A person with a toolkit generally spends a bit of time learning to use the tools in it, otherwise he or she will get limited benefit from the tools available. It’s important to have the right tools, and it’s also important to learn how to use them effectively.
This post applies in that general sense to all computer software, but particularly to Microsoft™ Word and OpenOffice.org Writer (or one of its branches, such as LibreOffice). The material here applies equally to both systems.
If you’re going to just write letters to print, you may not need to spend a great deal of time learning. Find how to load and save files, do minimal editing, print, and you’re off and running. But what happens if you need to exchange files with someone? Correspondence is frequently exchanged by e-mail attachment these days, so how do you make sure your file can be read, and if necessary, converted by the person on the other end?
This doesn’t just apply to exchanging files between different programs. It can also apply to files that two different people need to edit. What will make it easier for the other person to edit without destroying the format of the entire manuscript?
I work with this regularly in publishing (Energion Publications), where the conversion is generally from Writer or Word to Adobe™ InDesign. Depending on what software our author is using, we also may be converting from Writer to Word, though that is generally in a less formatted state of the document. Normally it takes a couple of hours to clean up a book manuscript after conversion. Various little things mean that the formatting in InDesign doesn’t work as it should.
Recently, however, I got a manuscript from an author who had taught classes in using Microsoft™ Word. I had known this would be an improvement, but I was shocked at how well it went. In about 15 minutes I had all of the format converted over, What’s more, that 15 minutes would have applied equally to a 200, 300, or 400 page book.
Why? He knew how to use his software.
With that lengthy introduction, let me give you a few tips for making your various text editing and page layout programs interact. It’s all a matter of using the capabilities of the software, and these suggestions apply to just about any workflow.
- Save your most tricky formatting until the last. For example, if you’re going to add a drop cap to your first paragraph using an image, don’t add it until you’re ready to go to print. It will just move around and force you to reposition it if other things move. If you’re going to share a document that includes tricky elements with anyone who doesn’t need to edit it, do it in PDF format. In fact, it’s a good idea to use PDF when sharing unless you need to edit a document collaboratively.
- Use the spacebar and return key sparingly. In general, don’t hit either of these keys twice in a row. Use precise positioning such as you can do with styles (see below). Items positioned with the space bar or return key don’t keep their format as the document is edited.
- Use paragraph styles for every type of paragraph and only one style for each instance of the same type of paragraph. This is important. You can transfer properly styled documents between Word and Writer with generally good results. In my business, what’s important is that if styles are used properly, I can import a document into InDesign and fit it to a template with a few keystrokes. In a long document you should have styles for regular paragraphs, headings (one for each level), captions, footnotes, bibliography entries, signature lines, and anything else that’s repeated, and these styles should be consistent.
- Create your spacing in your style. For example, if you want a half an inch below your title before the text starts, make it part of the title style. If you want a drop cap on the first paragraph of your chapter, make a “first paragraph” style with the drop cap and apply that style to each paragraph. Then if you change your mind and want just a quarter inch below the title, all you do is change the title, and everything will update.
- Create character styles for different types of text. Why? It makes it easy to change things. Suppose you write your manuscript using bold text for emphasis. In each case you bold the text by hand. This seems OK and it looks OK. But supposing that at the end of editing you decide that your emphasized text should be in italics rather than bold. What do you do then? If you bolded by hand, you’ll have to construct and format search/replace which can be tricky (did you use bold only for emphasis?) or you can change them all by hand. If you created a character style for emphasis, all you’ll have to do is change that style from Bold to Italic, and you’re done.
- In tables, use cell and row formatting as well as text styles. Don’t position text in a cell with the return or space key. Use top, center, or bottom vertical alignment, or set a precise distance. It takes a bit more time when you do it, but it will save you time later.
- In files that will be edited collaboratively, avoid fancy formatting. Keep it simple. The more complex you get, the more specific the formatting is to the specific program you’re using and sometimes even to the computer you’re using it on (font availability being the key).
- Find a consistent procedure and use it. Just because something works and makes the document look good at the moment, doesn’t mean it will be good down the road.
We have powerful tools for text editing that cover everything from writing a business letter to creating a full book on the ordinary PC. Learning to use these tools properly will pay dividends.