Word Processing Basics

Most people think they know how to use a word processor if they can open Microsoft Word and print out a three-page book report or memo. To a certain extent, they are right, in the nineteenth-century sense that anyone who could write their own name was literate. Most people need to be more literate than that though, and most people could make better use of their computer programs. Understanding a few word processor basics can help appreciably, so this column will touch on some of the ways word processing is different (and better) than old-fashioned typing.

The Wrong Way

The way most people use a word processing program is pretty much the way they might have once used self-correcting typewriters. They type out a bunch of spaces to more or less center their heading, backspacing to eyeball it back into position if they over-guessed. They next double or triple-space down with a few returns and then indent by typing five or six spaces, perhaps ending each sentence with a period and two spaces. If they have a secondary heading they eyeball that as well, perhaps manually typing in a few spaces before giving it a line of its own in all caps, then toss in a few more paragraphs. At the end they go back through to underline or set bold text for emphasis before hitting the “spell-check” button and taking whatever suggestions the computer gives them. They then print it out on a laser writer and call it good enough, saving this document to use later as a template which repeats the same errors. “Good enough” as we use to say, but not very good. This treats a word processing program pretty much as a magic typewriter, which certaintly it is. Used artfully, though, a good program can do so much more.

Spell Checking

One thing people who like word processing programs like most is a feature which compares what has been typed against a static list of known words to highlight variations so that one can “correct” them. Commonly called “spell check” this feature is marvelous for very poor spellers but a crutch and a bane to people with odd names or unusual vocabularies. Teh spelt chequer is a grate thule for allot oft things, but no substitute for the literate, human eye, as the proliferation of homophone and usage errors within even professional publications attests.

Auto-Correct and Macros

Cognitively related to the spell-checker is a feature called “auto-correct” in Word but present in programs such as Apple’s Pages as well. Auto-correct will do things such as convert the last two letters in ordinal abbreviations such as “1st” into superscript, change “(c)” to the copyright symbol or correct letter flips such as “teh” to “the” on the fly. If this “feature” drives you crazy, it can be turned off by going into the preferences. Just search “auto-correct” in your program’s help file to find exactly how.

A more useful use of auto-correct functionality that has largely been killed by the presence of Microsoft malware is the macro command or “macro.” Long standard in most word processors, a macro is basically a series of steps that can be recorded and then “played back” as a single action, to perform routine tasks or insert boiler-plate text. Macros could be placed in a palette or tied to a keyboard combination. The “auto-correct” feature can programmed to do something similar so that an odd “word” such as “*ds” or “*ra” automatically expands to type in the current date or a return address. Production typists and web coders may choose system-wide programs that build this functionality across several programs. Two of the more popular on the Macintosh are QuicKeys and TypeItForMe.

Text Formatting

In the days before word processing programs it was relatively cumbersome to format text. Centering something meant counting the letters and then backspacing from the center of the page to begin a line. Underlined text had to be typed once as text then underlined with a second pass. Tabs had to be manually set or counted by hand, and parlor tricks such as changing a font or font size was also done by hand: if you were lucky enough to own an IBM Selectric typewriter with a changeable ball. Word processors (and especially the Macintosh) changed that, providing “what you see is what you get” (WYSIWYG) effects that showed the user (in black text on a white background) exactly what size and shape their letters would be, without printing out a copy. Very cool.

Unfortunately, the way most people learned to apply such changes was one letter or word or line at a time, and manually. They would type out the text then go through by hand to select and then change the individual bits whose format they wanted to change, much as kidnappers supposedly assembled ransom notes back in the days before the laser writer. While effective enough for the naive user, this is extremely inefficient from the computer’s point of view. Only slightly better is the use of keyboard shortcuts to turn on a typestyle change such as bold or italic for a moment, then turn it off when one is done with that style.

The ability to correct or underline without multiple passes is a huge advantage, as is the ability to use bold and italic letter styles (which the typed underline was originally meant to represent. If you choose to use bold or italic or underlines for emphasis, the standard rule of good taste is to choose one of these style and use it consistently, rather than scatter emphases willy-nilly like a ransom-note writer with ADD). Features of paragraph formatting such as first-line indent, double-spacing, variable left and right margins are also best incorporated as part of a defined paragraph style. Understanding the distinction between character style, paragraph style and document formats is central to efficient word-processing.

Document Formatting

As every magazine publisher proved in the late 1980’s, one of the things which word processing programs can do very well is to apply consistent formatting conventions across a document. By “document formatting” I here mean things such as headers, footers, number of columns, text spacing, gutters between left and right pages (if different), as well as niceties such as automatically numbered pages and footnotes with an automatic footer rule. I took a portable typewriter with me to college and made some money with it because I knew how to use carbon paper and type proper blockquotes, headers and footnotes with rules. By my sophomore year, these skills were obsolete, because of the power word processors brought to document formatting. If you are wise, you will learn these powers as well. Usually these are set once for a document, and then applied automatically throughout. If you are doing otherwise, I suggest you poke into your programs help file or look for a menu item such as “document formatting” and set it up.

Get Some Style

The ability to set paragraph “styles” is the single most useful feature most people never use. Document and format styles allow you to define set page or paragraph types once and then apply them consistently throughout a document. Changes to these styles can be made in a single place and automatically applied throughout and, as importantly, most word processors can consistently “read” these styles to assist you in automatically creating such front and back matter as tables of contents, tables of figures and charts, or endnotes. Paragraph styles can also be used to format consistent tab stops for a variety of table types (as on menus, indices or tables of contents).

