Three Golden Rules for Effective Word Processing

Friday September 19 2014 - , , ,

Over the 30+ years or so that I’ve been using computers, I have worked with various word processing and page layout packages such as WordStar, WordPerfect, MacAuthor, nroff, Aldus (Adobe) PageMaker, QuarkXPress, Microsoft Publisher and Microsoft Word. Again and again, I see people misusing their word processing software and making life difficult for themselves. When creating small documents, one can get away with all sorts of horrors and sometimes getting a job done quickly justifies a ‘quick and dirty’ approach. However, with longer documents things can quickly become unmanageable and you can soon find yourself re-formatting your document over and over again, as things never seem to work out quite like you expected.

Over the years I’ve developed a set of principles through trial and error that guide me in the use of a word processing program. I call these principles “The Three Golden Rules of Effective Word Processing”. Using my three golden rules will help you avoid most of the common pitfalls. It will not be easy; you will struggle at first, because the rules will really make you think about what you are doing and will sometimes seem to prevent you from making the obvious, easy choice. However, if you are writing anything other than a trivial document, say a paper, dissertation, even a book, then you really can’t get away with using the easy, obvious choices. Instead you need to think about the structure of your document and learn to tell the word processor what you want and let it worry about the how. For example, rather than thinking “I want this text to be bold and underlined” (how) instead think “this is a heading” (what) and apply a heading style.

Let’s first look at the three rules then I’ll discuss the reasoning behind them:

  1. Never more than one white-space character.

  2. No spot formatting – always use a style.

  3. Start in Outline View.

Those are my three rules. If you apply them religiously, you will actually find it quite difficult to stick to these rules, but the long term benefits make it worth the effort and your word processing will become more accomplished and more efficient as a result. Perhaps more importantly, you will produce high-quality documents that can be used and re-purposed by your co-workers.

I use Microsoft Word for my day-to-day document production and the remainder of this paper uses terminology that is directly relevant to Word. However, other word processing packages have equivalent features and the ideas presented here should apply equally well to them.

Now, let’s look at those rules and their implications in detail.

Rule 1 – Never more than one white space character

White Space CharactersLet’s first define what a white space character is. A white space character is any character that takes up space in storage but does not display (or leave a mark on paper). The two most important characters in this class are the space itself and the paragraph mark but also included are tabs, em and en spaces and line breaks.

This rule aims to combat the tendency to align text by typing multiple new lines, spaces or tabs. On a conventional typewriter, that used to be the only way to do things, but in a modern word processor is it a big faux pas to align things visually. The reason? All spaces are not created equal. The width of individual characters and spaces may be different when the document is moved to a different device – a printer or even another computer with slightly different fonts installed. If a different style sheet is applied to your document, your formatting will be trashed. If you change your font, your formatting will be trashed. If you use a different printer, your formatting could be trashed. You can’t rely on characters straying the same size or in the same position as when you typed them. Furthermore, if text is edited elsewhere in the document, text may re-flow causing unexpected changes in formatting. You can quickly get into a situation where you're chasing your tail trying to fix-up all the formatting that breaks each time you tweak the document.

With a typewriter, everything was done by hand, including layout. With a word processor, try to work with the computer, not against it. Any time you feel like you need to type multiple white space characters, this is a ‘document smell’ that something is wrong. You need to tell the computer what you want it to do and let the computer work out how to do it. If you try to micro-manage your layout, you'll be working against the software.

So this begs the question: If I can’t use white space, then how do I space my text as I want it to appear? The answer lies in the use of styles (see Rule 2 – No Spot Formatting, Always Use a Style).

One common mistake I see is the use of tables to position text, so it is worth examining when it is appropriate to use a table and when to use other techniques. Tables are a great tool for arranging (obviously) tabular data, when items are arranged in a grid of row and columns. It should be obvious that tables are not a good tool for creating paragraph indents and formatting. What might be less clear is where items are arranged in a list. After all, isn’t that just a table with only one column? Well, that is one way to look at it but the use of a table unnecessarily complicates the paragraph formatting and can make things harder to understand.

Word has built-in styles for formatting lists, either with or without bullets or numbering and can even cope with multiple levels of numbering. Those styles should be used in preference to a table. The list styles can be applied with a single button click on the toolbar.

Avoid list styles if you want to do heading numbering. Heading numbering is best achieved using Outline view and by modifying the heading styles in the document.

Rule 2 – No Spot Formatting, Always Use a Style

Most people use spot formatting all the time, indiscriminately, throughout their document. What do I mean by spot formatting? It’s when you select a piece of text and change the formatting attributes directly from the toolbar or the mini bar.

