FrameMaker and Word: One User's Perspective
April, 2001 - This is a long overdue update of this article, which I originally
wrote in 1999. Changes since the last version are indicated by green
I've been working with FrameMaker
on a daily basis for about 3 years, both in my current job at Daleen
Technologies and prior to that at Solect Technology Group. Prior to Solect,
I was working at Dow Jones Markets (now a part of Bridge Communications), where
I used Word pretty much exclusively. At Dow Jones Markets, I was able to take
a couple of FrameMaker courses and do some document conversion (Word to Frame
and vice versa), so I wasn't a complete novice with FrameMaker when I moved
to Solect and had to start using FrameMaker intensively.
I now manage a documentation group of three writers; all of us use FrameMaker
6 and WebWorks Publisher 5 to produce printed and online documentation.
Prior to working with FrameMaker, I was a (reasonably)
happy user of Microsoft Word. I've used it since Word for DOS 2.0. Over the
last decade, the program has evolved into a powerful, intuitive writing tool
that deserves its commanding hold on the marketplace. Word 2000
is an excellent tool for writing and editing. But as good as it is (and in most
respects Word 2000 is very good), Word has definite
limitations when it comes to working with long, complex technical documents
-- the type of documents that technical writers have to produce.
My opinion: FrameMaker is best suited
to big documents or documents that consist of many files. However, Word is friendlier
and much easier to edit with. After using Word 2000,
working with FrameMaker feels like stepping back to 1992. While FrameMaker generally
deserves its reputation for being able to handle large complex documents,
I still believe that almost anything that you can do in Frame you can
also do in Word, if you know Word well enough. Some job requirements (colour
separations, for example) may require you to use Frame, but in many other areas
the distinction is not so clear cut and Word's ease of use and macro capabilities
may balance Frames superior cross-referencing and multiple file support.
You will see below that most of my complaints about Frame have to do with lack
of features and its dated interface. I can't imagine using Word to do some of
the documents that I've produced in the last couple of
years, or to produce the volume of work that my group has done. On the
other hand, I've wasted much time working around Frame's
limitations (lack of HTML import, for example) or performing repetitive tasks
that would have been trivial to automate in Word.
It's unfortunate that there isn't more competition in the long document publishing
area. FrameMaker is just about the only realistic option there. If Adobe had
more competition, they might be inclined to speed up the glacially slow pace
of FrameMaker upgrades. As it is, I use Frame because there isn't an alternative.
I am keeping an eye on the Linux/open source community. It's
clear that the future of technical publishing will involve content management
tools, probably using some variant of XML or SGML. KWord, for example, is one
tool that's worth watching - although it doesn't appear to have any content
management features, at least its native format is XML.
Read on and see what you think. Comments are welcome..
These are things that I especially like about FrameMaker:
- Cross referencing is much easier in Frame than in Word. You can easily cross
reference across documents. You can also set up custom cross-reference formats;
i.e., you can have Frame put in the quote marks and the words `on page' in
a cross-reference of the format, see "Cross-reference" on page 10.
- Spell-checking allows personal, document, and site dictionaries. All of
these are editable (though I should add, that on the
occasion that I did try to edit the spelling dictionary following the instructions
in the manual, Frame would not accept the edits).
- Table formats can be customized and saved. This makes it possible to create
a new table in one step, complete with a numbered caption and all cells formatted
with the proper paragraph formats and rulers. This is a major time-saver.
Large tables don't seem to have any affect on document performance, as they
do in Word.
- The paragraph and character format selection lists can be left open as windows,
resized, and placed on-screen as is convenient.
- You can apply a graphic (i.e., a logo) to a paragraph style. This is
useful for things like "Warning" paragraphs, where you can
apply the symbol with the paragraph.
- Frame handles side heads easily.
- Frame has conditional text, with as many conditions as you can handle. (There
are limitations, see The Bad below).
- Numbering options are much more flexible and more reliable than in Word.
You can also easily define custom series for things like steps. Frame 6 has
built-in variables to handle chapter and volume numbering.
- Export to PDF is straightforward and can create bookmarks, links, and other
- With one exception, Frame seems to be quite a bit faster than Word, both
in screen redraws and in moving around the document, especially in documents
with tables. Printing is faster and there's none of that silly document repagination
that Word loves to do. The exception is refresh of graphics, which is quite
a bit slower than in Word.
- Frame's master pages make it easy to change page layouts within a document.
- You can rotate text in table cells, for example, when you want narrow columns.
(Word can now do this, but text can only be vertical.)
- You can print a rotated page with standard headers, i.e., the text in landscape
mode and the headers and footers in portrait mode. Word can't do this.
- You can easily print lists of just about anything in your document. (You
can do it with Word too, but you'll have to write a macro.)
- Frame has good colour support, including CMYK and Pantone colours. If you
need to use colour in your documentation, Frame wins over Word, hands down.
- Frame supports double-byte character sets, e.g., Japanese.
- In Frame 6, Adobe added a number of cross-book features,
including the ability to search and spell-check a whole book. These features
make dealing with large books much easier and for me, justified the upgrade
from version 5.5.6 to 6.0.
