|The International Education Webzine
|January 4, 1999
It's getting to be about that time for returning to school for those of you working overseas, and I imagine that many of you teaching back in your home countries are probably putting those visions of a few weeks of rest, food and friends back in a comfortable compartment of your memory and preparing for the start of a new year. This week's article is a nifty little item on using text editors when creating web pages. When I was still teaching (only last year), the question of whether to teach students HTML or let them create web pages on WYSIWYG editor often was hotly debated. David Bucknell makes a case for using a text editor when creating web pages. For those of you teaching computer apps, or those of you who just want to learn how best to create web pages, this article should prove quite thought-provoking. This week's republication of a past article from TIPS will be our last reprint. New cover articles will start next issue.
A grocery list, for example, would look like this:
In your browser, this is rendered as:
Of course you wouldn't have this problem in Netscape Composer or MicroSoft Word, or Claris Works or Word Perfect or any other recently updated word-processor because you'd simply choose the List Tool or Wizard from the button menu and type your list. Why then, is there a need for a text editor at all? There are several reasons; explaining them will form the bulk of this article.
Why use a text editor?
The first and most often used reason is that WYSIWYG editors are still developing: they make mistakes and once they have made one, they can be difficult to correct. As much as I like Composer, for example, as a simple word-processor, I resent its imperious decisions about how to produce vertical space or a tab. It likes to insert the code which means "non-breaking space" quite frequently. While this code is valuable because it creates space without a graphic and without inserting a hard carriage return which can cause unexpected surprises in text formatting, it represents a sort of cure-all approach to page-layout that often creates worse maladies than those it is applied to. The non-breaking space is recognized by the latest browsers, but not everybody is using the latest browsers. Sometimes, a small invisible graphic is a more reliable means of creating white space in any browser that can read graphics. This trick was made popular by the author of Creating Killer Websites, David Siegel. Moreover, sometimes, you just don't want non-breaking spaces or any type of spaces or whatever else the WYSIWYG editor dishes up, but you don't have any control over what it does. It applies these bits of code as if more code whether necessary or not will make beginning Web designers' pages better. It's tempting to think that perhaps this feature is actually intended to frustrate users so much that they resort to learning HTML, but that wouldn't sell more editors, would it? Whatever the motivation, however, until you decide to learn a little HTML and edit the source code with a text editor, you will be at the mercy of your editor.
Most people who say they don't want to learn HTML don't realize how much easier working with text is than working with a new kind of word-processor for Web pages. Hypertext Mark up Language was designed to give authors an easy way to add formatting to their writing and -- this is where the "hyper" comes from -- to connect or link one piece of information to another. The best translation for hyper when discussing HTML is "more," as in more information. When you click on an underlined hyperlink, we are asking to find out more about what the text says. Although one would think from listening to popular talk about the World Wide Web that its main purpose is to replace all the other electronic media we know including television and full-length movies, anyone who uses the Web much knows that the most useful pages (so far anyway), even the 99% that are more colorful than this one, are those with information, most often the written kind. Formatting text in HTML is as easy as adding a <P> whenever you want to start a new paragraph, or a <b>before a word you want to embolden, followed by a </b> to return to un-stylized text. When working in text, you have direct control over what will show up in a browser window, and your creativity is not limited to the tricks your WYSIWYG editor knows. How do you learn HTML? I recommend Alan Levine's HTML Tutorial available from Maricopa Community College at http://www.mcli.dist.maricopa.edu/tut/lessons.html. This and other tutorials like it will help you move from a beginner to an intermediate-level Web author. Mr. Levine has made the entire tutorial downloadable as a compressed archive which you can expand and surf right on your own computer as you teach yourself to make pages.
