Word processing is not typewriting

Once upon a time, I wrote an article for AAUW NC – A Computer is not a Typewriter. However, I continue to be surprised at folks who don’t understand the power at their fingertips when using something like MS Word. Programs like MS Word have been in wide use for more than 15 years. Yes, I know some of the folks I’m talking about left the workforce years ago, but I’m also talking about some folks who are current professionals (young enough that they’ve probably never encountered a “secretary”), and recent high school graduates who can’t run mailing labels for their family holiday cards.

Here are a few things I’ve run into in the last week:

  1. Don’t hit enter unless you really mean it. Word wrap is a given, and if you put in your own line breaks later edits are immeasurably harder.
  2. Don’t put two spaces after the period at the end of a sentence. One is just fine now that fonts are proportional, not fixed width.
  3. Learn how to set tabs. In particular, if you’re doing something like a table of contents, learn how to set a tab that will fill in the leader characters for you — like this
    Section 2. blah blah blah ………………………………………. 12
    where all the page numbers will line up nicely on the right. You can also set decimal tabs if the right-hand column is a list of decimal numbers and get the decimal points to line up.
  4. LEARN HOW TO USE STYLES! This is an extremely important feature! Styles are your friend. You’ll have some built in (normal, heading 1, heading 2, etc.) and you can change the look of a chunk of text by applying a style to it. You can then change all the text with that style by changing the properties of the style itself.
  5. If you use heading styles properly, things like tables of contents become much easier.
  6. Learn how to use mail merge. Recent versions of Word have a wizard that makes it easy to run mailing labels, form letters, phone books and more from a structured set of data (e.g. the downloadable branch roster).
  7. Use footers and headers appropriately, with particular consideration as to whether the document will be printed single-sided or double-sided. If you’re not sure, put page numbers, for instance, in the center of the line.
  8. If you’re preparing something that will be distributed in PDF, figure out how to generate the PDF. That’s the point. The pagination and everything that looks wonderful with your print drivers may change if you send it to someone with a different printer. PDF is the common format that ensures everyone sees the document in all its glory as you intended. Cheap/free PDF converters abound – use Google to fine one. PDF995.com and CutePDF.com have been used successfully, and I hear there’s an add on for the Vista that’ll do PDF conversions.

Updates 9/5/08:

  1. Be sure you know how to use numbered paragraphs — makes things much easier when you want to insert something in the middle of the list.
  2. If you’re doing a document with an outline-like structure, check into “outline numbering.” It can be a bit cranky — and does need to be configured if you want something other than the default styles — but it can be great when doing something like Bylaws.

Updates 9/18/08:

  1. Oh, yeah. As long as we’re talking about bylaws, learn how to use “track changes” or “compare documents” from the tools menu. It’ll do all that tedious highlighting of insertions and deletions automatically — and allow you to accept/reject changes later to be sure no additional changes are introduced in the editing.

I’ll add to this as I bump into other things. Feel free to comment with your favorite features. There are books and classes where you can learn about this. Perhaps someday there will be an AAUW specific class where the projects (so important! cf. Tech-Savvy) have an AAUW bent, but there are probably dozens of opportunities in every community to improve skills in this area.

[Apologies if I’m ruining my open source cred by talking about Word here — but OpenOffice just isn’t there (yet?). In particular, I don’t want to have to define a schema for a database just to run mailing labels. The mail merge wizard is wonderful! And the algorithm Open Office uses for “compare documents” just isn’t helpful.]

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