Over the past several months, a number of businesspeople have contacted me with questions about word processing -- some wonder which system or make to buy; others want to know how to communicate from one system to another. Since many of you probably have some of the same concerns, I've listed the questions I've been asked most frequently, along with my answers.

Q: Which word processor should I buy?
These days you can choose from dozens of microcomputer word-processing programs, which run the gamut from light-duty programs designed for home or school use to heavy-duty programs for tackling the most complex documents. For business your best bet is a medium-to heavy-duty program.

Medium-duty programs can easily handle typical business documents -- letters, memos, reports, and so on -- but they don't have all the editing and formatting features that enable you to work on several documents simultaneously, process graphics along with text, number footnotes automatically, create an index, or print more than one column on a page. All heavy-duty programs, on the other hand, boast these features and then some. Indeed, heavy-duty programs have more features than most people will ever use and can be difficult to learn and work with.

For medium-duty word processing on IBM PCs or clones, I recommend Q&A Write. For heavy-duty work, try WordPerfect or Microsoft Word. These two programs are developing faster than their competitors and now lead the market; neither is particularly easy to learn.

All Macintosh word processors, heavy-duty or otherwise, are easier to learn and use than their PC counterparts, so there's no real training advantage to lighter-duty programs. I recommend, in order of increasing complexity, WriteNow, Nisus, and Microsoft Word. WriteNow, which falls somewhere between medium- and heavy-duty, is the easiest to learn. Microsoft Word for the Mac, which is quite different from the PC version, offers the most document-formatting options, and because it is so popular, more accessory programs can be used with it. Nisus, my own preference, has the best editing features. You can, for example, undo any of your past several hundred changes; competing programs can undo only one change at most.

When all is said and done, however, forget about features; forget about price. Instead, choose the program that you can get help with at midnight on a Sunday when you have a proposal due at eight o'clock on Monday morning. In other words, choose the word processor used by your most technically astute friend who will be civil if you call at an uncivil hour. Having someone who can answer questions when you are really stuck far outweighs everything else about a program.

Q: When will we see Macintosh-style graphics word processing on the PC?
A few programs are already available for IBM PCs, but so far they are weak. Digital Research Inc. sells GEM 1st Word Plus for its graphics operating environment; this word processor lacks such basic features as reformatting paragraphs automatically after insertions or deletions. When you buy Microsoft Windows, the leading PC graphics environment, you get a copy of Microsoft Write, a bare-bones program. Samna's Amí is a more advanced word processor for Windows; it can create complex pages much more easily than the IBM PC versions of Microsoft Word or WordPerfect. Although it cannot automatically address and personalize form letters and lets you edit only one document at a time, it does point the way to more sophisticated programs that will appear later this year.

Q: Since my word-processing program lets me put graphics and text on the same page, is there any reason I would need a page-makeup program?
Maybe not. Some word processors and all page-makeup programs let you mix text, pictures, and decorative elements in the same document, but page-makeup programs offer a fuller range of layout tools and options for arranging the components of a page exactly where you want them. The page, rather than the document, is the working unit of a page-makeup program. This means that you can print two separate documents on one page and continue those documents independently on a following page, something word processors can't do. In other words, a heavy-duty word processor might enable you to put together a complex and good-looking report, but it won't help if you're trying to print a newsletter or a newspaper. For that you need a page-makeup program.

Q: Our office uses WordPerfect for word processing, but a branch office uses MultiMate. How can we use WordPerfect to edit their MultiMate documents and vice versa?
Because no two programs share computer file formats, every word-processing program stores document-formatting information (page breaks, columns, footnotes, and so on) differently, making it difficult to transfer documents intact. The best way to exchange files -- short of convincing everybody to use the same word processor -- is to use a file-conversion program, which translates one file format into another. Software Bridge can convert files among 16 popular IBM PC word processors, including MultiMate and WordPerfect. Because word processors have different features, file-conversion programs cannot always do an ideal job, but they are much more effective than using plain-text (ASCII) files to move the information. With a plain-text file, all formatting information is lost and has to be restored manually once the document is transferred.

Q: What about converting files from an IBM PC to a Macintosh program?
This involves two steps: first, moving the document from the PC to the Mac, then converting the file format. MacLinkPlus and LapLink Mac offer the simplest way to move files: a cable connecting the serial ports on both machines. MacLinkPlus also lets you connect two machines in different locations using modems and a telephone line. Both packages come with connecting cable and file-conversion programs for several word processors. MacLinkPlus is controlled from the Macintosh side and is easier to use than LapLink Mac, which is operated from the PC side. File conversion is not necessary with all word processors; Microsoft Word and WordPerfect for the Mac, for example, can read and write documents from their PC namesakes.

