop-up menu. Word Format is compatible with Word 2004 and earlier on the Mac, and Word 2003 and earlier on Windows. Word XML Format is compatible with Word 2007 for Windows or later. Your best bet is often the Rich Text Format (RTF) option, which almost any word processor can read.

Create tables.

Say you want to make a list of items you’re selling on eBay, showing their names, conditions, and prices, as well as some notes for each item. You could format this information with tabs, but it won’t look perfect, since tabs can float around when you edit the text. A table ensures that each section stays in place, making the text easier to read and edit. No problem: TextEdit does tables, too.

Choose the Format: Text: Table command to display the Table palette. Use this tool to determine the number of rows and columns, as well as the alignment of text and its position within a cell. You can also set border colours and pick coloured backgrounds for the entire table or for individual cells (see the screenshot “Uncover the Table tool”).

If you select multiple cells, you can merge them (creating a single cell from two other cells, for instance) or split them (if you have previously merged them). You can also nest tables — that is, add a table within a table cell. Once you’ve created your table, just click inside a cell and start typing; you can format text within each cell as you like.

Make formatted lists.
Lists keep you on track. Whether your list is a breakdown of the day’s tasks or the chapters of a book, special formatting can make it easier to scan by organising items and subitems. TextEdit offers several automatic list formats, and you can also create custom prefixes, suffixes, and more.

First, make sure you’re in Rich Text mode. Choose the Format menu; if you see Make Plain Text in that menu, then you’re in Rich Text mode. If not, choose Make Rich Text, or press c-shift-T. If you don’t see a ruler at the top of the TextEdit window, press c-R.

This ruler contains several pop-up menus, including Styles, Spacing, and Lists. The Lists menu lets you choose from a number of list prefixes — letters, numbers, bullets, dashes, and more. Choose one of these and start typing, or choose Other to set your own prefixes.

When you reach the end of an item, press return and type the next item. You’ll see that each line adopts the formatting you selected. What’s more, if you chose letters or numbers as prefixes, they will increment with each new line. To turn off list formatting, press return twice at the end of a line; this returns you to normal text mode.

Find what you need.

TextEdit, like all text editors and word processors, has a Find function that lets you search for and replace text. This is useful, for example, if you need to replace every instance of the word email in your document with e-mail. Press ^Command^-F to display the Find dialog box, enter the text you’re seeking, enter a replacement, and then click on Replace All to substitute one word or phrase for another. This dialog box also has some hidden functions.

For instance, what if you just want to see all occurrences of your search string? Hold down the control key, and the Replace All button changes to Select All. Click on this button, and TextEdit will highlight every occurrence of the text.

You can also use the Find box to find and replace text within a selection. If you want to replace all occurrences of a certain word in one or two paragraphs, for example, select those paragraphs. Then, in the Find box, enter your text strings in the search and replace fields. Hold down the option key, and the Replace All button changes to In Selection. Click on that button, and the find operation will look through only the selected text.

Work with styles.
Styles make document formatting more consistent, streamline the process of tweaking your text’s look, and make it easy to update formatting. Use the Styles menu on the ruler to put styles into action in your TextEdit documents.

The Styles menu contains some basic character styles, such as Bold, Italic, and Shadowed — but you can do much more complex formatting with paragraph styles, which contain font, formatting, alignment, and line-spacing information. For example, you needn’t fuss over formatting addresses each time you write a formal letter — just make a style with all the settings and apply it whenever you need it.

To create a style, you format a paragraph, select its text, and then choose Other from the Styles menu. Select Add To Favorites; then, in the sheet that appears, enter a name and choose from a couple of other options. If you select Include The Font As Part Of The Style, your new style will apply the font along with the character style, alignment, and spacing. Selecting the Include The Ruler As Part Of The Style option will save tabs and margins along with your formatting. In most cases, you’ll want to select both options. Once you’ve added a style, it will appear in your Styles menu. Just select some text and choose the style to apply the formatting.

Select exactly what you want.

Do you need to italicise a bunch of non-consecutive words? Double-click on a word to select it, and then hold down the c key and double-click on another word. This highlights the two words, no matter where they are. You can do the same thing with longer chunks of text by clicking and dragging; select one sentence here and another there, and then apply any formatting you want.

