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ATPM 14.01
January 2008





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Software Review

by Mark Stoneman,



Developer: RedleX

Price: $49 (download); $64 (boxed); $35 (academic); $19 (upgrade price after two years).

Requirements: Mac OS X 10.3. Universal.

Trial: Feature-limited (prints watermark across each page, also when saving to PDF; after 30 days cannot copy or export content from saved Mellel documents).

I discovered Mellel some four years ago during a period of frustration. Microsoft Word had all the features I needed for my history dissertation, and then some, but it crashed at inopportune moments, and my files sometimes became corrupt. There was the new, slick-looking Nisus Writer Express, but it did not offer footnotes yet. The only way to do footnotes outside of Word seemed to be with two Carbon applications brought over from Apple’s OS 9 days, AppleWorks and Mariner Write. Neither offered substantial control over the look and feel of footnotes, and the styles I customized in the more promising Mariner Write did not always stick, either. I could have turned to or AbiWord, but I did not want to work in X11.

Mellel came along at an opportune moment. A word processor that understood academic writing, Mellel offered multiple streams of footnotes, sections and chapters, and close, reliable control over styles. It was also fast and stable, and it fit a graduate student’s budget. The Mac word processing market has come a long way since then, especially with the release of Nisus Writer Pro, but Mellel continues to occupy an important place among word processors for the Mac.

User Interface

The first thing one notices about Mellel is its user interface, which is unusual enough to ensure that many people will decide right away whether or not they like it. With its toolbar visible, Mellel’s non-standard metal interface and styling makes it look like the old-fashioned metal typewriter in its icon. The look has a certain charm, although it will displease the user who is intent on customizing the toolbar, because that is impossible. I had this problem when I first began using Mellel, but the application has grown on me over the years. Besides, as with most applications, I hide everything I can, in order to make more workspace on my tiny 12″ iBook.


Mellel’s Main Window

Most of the toolbar features are also available via a group of palettes whose number, order, and visibility can be individually controlled. The only one I have not found in the palettes or menu bar is the pop-up menu for choosing at what size to view the text. Since that is the only feature I must have from the toolbar, I have sometimes wished it were on the bottom of the Mellel window next to another important pop-up menu, Show, which offers individual viewing preferences for non-printing characters. This menu is also where the options to show and hide the toolbar and ruler are. As much as I enjoy the extra control these interface elements offer, though, Mellel also needs to have keyboard equivalents for those of us who like to keep our fingers on the keyboard.


Mellel’s Palettes With the Marker Palette Open

If you dislike Mellel’s metal interface, you can choose an Aqua alternative in the preferences, though this one too is non-standard.

Mellel also offers three ways to view your text: Mellel View, Compact View, and Fullscreen. The Mellel View displays the entire page as it will look when you print it, and it shows a gap between each page. The Compact View only displays a thick black line between each page, but it too shows the contents of headers and footers. The comfortable Fullscreen option acts like the Compact View, but without the distractions of a menu bar or anything else on your computer’s screen.


Mellel is a comfortable editing environment, but I tend only to write in it when I have a definite idea of what I am writing about. Most of the time I draft several pages in BBEdit or WriteRoom first, and then I move the text into Mellel.

I began this procedure when I noticed that Mellel did not let me undo an edit past my last save. That was a huge problem, but Mellel’s excellent layout features made me willing to put up with it. At the same time I realized that writing fresh text in a document that grew to over 300 pages was intimidating. I also recognized that my concentration increased and I wrote better when I did not have any style features available. (I thank the makers of Ulysses for that lesson.) So Mellel was not there for me to write every word in. It was the place where I organized, styled, and began editing my various chunks of text.

Nonetheless, Mellel has now reached a point where I think I can expect it to offer undos past the last save. Its fullscreen environment, its markers (highlighters), and its powerful find and replace features for both content and style all suggest that its developers would like it to be a viable environment for composition, not just formatting and organization.

Finally, there is one consideration of special interest to users addicted to gaining access to Apple’s Dictionary via Command-Control-D. Mellel uses its own text engine, so this standard OS-provided function does not work in this particular application. To compensate for this incompatibility, Mellel has a Dictionary command in its contextual menu.


