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Word Processing Essential Skills

For the last couple of days I have been reformatting and revising a Word document I created and then passed along to colleagues. Unfortunately the colleagues used "brute force" to alter the formatting of the document. This formatting method rendered the automatic table of contents, title page fields, and indices useless.

Brute force formatting is when you override the style of a paragraph or word to match another style's appearance. For example, instead of changing a "Normal" paragraph to "Heading 2" for a section, the editor of the document simply increased the size of the text and applied "bold-italic" font attributes. As a result, headings created this way did not appear in the table of contents.

Such formatting was applied throughout the document. In once case, a bullet list appeared in the table of contents because the style was "Heading 3" — with brute force formatting to make the text appear like the "List Paragraph" style.

I was frustrated. I cannot fathom professional writers, especially ones with tech industry contracts, not using Microsoft Word features properly.

Microsoft Word, Corel WordPerfect, Adobe InDesign, Apple Pages, and most other text-based applications use "styles" to control the visual appearance of elements and document automation features. Every HTML/XML editor makes extensive use of tag styles and classes. Not using styles reflects poor writing habits. You cannot create effective and compliant DITA, ePub, or HTML documents without understanding styles.

There are things I find (or don't find) in the documents I receive to edit that bother me. The following list are some of the more annoying "bad habits" that increase the time I must spend repairing a document:
  • Misuse of styles or missing styles to indicate chapters, sections, and subsections.
  • Spaces and tables to align text that should be positioned with tabs.
  • Manually created tables of content, page numbers, and indices.
  • Forced page breaks using blank lines instead of actual page breaks.
  • Inconsistent spacing after punctuation, even though Word can check spaces.

We should teach students to use tools properly, in addition to writing well. Some of my colleagues argue that we need to focus solely on the words, not how they appear on the page, but the document design itself is a rhetorical act. A document's appearance and accuracy affects how the document is perceived.

The skills of organizing a document "properly" for software to automatically create tables of content, indices, and other features, forces the writer to consider the organization of ideas in the document. A table of contents is an outline. The indices are forms of "idea clouds" or "tag frequency" lists. When you think about how a document functions, you are also analyzing its effectiveness.

I received a paper with page numbers out of order. That implies a lack of organization and preparation. Yes, using a typewriter or writing by hand could result in the same problem. Still, a word processor will number the pages for you — and the order is always in series (unless you did something unusually creative with the fields). Copying and pasting manually numbered pages is obvious when you forget to renumber them.

Using "carriage returns" to force page breaks leads to other problems. I've received papers from students in which the page numbers slowly drifted down the pages. By page ten or so, the number was three inches down the page. Text meant for one page carried over to the next. This happens when the writer adds content to an earlier page without realizing the extra lines "cascade" from page to page. One more reason to use page numbers in headers or footers.

Teaching automatic formatting features actually relieves writers from considering things like the drifting page number issue. When a word processor does the "grunt work" of formatting complex elements, especially contents and indices, hours and hours are saved. If you consider learning these features in light of the time they set free for thinking about the content, it is hard to argue against mastering basic word processing skills.
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  1. Forced page brakes using blank lines instead of actual page breaks.

    Did you want to change the word "brakes" to breaks?

    1. The bane of dictation software: homonyms.


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