Understanding Word Processor Series–Part 1

Word processor basics

Topic status automatically displays here - do not remove.

Bookmark me!Bookmark this topic  Print me!Print this topic

By Colin Ramsden, April 2006.

One of the most frustrating aspects of reviewing and editing other people's writing, is when the writer happens to be relatively new to word processing, and hasn't been made aware of the benefits and pitfalls in using a word processor. This article will attempt to guide and assist the early user of a word processor through the basics of document construction so that they can produce easily maintainable and manageable documents which are suitable for editing by more experienced users without too much trouble. 

Controlling document appearance

When writers new to word processors are not given adequate supervision and assistance, the first real writing task they face is how to control the appearance of their documents. Most people can figure out or have been shown how to start a particular program like a word processor, but figuring out how to control the appearance of a document once they've started is not intuitive or readily understandable without first being shown how and why.

"The online help with most word processing software programs is grossly lacking in the basic steps for early users. Even books professing to be for 'dummies', mostly do not address the early basic fundamental requirements of document layout and the benefits of using common formatting styles."

When left to their own devices, most people in these circumstances use whatever first comes to hand–the keyboard. The immediate and obvious solution is to manually apply layout directly into the text as it is being typed. The new word processor user soon discovers that to start a new line, they press the Enter key, and to indent the left edge of a line, press the hold the Spacebar key.

This is universal, no matter which word processing software program is being used. It does the job, but in a very simplistic way, making text alignment difficult. You will see in the example and further explanation below, how this method of (manually inserted) layout control also makes any future editing or maintaining of the document extremely difficult, if not impractical, so therefore is not the recommended way to control page layout when using a word processor.

The result of this type of (manually inserted) layout control is often visible as large line spacing between headings and text, uneven line spacing between lines, ragged left indenting of lines and ragged indented of paragraphs. For example, please examine only the layout (not the written content) of the following snippet from an unformatted Word document. See that the left edges of the 'Steps' don't align with each other. If you rule a vertical line against them, the differences are clearly visible:

[Click here to toggle the display alignment line].

Without alignment line

See also that there appears to be an excessively large vertical gap between the heading and the procedure, and that the line spacing between the steps is identical to the line spacing within the steps.

This line spacing is a direct result of how this document was authored in the word processor, and is controlled by invisible formatting marks. We'll explain these marks in a little while, but first it's important to gain a brief understanding of the major benefits of word processors, so that we can better understand why we need to know about these formatting marks. 

See Word processing benefits.

Back to Top

Word processing major benefits

Modern word processors provide a number of benefits over document creation tools of the past such as typewriters and typesetting for publication. The first major benefit is you get to see what the document will look like before it is printed. Previous to the advent of word processing, the document would have been professionally printed, and then manually proofread and marked-up in red pen by hand. (There's a whole language of proofreader's marks developed solely for this purpose—look in the appendixes of any reasonably sized English dictionary!) The corrections would need to be either retyped by the typist or reset by the typesetter, then reprinted by the professional printer for further proof checking by the writer or editor. The writer didn't know how it would look in print until after it was actually physically printed and returned.

Word processing provided instant onscreen presentation of the page layout so the writer could see how it would look before it was printed. This has changed the way most modern offices now create their documentation, and along with the advent of inexpensive desktop printing machines, has also dramatically reshaped the professional printing industry.

The second major benefit of word processing is that you can edit and change the text onscreen at any place at any time. No longer does the typist have to retype (or typesetter have to reset) a page (or section or chapter!) whenever a change is made to insert or delete text. The text changes are made online and saved to an electronic file for later recall and reuse if desired.

Whenever text is added or deleted to a word processor document, the remainder of the text reflows to expand or contract accordingly and adjusts for the changes automatically. This is extremely useful when it comes to editing the document. The editor simply selects the position in the text for insertion and starts typing, or selects the text for deletion and deletes it. The remainder of the document reflows around the changes automatically, unless the original document wasn't formed properly to a minimum standard of complete sentences and whole paragraphs. More about that below.

