Some Word Processing Tips

You can learn Word from pressing F1 to read the Help, but there are some general issues that apply to word processing in general, rather than any particular word processor. These issues won’t be learned in typewriter-orientated training, nor within the Help section of the word processor; they relate mainly to the difference between typewriting and word processing.

Some quick rules

Don’t press Enter at the end of a line! Word processors will break words across lines automatically, and if you find yourself having to force-break to get the layout you want, you should probably be using custom margins, multiple columns or tables.

Don’t use spaces to line up text! Spaces vary in width between printers and fonts, so text that uses spaces for alignment will "swim" when these are changed. Also, if you use justified paragraph alignment (such that both left and right paragraph margins are "neat") then the word processor will "stretch" the width of spaces to fit.

Don’t use multiple tab keystrokes to get to where you want to be! Rather define your own tab positions instead. In Word, you do this by using the ruler; your defined tabs replace all existing tabs up to that point. You can also use right, centered and decimal tabs to line up content under proper control, e.g. so that numbers extend to the left, so no more added spaces before "short" numbers to align them properly.

The "swimming" text problem

Unlike a typewriter, modern word processors use proportional fonts so that different letters have different widths, e.g. an "m" is wider than an "l". Different printers also change the widths of letters slightly as well; as a result, changing the font or printer may cause text to overflow lines, columns or pages. However, there are some useful "tricks" that allow one to counter this problem - and here, methods and keystrokes may vary between word processors:

No-break space. This character, accessed in Word via Ctrl-Shift-Space, looks like a space but is treated as a normal "letter". A word that contains a no-break space won’t be split over the end of a line, e.g. "Dr Blob" will stay together without "Dr" being at the end of one line and "Blob" at the start of another. Useful for titles, dates (e.g. "7 June 1997") or numbers with spaces in them (e.g. "R 2 000.00"). The other useful property of the no-break space is that it will retain the same width in a justified paragraph, so if you have to use spaces to align text (e.g. within a column in a table) then the no-break space is the thing to use.

No-break hyphen. Like the no-break space, this looks like a hyphen but isn’t treated as one; in Word, it’s accessed via Ctrl-Shift-"-". Other useful dash characters are accessed in Word by holding down Alt and typing 0150 or 0151 on the numeric keypad; these dashes are longer than the usual "-" character.

Forced column/page break. Accessed in Word via Ctrl-Shift-Enter, this will force a break to the next column or page no matter how much vertical space remains. Note that in Word, the last line preceding a break is unpredictable in nature, especially when using justified text, where it is stretched to the end of the line even though it’s the last line in the paragraph. So it’s best to have an empty line before a break; shrink it down to 1 point if it bounces over the edge.

"Acne". On Word’s toolbar is a button that looks like a reversed "P"; when pressed, it shows all the characters in the text so you can see exactly what’s up - spaces look like dots, no-break spaces like circles, tab characters as arrows, "enter" characters as a reversed "P", no-break hyphens wider than usual, and breaks show up too.

Paragraph margins. On Word’s ruler are three little markers; two on the left and one on the right. The upper left marker is for where the first line of a paragraph starts, and the lower left one is for where the rest of the paragraph starts. Use these, rather than "enter…tab…tab" to control the width of your paragraphs.

Vertical space. Word has a handy way to change the point size of highlighted text; press Ctrl-[ or Ctrl-] to shrink and grow text to taste. If you select a blank line (point at it from the left, so that when you click the whole line is selected) then you can grow or shrink this so as to control the vertical layout of your text. Common uses include shrinking spaces between paragraphs to fit stuff on a page, getting headings to "stick" to the text they head by growing space above and shrinking space below, and spacing out multi-line bulleted items etc. with small amounts of vertical space.

Text formatting tips

Exact paragraph height. Sometimes you may want to put a larger point size character into a paragraph, but then the space above the line increases; use Format Paragraph and Line Spacing set to "Exactly…" to force a consistent vertical spacing for the whole paragraph. Check that you don’t chop off the top of tall characters, and that it looks like other paragraphs of the same style. A tricky business at best, but.

Lines across the page. You can use Word’s drawing tools to put a line wherever you like, but it may not swim with the text; a better method is to use Format menu, Borders and Shading to put a paragraph-wide line in place, or to use a right tab at the right margin and underline a tab to that position.

Capitals. All-caps is heavy going for more than about three words at a time, especially for sections longer than a single line; larger point size may be easier on the eye. In order to avoid re-typing, the Format menu, Font checkbox for AllCaps is useful in that you can type in normal letter case and then put the highlighted text into caps without losing the way it was typed.

Tab leading. The term dates from when type was set in blocks of lead, and refers to filling up space between tab positions with dots or lines. Useful for forms, and accessed in Word via Format Tabs.

Super- and subscript. Word has a couple of fast keys to push text around; Ctrl-"+" for subscript and Ctrl-Shift-"+" for superscript. Nice for 9/12 and all that!


(C) Chris Quirke, all rights reserved

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