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ABCs of Word Processing I: First Looks

Word processors are the workhorses of computers. Almost everyone has a word processing program of some sort sitting on their computer – whether it came free with your system or you picked it out specially.

There are thousands of word processing programs for you to choose from, each offering a different mix of tools to help make it easier for you to write everything from letters and memos to brochures and Web pages.

Your free word processor

If you’re using Windows 3.1 or Windows 95, you received a free word processor with your operating system: Windows Write with Windows 3.1 and WordPad with Windows 95. These programs are fine for basic editing tasks, allowing you to create documents with bolded or italicized text, for example, and change the typeface style and size.

In ‘works’ style packages such as Microsoft Works or Claris Works, you’ll find more sophisticated word processing programs packed with snazzy features and designed to make everyday word processing easier. Such packages are great for home and school usage, or anywhere with modest word processing needs.

For those who need to create documents at work or who need to create complex documents (reports, theses, novels, graphics-intensive or table-intensive documents), a dedicated word processor from one of the big three – Corel, Lotus or Microsoft – will provide all the power you need. There are also word processors from many other companies, but you’ll find a staggering percentage of the PC-based world uses Corel WordPerfect, Lotus Ami Pro (or the newer Word Pro), or Microsoft Word for Windows.

Core concepts and skills

No matter which word processor you use, you’ll find there’s a core set of concepts and techniques which apply to them all. If you become proficient in one word processor, you’ll find it not at all hard to learn how to create basic documents in any other word processor. And if you get to know any of the big three, you’ll find similar tools available in each of the other two, even if the ‘packaging’ is considerably different.

The three basic rules

There are three essential rules for learning any computer application:

1. Look at the screen.

2. Don’t work on an urgent task while you’re learning.

3. Save constantly.

Really looking

Rule One: Look at the screen. Most beginners don’t look at their computer screens. Oh, they take a peek and think “Oh my, how confusing”. But that’s not really looking. The best way to start to get to know a program is to take a good long look at everything on your screen and become familiar with it.

For instance, when you first start up your word processor, before you type a single word, look at the menus and toolbars (the little strips of tiny pictures – called ‘icons’ or ‘toolbar buttons’) across the top of your screen. Let your mouse pointer pause on each button in the toolbar and you’ll see either a little label pop up indicating what it does, or you’ll see a message down in the status bar (the very bottom of the word processing window) with the same information.

In the latest versions of WordPerfect, you’ll see similar pop-up labels for the menus as well as the toolbars.

Notice how each toolbar button gives a graphic representation of its function: a little disk on the button which lets you save your work; a picture of a printer on the button which lets you print your work; and so on.

Common menus

Each word processing program has its own particular set of toolbars and menus, but many of the functions are similar. Most programs will have a File Menu, a Format or Text Menu, and a Help Menu, plus several others.

Take a look in the Help Menu. Online help is getting better and better and the advanced word processing programs have help ‘wizards’ or ‘assistants’ that will take your written question, for instance, “How do I change the size of my text?” and display the appropriate answer for you.

The File Menu is equally important. From the File Menu you can create a new document, open one you’ve already created, save and close documents, print documents and perform various other tasks affecting your files.

Alt key shortcuts

See how each menu has one of its letters underlined? There’s a reason: instead of opening the menus by pointing and clicking with your mouse, you can hold down the Alt key and press the underlined letter to open that particular menu (press the Esc key to close the menu without making a selection).

Open any menu and have a look at its contents. Some items are grayed out, indicating that option is currently unavailable. For example, the Table Menu in Word for Windows has most of its options grayed out unless you insert a table into your document (useful for creating neat columns of related text) and select the table.

The meaningful ellipsis (...)

Some options in each menu contain a word or phrase, some have a word or phrase followed by an ellipsis (. . .). The ellipsis indicates that when you select the menu option, a dialog box will open giving you more control over the option.

