Hari's Corner

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How to use Word Processors

Filed under: Tutorials and HOWTOs by Hari
Posted on Sun, Aug 20, 2006 at 09:25 IST (last updated: Wed, Oct 29, 2008 @ 22:01 IST)

It's been a pet peeve of mine that a majority of people who use (WYSIWYG) word processors hardly understand the difference between visual formatting and document structure. When a document is created using a word processor, there are a few "don'ts" that I'd like to prescribe for those who want to create reusable and maintainable documents.

Don't create headings by just changing the font and font size

Ugh. There's nothing more ugly than using the "default paragraph" style as a heading by merely changing its font/font size. It prevents MS-Word (or whatever word processor you're using) from detecting the presence of a document structure and you can never create a Table of Contents.

Don't go from paragraph to paragraph, modifying paragraph properties

This is another issue I have with people. Have you ever modified a document by going from one paragraph to another by selecting huge chunks of text to modify its properties? This is a waste of time and makes your document a nightmare to maintain. Instead use the style manager of your word processor to define a particular paragraph style and apply it to all the text in your document. Makes it much easier.

Don't leave a trail of whitespaces to create blank lines/gaps

This kind of thing really isn't required. The best way to create spacing is to adjust page properties or use the "page break" feature to start text from a new page. For horizontal gaps try using tables or columns in your pages rather than manually leaving the space using spaces or tabs.

Again, many people have the habit of leaving a blank line between paragraphs. This is really not required. Gaps between paragraphs should be defined as a part of the paragraph properties and not by using whitespace characters.

Structure before visual formatting

Don't worry about the visual formatting of the document. Just use custom styles to enhance the visual appearance once your structure is in place. A visually appealing document without a structure can be a nightmare to maintain. A structured document can easily be made visually appealing with a minimum of effort later on. Always keep structure in mind while creating large documents.

Learn to use the style manager

This point is related to the earlier point. Using the style manager can be a great help in creating document elements which can easily be incorporated into your document. Do you need to use program listings in your code? Define a style which formats text in a fixed width font, within a boxed paragraph environment. Define this once and apply this style to whichever portions of text you need to format as code in your document. This makes it much easier to define and use a variety of document elements without doing the visua formatting work over and over again.

Finally, select the right tools for the right jobs

Finally I would suggest that people who want to create technical documentation or documentation that requires long-term maintenance either use a structured, feature-rich high-level typesetting system like LaTeX or a meta markup language like XML/SGML which enforces structuring rules rather than maintain these documents as DOC files.

Word processors are best left to PAs and office secretaries who create disposable documents like letters. Technical documentation which requires long-term maintenance and updation should almost never be written using a WYSIWYG editor.

4 comment(s)

  1. wow- I have never thought of that, using the styles for the headings and stuff- I was taught to use the font size thingy. It would make reformatting a 2000 words+ essay much much easier. thanks! I will try and repair my ways, :D which should come in handy for all the essays and stuff I have to write.

    Comment by titanium (visitor) on Sun, Aug 20, 2006 @ 17:31 IST #
  2. True, a lot of people have been taught the wrong way. Maintaining and updating a document without an outline structure and clearly defined document elements would be a nightmare.

    Comment by hari (blog owner) on Sun, Aug 20, 2006 @ 17:55 IST #
  3. I don't like using word processors at all. Since most of my stuff goes through e-mail to someone somewhere, I prefer plain text editors. That way, there aren't a bunch of attachments to deal with.

    I receive a lot of things written in various Word formats and most of it is hideous to look at. I think RTF would be better.

    Comment by RT Cunningham (visitor) on Mon, May 28, 2012 @ 19:33 IST #
  4. Yes, but the main problem with Word Processors is that it allows users to use visual formatting in favour of structural formatting.

    OpenOffice/LibreOffice Writer is way better than MS Word, though. RTF is an outdated binary format.

    Comment by Hari (blog owner) on Mon, May 28, 2012 @ 20:33 IST #

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