So what’s up with spot formatting, anyway? Well, these are the main things:

  1. Once you start using spot formatting, it will be difficult or impossible to maintain consistency throughout your document it can be difficult to keep track of what you’ve done. When you use a style, you can be sure that your formatting is consistent throughout your document. Furthermore, you can redesign the look of your document by editing the styles.
  2. If you allow yourself to use spot formatting, then it is less likely that you will have the discipline to use styles to full advantage.
  3. Spot formatting and styles can work against each other, leading to documents that are confusing and hard to work with.
  4. Your documents will be harder for others to use and re-purpose.

So those are the reasons not to spot-format, but there are some big benefits that come from using styles, too. For example:

  • Your company may have a standard set of templates containing styles that you should use to be consistent with your corporate image. Using those styles ensures your formatting meets company policy. If your company changes its templates later on, you can easily update your documents to match (and it might even happen automatically).
  • Styles help you to identify the meaning (rather than the actual content) of different parts of your document. This can make your document easier to understand and the word processor might be able to start automating some tasks based on the document structure. Probably the most obvious example of this is building a table of contents, or TOC. Word can infer the table of contents based on the headings in your document – but only if you used the heading styles! If you spot-formatted your headings, then you will have to type the TOC manually, and keep updating it any time the document changes. More on this in Rule 3 – Start in Outline View

So what if there aren’t enough styles to do what you need? First, try to start your document from a template that closely matches what you want to produce. If your company has created its own templates, try to use those. Otherwise use one of the templates built in to Word. Then, create new styles to specify the formatting you need. When creating new styles, try to follow these guidelines:

  • Name your style based on what it will be used for, not how it will look. For example, “Telephone number” is good; “Bold Green Times Roman” is bad. “Document Title” good; “Red 24pt Underlined” bad.
  • Try to base your style on an existing style. For example, if you wanted to create emphasis in your text, you might create a new style named “Emphasis”, base it on Body Text and add Italics to the formatting.

Rule 3 – Start in Outline View

Outline view lets you ignore the details and focus on the big picture. By hiding the paragraphs and just viewing the headings in your document, you can easily comprehend the structure of the document. Outline view also allows you to move large chunks of your document around using simple drag-and-drop operations. When starting a new document, try to write down all the headings, at least the major headings first in outline view. Then you can switch to Print layout and begin fleshing out the details.

Using outline view to design a document in this way helps you achieve two important tasks:

  1. You’ll be more productive and your document will have a more coherent structure.
  2. You’ll automatically be using some of the built-in styles for your headings and body text, enabling Word to build and maintain your table of contents and giving you a head start on the way to producing more effective word processed documents.

Tips for Keeping to the Rules

If you decide to try sticking to these Golden Rules, you will undoubtedly find it hard at first. Bad habits are hard to kick! At first, you’ll get frustrated and you’ll find yourself creating and modifying a lot of new styles. Slowly, as time goes on, you’ll lose the urge to spot format everything, you’ll start to build up a library of re-usable templates and you’ll find that you usually have a perfect style for nearly every situation.

Probably the first thing that you’ll have problems with is creating space between your paragraphs, as the default paragraph style doesn’t leave any space. You can either edit your default style, called Normal, or create a series of new styles to meet your requirements. Double-spacing after a full stop is out. If you need a wide space, use an en space (Shift-Space) or an em space (Ctrl-Shift-Space). If you find yourself using tabs to line up columns, consider using a table instead, or define a style with tab stops set at the right positions.

Next, create a series of character styles to replace what you would have previously done with spot formatting. Give them names that reflect how they will be used, not how they look. Some useful styles you could create are Emphasis, Quote, Block Quote, Caption, Cross Reference, Banner and so on. Get the heading styles Heading 1 to Heading 6 looking exactly how you want them. I usually start with Heading 1 then base each subsequent heading style on it’s predecessor, so that any changes in Heading 1 will cascade down through all the heading styles.

What’s the Point? It’s quicker if I break the rules!

It is important to keep a sense of perspective. If you are working on a quick document that’s a couple of pages long and you just need to get the job done quickly, then go ahead and break the rules! These rules aren’t the answer to every situation, the goal is to make you think about the structure and meaning of your documents rather than just the immediate visual appearance. At first it will seem like a lot of work sticking to these rules, but in the long run you’ll produce better documents that look good; are easier to work with and are easier to re-use. After a bit of practice it will become second nature and you’ll start to use a lot more of the power of your word processing software. It may occasionally seem quicker just to do a “quick fix” and indeed there are some situations where this is perfectly justified, but it is a slippery slope, so be careful not to slide back into those old habits. Persevere with the Golden Rules – the more you use them the easier it will become.

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