The third major benefit of word processors is that they allow you intimate control of the appearance and layout of your documents at the click of a button. Using predefined styles–which you can customise to suit any aspect of the appearance of your document–you can apply a style to any part of the document, from an individual character to a paragraph, a series of paragraphs, a section, the whole document, or even a group of documents.

The fourth major benefit of word processors, is that they store their documents in electronic files which can be easily archived for posterity, sent to others electronically if desired at any time of your choosing, can be retrieved and duplicated, changed and resaved again, as many times as you like.

Other major benefits of using word processors include the creation of:

This list was not expansive, and made no attempt to cover all possible scenarios or major benefits, and was presented here only to provide you with an insight as to the possibilities and potential benefits made available to the writer through the use of word processors.

The important point to remember from this brief description of word processor benefits is that for online editing to be of any use, (and that's the second major benefit of word processors), the document must be structured to the minimum standard of properly formed complete sentences and whole paragraphs. Please keep this in mind when writing your documents, and as we discuss the next section in this article.

Now back to the basics of word processor usage. We'll discuss the use of styles and formatting in greater detail later, and for now concentrate on the structure of the document layout and the use of word processor formatting marks.  

See Formatting marks.

Back to Top

Formatting marks

In word processors, spacing and paragraph formatting information is embedded into the online document as non-printing hidden marks. These marks are normally hidden from display on-screen, and do not print either. However, they can be made to display on-screen if you desire. Revealing non-printing formatting marks can be a very useful aid to page layout control.

To reveal paragraph and spacing marks (which controls the text layout on the page), you'll need to turn-on the display of hidden marks in the word processor program. In Microsoft Word XP (2002) for example, this option is available under the menu Tools | Options on the 'View' tab under 'Formatting marks', check 'All' and click OK.

With formatting marks visible, the document will display a middle dot sign (·) for every space character by the Spacebar key, and the pilcrow sign () for every paragraph created by the Enter key.

A reinspection of the text now reveals that a new paragraph has been created for every line (as there is a pilcrow sign at the end of each line), and that spaces have been used at the start of nearly every line in an attempt to left align the indented text. (The left indents don't all align properly using spaces because this particular font, "Times New Roman", has different width characters—is not fixed width like the "Courier font family".)

Word Processing Basic Rule #1:
There is no need to press the Enter key at the end of each line in a word processor. Just keep typing and the text will automatically wrap to the next line whenever it reaches the end of the available space on the previous line. This is called "word-wrap" and is standard behaviour in all word processing software programs. Only ever press the Enter key at the end of a complete paragraph to create a new paragraph on a new line following it.

Using the Enter key at the end of each line in the example above created a new paragraph where no new paragraph was needed, causing the sentence to be broken into fragments, making the job of editing the paragraph an unnecessary nightmare. Should anyone subsequently attempt to alter the number of words on any line by deleting or adding any words to that sentence fragment, it is highly unlikely that the editing action would not cause the sentence fragment to either:

Not only that, but the use of separate paragraphs for each line necessitated the unnecessary use of extra spacing at the beginning of each line to align the indented left edge of the lines. As you can see from the example above, this created a lot of extra work for the original writer, and an unnecessary amount of extra work for anyone who has to ever edit or maintain this document in the future to remove this formatting disaster.

The only workable solution to the fragmented sentences and broken paragraphs in this example is to manually go through the document line by line removing all unnecessary paragraph marks and spaces, returning to complete sentences and whole paragraphs.

If the document was large, this amount of work could very well be deemed impractical, thus making it unworkable and unmaintainable. A pity, considering that this scenario is so easily preventable if done properly in the first place. Hence the need for this article.

To then have these paragraphs align with each other on the page as desired, the next step after removing these extra paragraph and spacing marks would be to apply appropriately formatted styles which contain the positioning and page layout details suitable for these paragraphs.

See part 2: Document formatting and styles.


Who am I? > find out more

See Also

Jump to site index page Lotech Solutions' Tips, Tricks, and Procedures

Back to Top