Lessons I wish someone had told me when I started – Style

Microsoft Word

What follows are some ideas that I wish someone had shared with me all those years ago when I started working with computers. I share them now in the hope that it will make your life easier. If you use word a lot, there is probably nothing new here.

Lesson 1 – It doesn’t matter what you say, just say it with style

The problem of keeping consistency within a document should be relatively simple until you come to a point that you wish to emphasise. Out comes the bold or an underline. (Although these days, underlines are now taken as meaning a hypertext link and so should not be used for anything else.) That’s fine for the one occasion that emphasise is required but what if later in the document you need to emphasise something to a greater extent, you have already used your bold and your underline. All that’s left is your italics or maybe font size. Maybe you could dial down the emphasis on the last one. And in going back through the document you find another one that was already bold.

Because small documents can be literally hacked together, there is no need for added complexity in consistency in a one page document as long as it looks OK when printed. However when the page count gets bigger and the number of sections increased, the style of the document can often begin to change as you go through the document. This is because as we create a document, we are forced to make little decisions here and there about how it will look as we go.

This problem is doubled if there is any collaboration in a document. Both contributors will make their own decisions as they go and usually they will often be different. For example, at the end of each sentence some people (mistakenly) put two spaces after the full stop, thinking it’s the right thing to do. (Double spaces are a throwback to the days of mono-spaced typewriters where it was not easy to see the end of a sentence however these died out years ago with proportional fonts and so too should the practice of double spaces.)

The solution I am proposing to haphazard formatting like this is the use of styles. Many people aren’t even aware that they are by default using a style. Every time you change a font size or type, Word creates a new style for itself which it then applies.

SNAFU – situation Normal

When you first start typing in word, all the text is of the style normal. Word allows you to change the size of the test and make it bold and still call it normal.

The problem with this approach is that when you have styled the piece of text the way you want it, you then have to manually convert any other piece of text you want to look like it manually in order for it to the same way.

There is of course the format painter. But are you sure you got everything? The format painter is great for the quick hack but it’s not keeping track of your document. In addition, the parts that you can’t see are copied too, which again is fine but only if you know exactly what those hidden things are.

The answer is “Styles”. You can create your own style or modify the Normal style so that it behaves is a way that will help with the expression of ideas. For example, I often come across documents where someone has put in an extra carriage return between paragraphs to give each of them space. So rather that add all the extra bits that comes with a paragraph style, all that is required is to add a little space after each paragraph in the Normal style.

This indecently is another crossover from the internet which did not allow you to indent the first line of each paragraph. If you prefer this as a way of delimiting paragraphs, editing the Paragraph style will allow you to consistently add this style. (Although you should never mix the extra space after a paragraph and first line indent.)

Everything in its place

When we have a document to write, we chop our text into paragraphs, with one idea per paragraph and order those paragraphs into a logical sequence to tell a story. When you have a large document, you must have an order so that people can navigate through the document without getting lost. We need that structure before we can start putting out our ideas.

In design for print these days we tend to follow the format of a newspaper. We have a Headline and then a sub-headline followed by headings describing what is explained in the following paragraphs. And each paragraph has one idea. If you are writing a novel then you can have long rambling pages of text for your reader to get lost in but otherwise, it is inappropriate.

So in MS Word we have an attention grabbing headline which we give Heading 1 and then in our hierarchy we can descend through the headings as needed. Word by default gives us 6 but there is nothing stopping us from having more. The great thing about ordering your document in this way you can automatically add numbers to your headings. If you chop one section out and paste it further up. The numbering reorders itself, just like a numbered list. The chapter numbers will always be in sequence.

Changes for the better

The beauty of this approach is that we can have a consistent approach to the whole of the document. Because the different styles are linked we can make universal changes to the style and it changes everything without us having to check.

So for example you have written a large dissertation for college and you are about to submit it and you see that they require Double Space lines. By changing the normal style, every piece of text that is in normal is now double spaced.

The big finish

Now with your headings sorted and the rest of your text in a consistent style, the document has an internal structure.

Having done this, a really great trick is the automation of a table of contents. Just go to the References tab and click Table of Contents and it will be automatically created using your heading structure. In ordering your document in this way you take back control over the whole document and allow you to create very sophisticated layouts with ease.

This is the first in a series of posts about using MS Word and possibly computers themselves. If you enjoyed this post and there are any subjects you would like me to cover in future posts, please drop me an email to killian@killianhalpin.com

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