Mellel’s strength lies in the unparalleled control it offers over the appearance of text. While one can sit down at Mellel and start typing without any prior knowledge of the program, its value emerges when one takes the time to set up the various styles one plans to use. Panels for this purpose are available through the Paragraph and Character menus. Users who have a variety of customized styles can organize them by context via the Style Sets menu.

People working in other languages will also appreciate Mellel’s multi-lingual and right-to-left text capabilities.

There is one potential problem with Mellel’s rich style features, though. A friend of mine quit using the application because she could not find a preference to turn off hyphenation. I too had to look, and, as is often the case, I found myself opening the Mellel Guide, which is available via the Help menu. (There are also Mellel files for Apple’s Help application, but these are less extensive and they take longer to search.) Sure enough, Mellel lets one turn hyphenation on and off, but it does so in the paragraph style panels. If you never use hyphenation, turn it off in one paragraph style and then base all the other styles off of that one.

This example is symptomatic of the high degree of control over appearance that Mellel offers the user. It also underlines Mellel’s frequent departure from the typical expectations of experienced word processor users. That is often a good thing, but Mellel could also offer global options for users who have simpler needs. For example, I almost never use hyphenation, so I would rather turn it off in all cases via a main preference and only turn it on for special paragraph styles.

Footnotes and Endnotes

Footnotes are where Mellel really shines. Besides styling the format of the characters and paragraphs, one can choose how footnotes are indicated, whether with a number or letter or special character. One can determine how that character will look both in the footnote and in the text. Best of all, it is possible to run multiple streams of footnotes simultaneously.

Why multiple streams? I use my main stream of footnotes for my citations, but sometimes I need to translate or define a term, and I do not want that note to get lost in the citations. Instead of using a regular footnote with a number, I set up a stream for notes marked with an asterisk or other non-alphanumeric character. That way the reader can know what kind of footnote is available. I use such notes sparingly, of course, but I am glad to have the option, because it is often impossible to get around using the occasional foreign word in my field.

A more recent positive development is that the Note Streams panel now also allows one to set a limit on how much space footnotes can fill on a page.

Where are all these features? I had to look them up in the manual, but afterwards it seemed obvious. They are accessible via the Insert menu. Choose the Note submenu, which will list the note streams already defined as well as a menu item to edit note attributes.


Mellel’s Footnote Stream Panel

And what about endnotes? They are not designed as a separate feature in Mellel. Instead one simply defines a note stream and tells this stream that notes are to appear at the end of the document. Unfortunately, I do not see a way to make endnotes appear at the end of each section. That does not bother me, but it might be a problem for some users.


From the Insert Menu there is also an Auto-Title submenu available, albeit with no keyboard commands. This feature is also available via a Mellel palette. I did not buy Mellel with organization in mind, but the auto-numbered titles at various heading levels provide my documents with a structure that Mellel can understand. This becomes useful when one opens the Outline feature, which is available through the View menu as well as the toolbar. The outline appears in the main window to the left of one’s text, thus providing a handy overview of a long document as well as links to navigate through it. The outline has one more trick up its sleeve too. The user can rearrange a document’s headings—and hence its content—via drag and drop.

Compatibility With Other Applications

Mellel began by using a file format that only it could read, but now it saves files in a package in XML. Still, Mellel creates styled documents whose structure only other Mellel users can see, at least until developers decide it is worth building Mellel support into their applications. Since that day might be a long way off, and since writers often have to interact with people on other word processors and platforms, Mellel includes import and export options for Word format, RTF, plain text, and OPML.

Importing directly from Word format is not a good idea if the document has footnotes. Footnote references disappear from the text, and the notes themselves appear in an unnumbered list at the end of the document. To get around this problem, save your Word document to RTF first, and then import this file into—or open it with—Mellel. Footnotes are preserved. Exporting directly into Word or RTF keeps footnotes intact. A plain text export works, too. Mellel marks footnote placeholders in the text with numbers surrounded by asterisks, and it places the numbered footnotes at the end of the text document.

