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More Than a Typewriter: The Power of Word

Visalia Direct: Virtual Valley
March 3, 2014 Deadline
April 2014 Issue

More Than a Typewriter: The Power of Word

Typewriters still amaze me, especially the antique mechanical models. There’s something wonderful about the feel of levers, gears, springs and rollers working together to transmit thoughts into words. Typewriters possess a romance computer keyboards and touch screens lack.

But, please, stop using your word processor like a typewriter.

Word processor abuse mars many otherwise good documents. Bad habits people develop over time lead to documents that are ugly and difficult to edit and revise.

The numerous excuses for improper word processing deserve dismissal. It does not take days or even hours to learn to use tabs effectively. Paragraph styles take minutes to understand and appreciate. Even a complex looking table of contents takes only a few mouse clicks to create if you construct a document properly.

When you know more about your software tools, you also know when a tool isn’t the best for a task. Microsoft Word is not the only choice, and certainly not the best tool, for many writing projects. Apple’s Pages creates digital books with ease. Final Draft edits and formats film and stage scripts better than any all-purpose word processor. My favorite writing tool, Scrivener, separates formatting output from the writing process, reminiscent of working with DOS tools that didn’t try to show you a page layout while you typed.

Students and writing workshop attendees often ask why learning Word or other applications matters. After all, like many writers, I often work on paper. When I type first drafts of manuscripts, I use a simple editor that doesn’t offer the formatting options of a word processor. Often, migrating a document to Word is the last step in my writing process. Once it is time to polish a manuscript, I use as much of the power of Word as possible.

Despite any shortcomings it might have, Microsoft Word is the dominant tool for document creation and publication in business and education. Using a fraction of Word’s power improves your writing and final output. I admit that it has an overwhelming set of features, which is why I still suggest buying a good guide to using Word if you want to get more out of the program.

As you read the tips that follow, keep in mind this one: use the help system and search for online guides. Microsoft’s official Office site offers great step-by-step training videos, for example, and countless videos sharing Word skills exist on YouTube.

What should you know about Word, or any word processor? I suggest knowing how to use tabs, styles, templates, tables and columns. It is when people attempt to use Word’s design features that they resort to quick-and-dirty shortcuts that actually require more effort. Worse, the layouts seldom transfer intact.

My inspiration for writing this column is a flyer I received from a non-profit organization. The flyer was intended to be a single page, with two columns of text between a heading and contact information at the bottom. Yet the document was a visual mess in Word on my computer. Had the person preparing the document used Word effectively, the document would look great on any system.

Never use the spacebar to align text in a word processor. Computers consider spaces special characters. In various fonts, spaces change width. Because spaces try to adapt, the columns you thought you created end up looking like leaning towers and winding paths. Use tabs to control text on single lines or groups of similar lines. All word processors offer “left” and “right” tabs. Advanced tools like Word offer left, right, center and numeric (decimal) tabs to control text positioning.

Do you want to know if someone used spaces and tabs incorrectly? In Word, use the “show nonprinting characters” option. That’s triggered with “Control+8” in Windows and  “Command+8” in the Mac version of Word. On the ribbon, the paragraph symbol activates this feature. When I receive a strangely unaligned document, a quick check of nonprinting characters tends to expose the culprits: lots and lots of spaces where tabs should be.

Avoid using tabs to indent the first lines of paragraphs. Instead, adjust the paragraph style’s first-line indent setting.

Styles control the appearance of blocks of text. Instead of adjusting fonts, spacing and other attributes for text in a document, alter the underlying styles. The default paragraph format is often called “Normal” or “Body” in a style list. I adjust the Normal style in Word and Pages to my preferred 12-point Times New Roman with a slight first-line indent.

If you want subheadings in a document, apply a style like “Heading 2” or “Subhead” to the appropriate paragraphs. You can then adjust every heading by changing the properties of the style. In Word, “right-click” on the name of a style in the ribbon and use “Modify” to alter the properties. The “Toolbox” palette also lists styles available in a Word document.

Templates include styles. For example, a resume template might have an “Employer” style that sets a paragraph to a larger bold and italic font. If you use the style consistently, updating the style once changes text throughout the resume. Styles demonstrate the power of proper word processing techniques.

Among the popular templates in Word and Pages are newsletters and brochures. Using the templates, you can explore the benefits of columns, which let us create newsletters, flyers and other appealing layouts. Use the column feature of Word, not tabs or tables. In Word, simply highlight the text to set in columns and click the “Column” icon on the formatting ribbon. Word attempts to balance columns in equal lengths, automatically. Do not use spaces, tabs or tables to create a multi-column layout.

Tables are for data. I have seen tables used in place of tabs to align text on a single printed line. I have seen tables used to create columns of text, a bad habit also used by some Web designers. Use tables to display data effectively in rows and columns. Think of tables as little spreadsheets, because that is what they are. In Word and Pages, tables can include equations and special formatting. For other layout needs, use one of the features described earlier.

If I could set standards, I would want every student to have intermediate word processing skills, and at least beginning familiarity with spreadsheets and databases. Efficiently crafted documents look better and work better.

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