If you convert files often, you should consider linking your PCs and Macs in a local area network, which allows quick and simple exchanging of files. The TOPS network is the most cost effective.

Q: How can we convert Wang word-processing files?
If you need to do this regularly, you should install suitable hardware and software for getting microcomputers and Wang systems to talk to one another. M/H Group sells such products for the IBM PC and the Macintosh; DataViz Inc. has a similar product for the Mac. If you need to do the conversion only once from a Wang or other office system, a simpler solution is to use a data-conversion ser-vice, which will have equipment for converting disks and tapes from many different types of computers and software.

Q: Is there an easy way to address envelopes on a laser printer?
Envelopes must be inserted sideways into most laser printers, which means that the address must be printed sideways as well. Some word processors can do this, but many cannot. Two effective programs specifically for printing on envelopes are NVelope for the IBM PC and MacEnvelope for the Mac. These programs take care of printing sideways and such needs as positioning the address correctly on standard-size envelopes. Of course, you could avoid printing on envelopes altogether by using window envelopes. Then all you need to do is set up your letters so that the inside address shows through the window.

Q: How can we include equations in our documents?
The programs Exact for the IBM PC and Expressionist for the Macintosh let you create an equation and plop it into your document without leaving your word-processing program; both are compatible with most word processors. Two general-purpose programs with built-in equation generation are Lotus Manuscript for the PC and Microsoft Word for the Mac. If you create a lot of equations, you should look into Tex, an equation-processing system popular in the academic world; it is available as PC Tex for the PC and Textures for the Mac.

Q: Are grammar programs helpful?
Programs that check writing style and grammar are still primitive. They look for a fixed set of common problems -- stock phrases indicating wordy prose, repeated words, or sexist language. If you write "in view of the fact that," for example, the program might suggest "because." At best, these programs are only moderately useful. You're almost always better off asking someone with a good eye and ear for the language to go over your document with you.

Q: To get a report typeset by our local printer, we have to deliver it on paper, and then someone retypes everything. We have to pay for this retyping, proofread the pages, and pay for corrections. How can we avoid such expense and trouble?
Find another print shop. Many printers can accept word-processor files on disk or via modem, so you should be able to proofread and correct your work before it is typeset. The electronic link is not always the fastest; for short, highly formatted documents, retyping can be quicker. But ordinary documents should never have to be retyped by the printer.


Where to go for additional information

If you'd like to find out more about the products mentioned, you can contact the following companies:

Amí: Samna Corp., 5600 Glenridge Drive, Atlanta GA 30342; (404) 851-0007

Exact: Technical Support Software Inc., 72 Kent Street, Brookline MA 02146; (617) 734-4130

Expressionist: Allan Bonadio Associates, 814 Castro Street, San Francisco CA 94114-2809; (415) 282-5864

GEM 1st Word Plus: Digital Research Inc., P.O. Box DRI, Monterey CA 93942; (408) 649-3896

LapLink Mac: Traveling Software Inc., 18702 North Creek Parkway, Bothell WA 98011; (206) 483-8088

Lotus Manuscript: Lotus Development Corp., 55 Cambridge Parkway, Cambridge MA 02142; (617) 577-8500

MacEnvelope: Synex, 692 10th Street, Brooklyn NY 11215; (718) 499-6293

MacLinkPlus: DataViz Inc., 35 Corporate Drive, Trumbull CT 06611; (203) 268-0030

Microsoft Word, Microsoft Windows, Microsoft Write: Microsoft Corp., 16011 Northeast 36th Way, Box 97017, Redmond WA 98073; (206) 882-8080

Nisus: Paragon Concepts Inc., 990 Highland Drive, Suite 312, Solana Beach CA 92075; (619) 481-1477

NVelope: Paul Mace Software Inc., 400 Williamson Way, Ashland OR 97520; (503) 488-0224

PC Tex: Personal Tex Inc., 12 Madrona Avenue, Mill Valley CA 94941; (415) 388-8853

Q&A Write: Symantec Corp., 10201 Torre Avenue, Cupertino CA 95014-2132; (408) 253-9600

Software Bridge: Systems Compatibility Corp., 401 North Wabash, Suite 600, Chicago IL 60611; (312) 329-0700

Textures: Blue Sky Research, 534 Southwest 3d Avenue, Portland OR 97204; (800) 622-8398

TOPS: Sun Microsystems Inc., TOPS Division, 950 Marina Village Parkway, Alameda CA 94501; (415) 769-9669

Wang conversion packages: M/H Group, 222 West Adams Street, Chicago IL 60606; (312) 443-1222

WordPerfect: WordPerfect Corp., 1555 North Technology Way, Orem UT 84057; (801) 225-5000

WriteNow: T/Maker Co., 1390 Villa Street, Mountain View CA 94041; (415) 962-0195