For example, in most word processors, if you click the toolbar ‘Print’ button, the word processor will automatically print all of your current document. If you use the File Menu Print option instead of the toolbar button, you’ll be presented with a dialog box that lets you choose which pages of the document to print, which printer to use for printing (if you have more than one connected to your computer) and so on.

The toolbar buttons are for quick shortcut tasks; the menu options are for complete control.

Watching while you work

Once you become familiar with the menus and toolbars and general layout of your word processing screen, don’t stop looking! Keep your eyes open while you work. Watch how the screen changes as you type (it’ll help enormously if you can teach yourself to touch type; trying to learn a computer while laboriously searching the keyboard for the ‘p’ key is going to drive you nuts).

When you click the Save button to save your work, take a good look at the Save dialog box and get to know each part of it. When you apply formatting to a document to make it look snazzier, watch how the toolbar buttons and the ruler reflect the formatting of the part of the document you’re working in.

The casual approach

Rule Two: Don’t work on an urgent task while you’re learning. Learning a new program is a process of discovery. You’ll learn best if you take your time and reduce the distractions and stresses while you’re learning.

The one worst way to learn a program is to try to produce something you need to do urgently. If you set yourself an urgent task, things are bound to go wrong and you’ll lose your ability to focus on learning. Instead, you’re likely to end up cursing the word processor for making life so damn difficult.

Word processing as play

Treat your first sessions with your word processor as play. Think of something fun or non-urgent you’d like to do, and spend lots of time doing it. That way, it doesn’t matter if things don’t work out as you expect or you make mistakes. You can take your time to undo them or start from scratch if you have to.

If you take away the urgency, you’ll find you can wander through all the menu options and click on toolbar buttons to your heart’s content.

While you do so, remember to watch what you’re doing: you may click a toolbar button and suddenly your document looks different (for example, switching from ‘normal’ view to ‘page layout’ view in some programs gives you a whole different view of your document).

As long as you notice what you’re doing and take your time, you’ll be able to retrace your steps and recover from inadvertent discoveries.

In particular, learn to use the Undo button that most word processors have. It lets you undo your most recent changes and can be a lifesaver.

Save your work!

Rule Three: Save constantly. Or, to put it another way: save, save, save, save, save, save, save.

If you save your work early and often it doesn’t matter if you mess up. You can experiment and putter around exploring your word processor without feeling a mistake will put you back at square one.

How often is ‘often’? Every paragraph is not too frequently. After all, once you’ve saved your document initially and given it a name, saving any changes you make entails nothing more than a quick click on the Save button or, in most word processors, pressing Ctrl-S.

A good way to measure whether it’s time to save is the ‘Agony of Loss’ indicator. Take a nanosecond every now and then and ask yourself “How upset would I be if there was a blackout right now and everything I’ve just done was lost?”. If you wince at the thought, click the Save button.

The trouble with AutoSave

One thing to watch out for is the automatic saving (or AutoSave) feature you’ll find in most powerful word processors. This feature automatically saves your work after a given interval. This may seem like a neat safety cushion, allowing you to escape disaster even if you don’t save the document yourself. However, it can be a trap in itself.

The trouble with AutoSave is it saves your document without asking you. Say you’ve been working on a document and you make a change that messes up all your careful formatting. If AutoSave kicks in at that moment, it will save your document in its currently messed-up state. That’s not what you want.

The other trap in AutoSaving is that it doesn’t teach you to become a constant saver. Making saving a habit will stand you in good stead no matter what program you’re using on the computer. And many of them don’t have an AutoSave feature at all.

On the other hand, your word processor should also let you create automatic ‘backup’ copies of files you’re working on. If something goes wrong with your original document, you can open the backup copy and retrieve your work from that.

If your word processor has these options (check in the manual or online help under ‘Saving’ or ‘backing up’ or ‘AutoSave’), my advice is to turn AutoSave off and turn the creation of backup copies on.


Straight on to Part II: Editing


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