One important deficit here is the import and export of outlines. An export of my dissertation makes accurately styled text and footnotes available both to Word and Nisus Writer Pro, but the outline does not carry over. Also, when I export the dissertation via OPML, only my chapter and section headings are exported, nothing else. OPML imports, on the other hand, work nicely, as long as only one column is involved.

Balance Sheet

I continue to stick with Mellel for academic writing because of its styling and footnote capabilities, which Nisus Writer Express has yet to match. I also like its speed and stability. A document of more than 300 pages opens almost instantly on my G4 iBook, and I can navigate around it with nary a hiccup. Finally, an important benefit for academic writers is Mellel’s integration with Bookends, an excellent bibliography and citation application, and now Mellel also offers integration with Bookends’ rival, Sente.

Mellel, however, also has a few significant drawbacks. The biggest for me are its lack of an undo feature past the last save, its inability to count characters inside its citations, and the absence of any support for AppleScript. Fortunately, Mellel’s developers are accessible. They answer their e-mail and have an active and helpful user forum. These facts give me reason to believe Mellel will continue to improve.

Reader Comments (11)

Durbrow · January 2, 2008 - 11:47 EST #1
I was curious whether you use WriteRoom or BBEdit for your first draft ACADEMIC writing and why Mellel may not be suitable or comfortable for first draft writing. Thanks for the good review.
MJ Valente · January 2, 2008 - 12:02 EST #2
I'm also using Mellel as my thesis editor and indeed I find it very stable. It has, however, two less accomplished things:

1) It's not intuitive (I had a hard time figuring how to insert page numbers like I wanted, for instance).
2) Bad tables capability (in fact I'm now importing tables created in Excel as images -- it's easier and prettier).

I mainly use it as my end text editor. Everything else is made in Scrivener (a wonderful, wonderful app).
Dave Thompson (ATPM Staff) · January 2, 2008 - 16:49 EST #3
I gave up on Word years ago. I keep a copy around, because it is what the other staff in my office use, and a few of my colleagues, but that's about it.

I started learning LaTeX almost 20 years ago. It's open source, based on Knuth's TeX engine, and is a typesetting system. For technical-types, writing is much like programming a report -- mark-up is used to specify document structure and presentation is separate from content. It does a beautiful job setting math as well.

Packages (add-ons) are available to do almost anything. The system is developed in a unix environment and ports exist for about any computer and operating system combination. There is a nice front-end for Mac users called TeXshop. It does footnotes well. I use the bibtex package with a stand-alone program for managing citation databases. Tables are relatively challenging to set, but look marvelous when done.

I looked a Mellel a couple of years ago, but decided to stick with LaTeX. Mellel is a good tool, without a doubt. But, for those willing to work through the learning curve, LaTeX will produce beautiful documents... and it's free.
Michael Cysouw · January 2, 2008 - 20:18 EST #4
And for those who do not like the steep learning curve of LaTeX, there is LyX. If Lyx would be more Mac-like in appearance, handling and interaction with other programs, I would consider this the ideal kind of word-processing system.
Mike Perry · January 3, 2008 - 00:47 EST #5
For researching and writing, I like Scrivener at:

It's marvelous for writing from the initial idea to the final draft. It doesn't get in the way like Word and isn't feature-poor like WriteRoom. It handles footnotes and exports easily to other applications (including Mellel and LaTeX) for more detailed formatting.

It's why I bought a MacBook a few months ago.

--Mike Perry, Untangling Tolkien
bc · January 3, 2008 - 01:52 EST #6
Wxcellent overview. I used Mellel for a year or so and found:
• unmatched handling of footnotes
• superb integrated outliner/autotitle -- ideal for organizing and structuring big, complex docs
• beautiful text rendering -- docs look better in Mellel than any other text / word processing app I've used
• control over styles
• the method of controlling styles, even for a writer with simple style needs, is so complicated and counterintuitive that using Mellel became just too frustrating, and I replaced it with a combo of OmniOutliner and TextEdit (both bundled with my PowerBook) and then the superb Scrivener mentioned above. But if I were doing heavy academic writing or needed fine control over styles (I don't), I'd probably still be using it.
Mark Stoneman · January 5, 2008 - 11:36 EST #7
Thanks to all of you for the comments.