- Although it's not really part of FrameMaker, WebWorks Publisher
is a powerful tool that will give you complete control over your output if
you want to produce HTML, XML, or RTF for help files. MIF2GO is cheaper, easier
to use, but not quite as powerful. Either tool will give far better HTML output
These are things that I don't like because they
work better in Word or features that Frame doesn't have. Items are listed roughly
in order of importance.
- FrameMaker for Windows has no macro capability. This is a major
issue, especially considering the power of the Visual Basic for Applications
that is built into the Microsoft Office products. I've been using Macro Express
to automate some repetitive actions (such as resizing columns in tables) but
it's a poor substitute for a real macro language with hooks into the program's
command set. This is my biggest beef with FrameMaker by a wide margin. There
is an add-on product called FrameScript that hooks into Frame and provides
capabilities similar to VBA. It's not as well integrated
with Frame as VBA is with Word (there's no IDE, for example), but it's about
as powerful otherwise. Adobe really should buy out the company or license
the product and bundle it with Frame. FrameScript is a Windows-specific product,
unfortunately for Mac and UNIX users. On the other hand, Mac users can use
Frame with Applescript and UNIX users have FMBatch.
- Frame doesn't support drag-and-drop text manipulation. The
book window in Frame 6 does allow drag and drop manipulation of files. Frame+SGML
allows drag and drop manipulation of book elements so you can use it to rearrange
paragraphs or list items, for example. This would take place of an outliner,
which is another feature from Word that I really miss.
- Frame doesn't support right-click cut and paste of selected text. If you
right-click in a selection to get the context menu with the cut or paste command,
the selection is lost. You have to go to the Edit menu or use keyboard commands.
It's annoying if you are used to using this in other programs.
- Undo is limited to one action only.
- There is no on-the-fly spell checking, as there is in Word.
(Some people hate this feature, to be true, but you can turn it off if you
don't want it.)
- There is no grammar checker. Again some people loathe grammar
checkers, but I find them useful as they will catch errors that the spell
checker misses. Judicious setting of the rule options makes a big difference
in their usefulness.
- There is no HTML import filter. I've been forced to import HTML documents
into Frame by first converting them into Word documents.
- HTML export is cumbersome, buggy, and produces needlessly complex HTML.
To a large extent, this has been remedied in FrameMaker
6 with the inclusion of WebWorks Standard. However, anyone who needs to do
any serious HTML export from Frame will need to upgrade to WebWorks Professional,
as you can't modify the templates that come with WebWorks Standard. This is
a substantial expenditure, both in money and time.
- Frame's screen refresh leaves a lot to be desired. Updating text and formatting
constantly leaves garbage on screen, which you have to clear with the CTRL-L
command. Word's WYSIWYG is generally cleaner, though
it too has it's idiosyncracies.
- While revised text can be marked with revision bars, you cannot identify
changed text by colour (or by author) as you can in Word. You can apply inserted
and deleted condition tags, but I don't see a way of doing this automatically,
other than by using the document compare feature.
- Search and replace has no pattern matching feature. There is a Use Wildcard
feature and you can match text copied from the clipboard. Word is more powerful
here, including support for regular expressions.
- Frame is not very customizable and what customization is available is much
more difficult than customizing Word. You can customize
toolbars and keystroke commands by editing configuration files. For good tips
on customizing Frame, see the Resources section at www.microtype.com.
- The list selection mechanism for selecting a paragraph format from the list
is different from Word in that if you select the list and type a letter to
jump to the first paragraph format that has a name starting with that letter,
it selects and applies the first paragraph starting with that letter. For
example, say you have a List Bullet paragraph that you want change back to
Body Text. You select the paragraph format list and type the letter `B'. The
paragraph immediately changes to the Bibliography style, which is the first
paragraph format that starts with the letter `B'. I believe that this violates
the standard Windows selection mechanism for lists; it certainly is different
from the way it's implemented in Word and other MS Office programs. It's not
as convenient, either. However, you can use the quick
keys keystroke shortcut commands instead of the menus, which is faster, and
works the way that you'd expect.
- ALT-click is supposed to allow you to copy text without going to the clipboard,
but I haven't been able to get that one working.
- PAGE DOWN really is page down. If you want to get to the bottom of page,
you have to scroll. (If you use Frame on a PC, I strongly
recommend using Microsoft's Intellimouse with the wheel between the buttons.
You can use the wheel to scroll in Frame and most other Windows applications.
This is a major time and wrist saver.) You can change the
behaviour of the PAGE DOWN key (and others). For details see the excellent
articles at www.microtype.com.
- There is no generic 'repeat last action' command. You can repeat the last
paragraph and character formatting commands, but that's all.
- The mechanism for globally updating paragraph styles works exactly backwards
to the way that I (and all the other writers in my group) would expect it
to work. You select the style that you are updating to, and then select the
style you are updating from.
- You can't open two parts of a document in separate windows.
- The method for inserting graphics into text and anchoring them is cumbersome.