A paragraph style defines such basic parameters as font, first-line indent, text spacing, left and right margins and such esoteric things as space befor and after a paragaph. The most common paragraph styles used are primary headings (secondary sub-headings, tertiary headings, etc.), blockquotes, footnotes, bibliographic references, bulleted lists and various ordered lists, as in outlined materials or legal documents. If you define these styles at the beginning of a project, you can simply paste plain ASCII text into a blank document and then select each paragraph to assign it a style, rather than endure the tedium of remembering what font and size and margins each kind of heading was. If you designate separate styles for such things as table, chart and figure captions, you can use the automatic features of most word processors not only to format these but then later to generate a list of them and their locations throughout your document. Most word processors come with a few pre-defined styles, but it may be worth it to develop a few of your own, or to build one to match style guides such as the MLA handbook, Chicago Manual of Style, APA guidelines or whatever your company uses.

There is nothing that will increase the productivity of a knowledge worker so much as consistent document organization, including consistent use of styles. Once established, such a system easily allows the same content to be re-used dozens of times, in everything from newsletters to monographs to books and dissertations. From web pages to sophisticated content management systems, consistent use of styles is a sound “best practice” and good hygiene. This is why many corporations have their own “standard” templates.

Search and Replace

Most people know that they can use a program’s “Edit” menu to locate text with the command to “Find…” What a lot of people don’t appreciate is that this same function can search and replace a variety of things. If you have misspelled Jon Smythe’s name in fifty places, “search and replace” can locate it quite easily, or judiciously change the gender of pronouns, assure that you have spelled a foreign phrase perfectly everywhere or gotten the name of a strange city or book just right. What some people don’t appreciate is that the search and replace function can frequently look for non-printing, “invisible” or formatting characters, to eliminate double-space-bar taps, consecutive tabs and styles such as bold, italic, strike-through or underlines. Finding-and-replacing characters such as spaces with spaces is also a pretty good way to establish a rough word-count, since almost every word is followed by a space, and can be quite valuable when trying to clean up a document which has mixed “dumb quotes” with proper “smart quotes” (or dumbly inserted smart quotes where they were not proper).

Grammar and Metrics

Stylometrics is the use of mathematics to analyze text for things such as complexity or readability. When something is written “at an eighth-grade level” it is stylometrics that tells us this. Many word processors have basic stylometric analysis built in, using tools such as the Gunning Fog Index and Flesch Reading Ease scores to show you how dense your prose is. (In case you are wondering, this article is at approximately twelfth-grade level, as measured by Flesch-Kincaid.) Similar to this are “grammar checkers” which are rather like spell checkers in that they analyze patterns for things which don’t match simplistic rules. Both of these are the bane of any literate writer, but can be useful sometimes for spotting mistakes such as repeated words or bonehead verb-noun disagreements. If you have ever run beautiful prose through such a thing, though, you know that they are just fancier spell-checkers. Run one on Ecclesiastes sometime, for example, and see how much computers prefer Hemingway to King James. These tools can be useful when fatigued or to a mute the loudest brain farts. Fundamentally, though, they are designed for the semi-literate: to help mediocrity masquerade as competence. They belong on the same shelf as a thesaurus, Bartlett’s and the “lifetime encyclopedia of letters.” Know the tools are there, but don’t believe all they tell you. For more details I suggest Joseph William’s book Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace.


If you are using a style guide such as that by the American Psychological Association, you know their suggestion for placing captions on graphics. When defined as a paragraph style, captions are a huge help in complex documents, but even more basic is understanding the different ways that a word processing document can place graphics on the page. Most people will place graphics “in line” as if they were large letters on a line of text. If a paragraph contains nothing but a graphic, this has the advantage that the caption will naturally come above or below it and the graphic “paragraph” can be centered, left or right-justified as need be. It is also possible in most word processors to “anchor” a graphic to a paragraph or a position on the page. A graphic which is anchored to a page will stay in that position on a page no matter what happens to the text around it. When a graphic is anchored to text, it will move up and down within the document as its text moves. It is possible to anchor a graphic and “flow” text around it, but this is more properly done in a page layout program and should be avoided in word processing programs if possible, because it can create erratic behaviors, especially in complex documents


Originally the “tab” key on the typewriter keyboard was used in combination with manual “tab stops” to easily “tabulate” text: arranging letters so that each would begin at the same position on the page, as when laying out a table of figures. When laying out tables in a word processing document it is always best to use standard tabs, if possible, setting “tab stops” within the paragraph style so that there are exactly the same number of tabs as there are columns of data. Some fancier word processors create a sort of grid which can be colored and allows justification within the various table “cells” but this does not translate well between programs and should be avoided if at all possible. Captions for tables (as their own paragraph style, of course) will also simplify creation of tables of contents later.

Print Preview

When placing graphics and tables or using document-wide formats such as special title pages, left and right headers, footnotes and tables of contents or bibliographies, one of the most useful features in a word processor is the “page preview” function which allows one to view a “thumbnail” of the text as it will look at arms-length on the page. This helps prevent split tables or graphics that begin or end on different pages, as well as less-serious sins such as text “widows” or “orphans” where a single word or line is separated from a main paragraph. When using the page preview function, it is sometimes helpful to use “column break,” “section break” or “page break” functions, as well as such industry-specific features as line or section numbers for legal documents.

As with most guidelines, these basics are intended to give you a sense of what word processors can do well as you understand them better and learn to use them more skillfully. As always, your mileage may vary, and it it is important to remember Orwell’s great injunction to “break any of these rules sooner than [do] anything outright barbarous.”


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