@ Durbrow: Mellel doesn't work for me for many first drafts because of its inability to undo past the last saved version. My writing process is too messy to live without that feature. I have played with a variety of different text editors to compensate for the problem, including, of course, BBEdit, which I like, although its little brother TextWrangler would do just fine. I also like fullscreen editors like Ulysses and WriteRoom, because they really help to eliminate distractions so I can get through difficult bits of text. I tend to use the latter more often than the former, because most of Ulysses organisational features are lost on me. But even a text editor like BBEdit can free me of distractions, because I have to focus on texts and ignore formatting issues. No matter what I use, I only write between one and ten pages of text before moving it into Mellel.

@ MJ Valente: I actually found Mellel's table function to be useful for my dissertation. Mellel gave me excellent control over my tables' layouts via its tables pallet. But I'm sure mileage will vary for each user, depending on what the table is supposed to accomplish.

@ Dave Thompson: I actually considered LaTeX, but the little bit of time I gave it suggested to me that it might become too much of a distraction. The last thing I needed was another excuse to not write history. I also was concerned about integration with bibliography software, though since that time BibDesk has matured.

@ Michael Cysouw: I played with LyX too. Yet another excuse to not write. As easy as it seems to be, it still wasn't as easy as Mellel.

@ Mike Perry: Scrivner grew legs near the end of my project, so I never did more than play a little with it. It would be nice to see a review of it in ATPM.

@ bc: If you like TextEdit, but want more power, try TextWrangler. Once upon a time I tried writing in OmniOutliner, but I found I could not live without a zoom feature to resize text to suit my eyes and screen. I also was disappointed by the lack of attention they gave to OmniOutliner's print features.

Luke Hartman · February 3, 2008 - 13:58 EST #8
Thanks for the review...I used Mellel all through seminary, and its handling of footnotes, foreign languages, and non-distracting interface were excellent.

I defined my styles for various types of documents and Mellel took care of the rest. I also found the table feature to be quite useful for data presentation (at least for my needs).
Nick · February 18, 2008 - 16:11 EST #9
"I actually considered LaTeX, but the little bit of time I gave it suggested to me that it might become too much of a distraction."

LaTeX does, however, give a beautiful result. Mellel isn't Word; but no wp program can compete with LaTeX:

But there's no reason why one couldn't combine the two: since Mellel uses an XML format, one interesting approach is to prepare one's document in Mellel and then use an XSLT transformation to convert the Mellel document to a tex document.

In fact, one guy at the Mellel forums offers a XSLT stylesheet to do just that.

(You need to go into the Mellel document package (right-click > Show Package Contents) and unzip the "main.xml.gz" archive first. But then you're good to go.)

Anyone who's got MacTeX installed (a large download but has everything in it) could just open the resulting tex document in TeXShop and compile it to PDF. Alternatively one could run it from TextMate, which has a LaTeX bundle. And, of course, it could be adjusted manually -- made to use Hoefler Text (which has proper ligatures, etc.) or whatever.
Jerrod Hansen · June 4, 2008 - 03:55 EST #10
I was going to comment on Scrivener but it's been recommended several times.

I really like Mellel in most respects save for its tables. For the most part I like its tables but I wish it was easier to navigate from cell to cell. I also don't like that if I drag cell contents to a new cell, it copies rather than cuts/pastes. I rather like Pages tables, but I like Mellel over Pages in many ways. Pages isn't all that bad, really, but Mellel is just better.

I do a lot of work in a combination of Scrivener, Mellel, OmniOutliner (rumor has it that OmniOutliner 4 will have zoomable text, YAY!!!!!!), OmniGraffle, and TextEdit/TextWrangler.
Mark Stoneman · August 28, 2008 - 16:36 EST #11
For fullscreen editing I like WriteRoom. It also has a plugin to integrate with other Cocoa applications, though it doesn't work with Mellel. Still, there is good old copy and paste. But WriteRoom doesn't do footnotes. That never bothered me, since I use fullscreen for that phase of the writing when I want zero distractions, not even from my bibliography database.

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