Another trick is to select a rectangular area — this is useful if you want to select one column of a table or a tabbed list, or if you’d like to remove a column of angle brackets (>) in text you pasted from an e-mail message.

To do this, hold down the option key and drag around the area you want to select; this highlights the text within that area.

Include active hyperlinks.
Active hyperlinks in documents provide a real convenience. You don’t have to copy and paste these addresses into your browser to see the web page; just click on them and they open.
To create an active hyperlink, type the name of a web page, select it, and choose Format: Text: Link. Type in the URL, and then click on OK. To edit or remove the URL later, control-click on the link and select Edit Link, and then change or delete the link in the sheet and click on OK. Note that you can also use this contextual menu to open a URL quickly even when it’s not an active link. (It must be a complete URL — http://www.apple.com/au, for example.) Select the address, control-click on it, and from the menu choose Open URL.

Autocomplete complex words.

Have you forgotten how to spell sesquipedalian? Rather than going to a dictionary to look it up, just start typing the beginning of the word (sesq, for example) and then press the escape key. TextEdit displays a pop-up menu showing all the words that begin with those letters in the built-in OS X dictionary. You can use the up- or down-arrow keys to navigate the list, and then press return or tab to have TextEdit complete the word. Type as many letters as you can at the beginning of a word to get the shortest possible list of choices.

Handy Mail tips
by:Christopher Breen and Rob Griffiths

Whether you’re reading, composing, or searching messages, e-mail dominates the typical workday. These tips can make dealing with Apple’s Mail (bundled with Mac OS X 10.4) a little easier.

Search swiftly.
Looking for all the messages from a particular e-mail address? It’s not necessary to type or copy and paste the address into the search field — just drag a message from that person into the search field. When you do, Mail automatically extracts the address and starts the search as soon as you release your mouse button.
You’re not limited to looking only for messages from the chosen e-mail address. Mail remembers which settings you used the last time you searched (for example, Entire Message, From, To, or Subject). When your results appear, take a quick look at which button is selected above the message list and click on a different one if necessary.

Try some shortcuts.
When you’re reading a message, hover the cursor over the address or contact name to reveal a small white triangle. Click on this to access a pop-up menu full of helpful options. Choices include Create New Smart Mailbox, Spotlight e-mail address (to find all messages received from and sent to a particular address), Add To Address Book (to add the addressee to your contacts), and more.

Prune your recipients list.
Mail simplifies addressing your e-mail messages by auto-completing some addresses for you. But what if Mail keeps putting in an old one? Choose Window: Previous Recipients to see a list of all the addresses to whom you’ve sent e-mail messages. Select the ones you’d like to remove, and click on the Remove From List button. The selected addresses should no longer appear when you begin typing an e-mail address

Great TextEdit add-ons

While TextEdit is certainly more powerful than most people realise, it may not have every feature you want. Here are some tools that can fill the gap.

TextEdit’s text-manipulation features do not include such niceties as the ability to quickly capitalise entire words, replace straight quotation marks with curly ones, sort paragraphs, remove line breaks, and more. Fortunately, Devon Technologies’ free WordService (see “Hot links”) adds a slew of text-tweaking features to the OS X Services menu (TextEdit: Services).

Use this menu (or keyboard shortcuts) to insert dates in any of several formats, indent text, or trim line endings in files that have extra spaces (these often show up in text from e-mail messages).


Whether you need to tally your word count for a class assignment or for National Novel Writing Month, TextEdit’s lack of a word-count feature can be a pain. Paul Gorman’s free NanoCount (see “Hot links”) fills the void by providing a small floating window that regularly updates the word count of your frontmost TextEdit document. You can even set a target word count, and a progress bar will show how close you are to your goal.

Nisus Thesaurus.
The free Nisus Thesaurus (see “Hot links”) for OS X 10.3.9 and later, from Nisus Software, gives you a multitude of ways to find the right word. Open it as a stand-alone application, or just select a word and access the tool through the Services menu (TextEdit: Services: Nisus Thesaurus). Instead of offering only synonyms and antonyms, Nisus Thesaurus gives you the option to see words that are similar to or the opposite of, or more general or more specific than, your word. You can also look at words that your word forms a part of (for example, bed and bedstead), and more. Built around the WordNet database (see “Hot links”) and containing more than 120,000 words, this tool offers unique ways of finding the mot juste.

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