The most ironic thing about WYSIWYG editors is that in the name of simplicity, they add a cumbersome extra interface to Web authoring. As with all computer authored environments, browers show readers something like what they represent. By reading pages written in HTML, they render a version of what the author intended the pages to appear as. A Web page author well-versed in HTML has a limited number of tools and tricks by which he or she can describe pages. With a little creativity, however, an author can create a page that a browser will render to the viewer-reader as a well-formatted "page" -- like a page from a book or a magazine. Here's the irony of a WYSIWYG editor's supposed simplicity: the editor's job is to create a page that is like the one a browser will render which is like the one the author intended. Where is the simplicity in this arrangement? These editors are slow and resource hungry. When we purchase Web page editors that cannot do more than we can with html, then we are wasting our money. When we buy a text editor with some helpful text arrangement and search tools, then we can write good, clean pages and view them in our browsers -- the version 4 browsers have off-line modes that let us work on sites exactly like those we will put on line without worrying that the phone will dial every time we reload or refresh to see the results of a change. Browsers browse well; they are still in their infancy when it comes to acting as editors as well.
To make a page in a text editor is to experiment. First we format the text with HTML, add links to graphic files and link our pages together. Then we view the results in our browsers. If we don't like what we see, then we return to the editor and change the code. It's a process of experimentation where the stakes are low: when we make a bad choice, we can repair it immediately with no harm done. Nothing blows up and best of all, the ram requirements made on our computers are low: two programs, the text editor and the browser must be open, and the WYSIWYG editor, which is essentially a second browser, is unnecessary.
One of the best ways to learn how to make pages is to choose "View Source" from the menu bar in your browser. Most of us who make pages started learning by looking at the source of pages we admired, and then emulating them. I can't over-stress the importance of this means of learning from others for anyone remotely interested in going further than a WYSIWYG editor can take you. You can do the same thing by moving from Note Pad or Simple Text to a good text editor. They can be like your personal tutors. When you choose "New" from the File menu, you can choose a complete basic template of the type of page you wish to make. For example in the king of Mac text editors, BB-Edit, when you choose to make a new page, it gives you something like the following -- like lightning:
<!DOCTYPE HTML PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 3.2 Final//EN">
<TITLE>An HTML Template Example from BB-Edit</TITLE>
<META NAME="generator" CONTENT="BBEdit 4.5">
You see what the basic page layout in HTML is. Similarly you can learn to paragraph, block quote, apply most styles, make frames, add graphics, make forms, add scripts, change colors, or make links -- to name a few. After using a text editor for while, you find that you know html quite well.
This situation is not new, of course. Early word-processors also required users to type in formatting tags similar to those found in HTML. It took a while to develop the smooth word-processors we know and love today. They grew out of the desktop publishing revolution in the 1980's. Now that the paperless publishing revolution is upon us, the desktop publishing tools we are used to are not up to the job. In order to be able to be able to "print" in HTML as well as on paper, these programs must be enlarged. The result is bloatware, the apparently ever-expandable do-it-all desktop publishing tool of the 90's. These programs are so resource hungry, slow and clumsy, that using them makes you yearn for a simpler, more direct tool: Enter the text editor. Text editors are simple, direct and quick.
Most Mac users eventually find that Bare Bones Software's BB-Edit is indispensable. It can open very large files, find and replace in multiple files and folders and, best of all for Web page makers, it has a drop down HTML menu with buttons corresponding to the most common HTML tags. BB-Edit is extremely fast, powerful, and at the same time, unobtrusive. Moreover, because the code it writes is so simple and clean, you never have to clean up after it as you do with WYSIWYG editors.
Windows users find that Allaire's Home Site does the trick. It does not have the same interface as BB-Edit, but it does all the basic HTML tags just as easily and efficiently. I'll let you be the judge of which of these editors is best all-around. My only point is that you should use a text editor and that these two are your best bets.
But don't take my word for it; take note that one of the latest and greatest WYSIWYG editors, Macromedia's Dream Writer, for example, comes bundled with BB-Edit for Macintosh and Home Site for Windows.
Are you already familiar with all of the above? Then perhaps you'll be ready to try out the demos available on-line of the the programs below. But don't throw away that text editor just yet.
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