Originally created 02/23/98

Dolinar: A closer look at Microsoft Works



We're coming up on two years of this column, divided roughly equally into tutorials on how to use a computer and the Internet, called "Computers-101" and "Computers-102," and our just-concluded eight-week recap of all that good stuff.

Where to from here?

Originally, this week would have marked the beginning of a 10-week gig on the latest Web browsers. We've postponed that plan, because we received many requests from readers for more on Microsoft Works; many readers appear totally lost with the number and data modules. So over the next few weeks we're going to try to straighten you out.

Microsoft Works comes free with most computers sold today, but it may be all the program you need. It's a digital Swiss Army knife that combines word processing, a spreadsheet, a database and a communications program.

In the typical computer bundle, this single most valuable piece of software is usually buried deeply in the Start menu, in my computer about as accessible as such gems as the Julia Child cookbook on CD-ROM.

To get at it you need to click on Start, drag to Programs, slide to Microsoft Works folder, then grab the actual Works program. Yuck. (You'll also find a guided tour, Introduction to Works, in the same menu. Take it.)

First off, since we're going to be spending a few weeks with the program, let's excavate Works and put it someplace convenient. Double click on My Computer, open up the C: drive and dig down through the directory tree until you find a folder labeled MSWorks. It may be underneath the programs folder, or it could be a level higher.

Open the folder and make a shortcut to the file labeled MSWorks; then drag the shortcut to the desktop. Also pay attention to how the files are arranged on disk, because we'll revisit this area shortly. Now right-click on the Start menu to open its folder, drag the new shortcut inside and close the folder.

Now, when you click on the Start button, you'll have an immediate link to Works. You could also do this with other programs that you use frequently. When Works starts up, you'll get an opening screen called the Works Task Launcher. This can confuse beginners, so let's consider why it's there and what it's for.

In the Bad Old Days of computing (you know, five or six years ago), programs typically dropped you into a raw, user-unfriendly, blank document and assumed you would figure things out for yourself. In an attempt to make it simpler to get started, Microsoft, among others, created the start-up option of using so-called "task wizards" to create documents by answering a set of questions onscreen.

The good news about wizards is that they can get you up and running quickly. The bad news is that they severely restrict your options, and tend to make you think about Works as a collection of dozens of mini-applications, rather than a general purpose toolbox.

We'd encourage you to play with the wizards, but we're going to show you how to create things from scratch.

The wizards are your first option when you start up Works and get the Task Launcher. Note the tabs at the top of the window. The second option is a tab that lets you call up existing documents. It maintains a chronological list of documents you've created, beginning with the most recent file. This is designed to shield beginners from the "real" directory system of the computer, and to my way of thinking is a lousy idea. It creates the usual Microsoft Mess of giving you multiple confusing options for doing the same thing. More normally, you also can, if you click on the "Open a Document Not Listed Here" button, get a standard Windows directory that lets you look at all the files on your disk (the same directory you get from inside the "File" menu of Works). And if that doesn't ring your chimes, you can click on "Help Me Find a Document" and get the Windows 95 internal search engine.

The third tab, Works Tools, takes you to another menu that lets you start up any of the modules with a fresh document.

Now that you're through the opening screens, we're going to show you how to bypass them in the interests of speed and convenience.

We're going to let you use Windows 95 to manage your files, rather than the more rudimentary features of Works. We're going to make three blank templates, a.k.a. stationery -- one for each of the modules -- and put them into the Start menu. You may not want to keep these shells, but we'll use them in the next few weeks for convenience.

Click on the big button labeled Word Processing, and you'll be dropped into word processing with a blank document in front of you. Go to File, Save As, and when a new window opens, don't name and save the file there.

Instead, click on its Template button. You'll get another window titled "Save a Template" where you name your template and save it. There's a check box there that lets you make this template the one that comes up automatically when you create a new word processing document if you wish. Note that any formatting or text you add in the template will be saved permanently. Save the template.

What happens when you do this is that a copy of the template is automatically saved to the "template" directory, which lies beneath the MSWorks directory you've already opened.

Open the C: drive via My Computer, and dig down to the template directory. Create a shortcut to "Word Processing.wps" (note the file extension) and drag it to the desktop.

As per the original Works shortcut we installed, put the Word Processing shortcut into the top level of the Start Menu folder. You can do the same thing for spreadsheets and for databases, although in the case of the latter, you probably won't create enough of them to justify wasting a high-level menu item on them.

One last bit of housekeeping. When you save a document in Microsoft Works, it can end up in all sorts of weird places if you don't take care. If you load the program directly and create a file from the Task Launcher, the directory that comes up automatically will be the MSWorks directory.

On the other hand, the file you create with a template is saved into the same directory where the original template (not the shortcut) lies. This is sloppy housekeeping on Microsoft's part, and you can and should save the files to a custom directory.

Feel free to set up your computer however you want, but we'll suggest for now that you create a folder on your desktop named "Documents" and then inside it, create three more folders: Word Processing, Spreadsheets, and Databases.

When you save files save them to the appropriate directory. Remember though, if you lose a file, it probably has ended up in the "Template" directory underneath "MSWorks." If you want to get a little tricky, you can move your original templates into the appropriate directory, at which point your new documents will point to that directory for saving. This will come in handy later, when you start to create custom templates for your own specific applications.

Don't forget that you can create new files for each of the Works modules directly from Windows 95, which is often the most convenient way to do things. From inside an open directory window, select "New" from the File menu, and choose whichever data type you wish to create from the list.

This will create a directory entry or icon. Then double click on the new file, and the relevant Works module will come up with the file already loaded.

Next week we'll take a look at templates that come with Works.

E-mail Lou Dolinar at dolinar(at)newsday.com.

Distributed by the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service