You have to create an anchored frame, then insert the graphic into the frame,
then manually resize the graphic. Graphic placement and resizing (as well
as cropping) are easier in Word. In general, I consider
the implementation of frames in FrameMaker to be about half-broken. On the
other hand, things generally stay where you put them.
- You can't print a discontinuous range of pages (other than odd or even).
In Word, you can select a range of pages such as 1,3,6-8,11-12,14.
- In the Find/Change dialog box, while there's a drop-down list to help you
select the type of thing to search for (i.e., Paragraph Tag, Marker Text,
etc.), there's no corresponding drop-down list to help you select the particular
instance of the object that you've selected. In other words, you can select
`Paragraph Tag' from a drop-down list, but then you have to manually enter
the particular paragraph tag that you want to search for.
- Support for standard Windows keyboard conventions is mixed. CTRL-C, CTRL-X,
and CTRL-V work, and the standard ALT+letter combinations work for menus.
But the ESC key is used to implement many keyboard shortcuts, so ESC cannot
be used to close an open dialog box. This is arguably one of Frame's strengths,
because the program works the same way on different platforms, but I'd rather
see the program adhere more closely to the standards of the OS that it's running
on at the risk of losing some cross-platform compatibility,
or have the ability to customize the behaviour of the ESC key to fit the way
I want it to work.
- There doesn't appear to be an option to set the zoom level to the width
of the line of text. However, the zoom levels are customizable.
- The Find command will keep cycling through a document. It doesn't stop or
warn you after it's searched the complete document. It just lets you keep
- Table formats don't include column width information. You have to size each
column in each table manually. However, once you've
created a table and sized it the way you want, you can store it in the table
catalog and the column widths will be maintained when you create new tables
based on it.
- FrameMaker doesn't move the Find dialog or the spell-check dialog out of
the way when it highlights selected text.
- It is cumbersome to import single styles or groups of styles from a document
or template. Frame needs the equivalent of Word's Template Organizer.
- Frame's styles aren't hierarchical. In Word, you can define styles so that
changes to Heading 1, for example, will ripple through all lower-level headings.
You can't do this in Frame.
- Frame lacks a style catalog. There are third-party utilities (mifmuncher,
for example) that provide some of this functionality, but it would be nice
to have it built into the product, especially considering the complexity of
Frame's style options.
- Footnote support is poor. Footnotes cannot span pages. It may be difficult
to use Frame for things like academic papers because of this, although footnotes
are less common in user guides and the like.
- Many Frame dialogs don't behave the way you'd expect. For
example, in the Acrobat Setup dialog box, you can't select multiple paragraph
formats to move them into the bookmark or don't bookmark columns. The same
is true for other dialogs in which you have to select many items. You end
up clicking and clicking and clicking ...
These are things that are different from Word,
but not necessarily good or bad.
- Pagination of sections is quite different. If you need to change pagination,
the best thing to do is to put the next section in a new file as pagination
changes are controlled at the file level. This is cumbersome in Word, but
easy to handle in Frame. Overall, it's about the same level of complexity
as working with sections in Word.
- Positioning of tables is different. In Word, a table acts just like a paragraph,
it is positioned where the insertion point is when you create the table. In
Frame, the table is positioned by an anchored frames and the default is to
position the table one line below the frame anchor. So when you insert a table,
your insertion point should be at the end of the line above where you want
the table to go.
- Frame's indexing mechanism offers more control over the output of your entries
than Word's. On the other hand, it's easier to input entries in Word. However
there is a third-party indexing tool called IXgen, which is available from
Frank Stearns Associates.
I recommend this highly.
These are bugs or things that have caused me problems..
- Frame changes my cursor scheme, which uses large mouse pointers, to it's
own standard small cursor whenever the mouse is in the editing window. This
is really annoying. I've contacted Adobe to see if there is a workaround but
so far I haven't heard back from them. This did not get fixed in 5.5.3 or
in 5.5.6, or in 6.0. The workaround is to press CTRL
while moving the mouse, which changes the cursor to a small arrow.
- CTRL-click selects the current text flow. When I was first using Frame,
I managed to completely mangle my document by using it. Multiple-level undo
would have helped me out of a mess. I've learned to
- There are bugs in the cross-reference mechanism. Cross references to paragraph
styles (headings, for example) don't always work. The work around is to insert
a cross-reference marker.
- Frame crashes occasionally. I found two reproducible ways of crashing Frame
5.5.6 and had a few other non-reproducible crashes with both 5.5.6 and 6.0.
It's more stable than Word but you can break it.
- Some users, myself included, have had problems with
Frame locking up when used with the Intellimouse. In my case, disabling the
wheel button solved the problem. This occurs under Windows 98 but not under
- Frame's WYSIWYG is not very WYG at some zoom resolutions. I have found that
the apparent amount of space at the end of a line can vary substantially from
one zoom level to another. I went crazy for a while, trying to figure out
why my line was breaking when it looked like there was ample space. There
is a configuration file setting (use printer metrics, I believe) that fixes
this problem, but it's not the default.
Keith Soltys -- email@example.com,