Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Tools -- MS Word 101 and 5 reasons to make it your writing tool of choice

New and aspiring writers always want to talk about tools, thinking for some reason that a piece of software is going to make them a better writer. I do not think that is the case, but choosing good tools will certainly make the process easier.

In tool discussions, one thing I notice is a great deal of Word bashing, as if MS Word is somehow antithetical to writing or even to being creative. A recent Word bashing session on the I Should Be Writing Podcast inspired me to write this article to dispel the myth, advocate Word as an excellent tool for writers and provide some pointers on using Word.

First, Word is the most readily available word processor, the defacto standard, and is one of the most capable on the market. It also happens to be the tool I have chosen after evaluating dozens of others and I just know you want to be like me--your personal hero.

Aside from turning my computer into a typewriter, Word has five powerful tools that make it ideal for writing: styles, the document map, comments, templates and macros. They are listed in order of utility and ease of use, with Macros being the hardest to master and providing capabilities only power-users really need.

The first key feature, and the easiest to use, is Styles. These are simply pre-set formatting choices that can be selected with a single mouse click. In Word 2007, just select the paragraph or phrase you wish to format and click on the style you want in the ribbon bar. Easy. Power users can create their own styles and modify existing styles to fit their needs. Using the Heading 1, 2, and 3 styles builds an outline into your document that can be seen in the Document Map and used to automatically generate a table of contents. I also have custom styles for hidden text like outlines and paragraphs I have cut but may want to reuse. Macros (below) can modify styles with a single mouse-click allowing an entire document to be instantly reformatted.

The Document Map shows an outline of your work in a sidebar (provided you have used the Heading 1, 2, and 3 styles mentioned above). This map serves as a good reference and by clicking on a heading in the map, Word will jump you immediately to that position. My preference is to use Heading 1 for chapters, Heading 2 for scenes, and Heading 3 both for key plot points and to track completion of parts of my book. To track work, I prepend Heading 3 titles with asterisks: *** = unwritten, just an outline; **=rough; *=drafted, needs proofread; and no stars means that section is done.

Comments are a wonderful feature. You can add comments in Word that show up as thought balloon off to the side of the page. You can put whatever you want in them. They don’t show up when you print the document (unless you tell Word to include them), and comments are easy to remove if you need to mail an uncommented file to someone, say an editor. Even better, your first readers can add comments, which you can merge into your working copy for reference during revision. I use comments for almost everything, inserting the date first, then whatever I need: character notes, things to fix or check, plot or world notes, whatever thought I want to capture, but don’t want in the story itself.

Templates are good for insuring standard manuscript format and saving time when starting new projects or files. Once you have a document formatted the way you want, simply strip out the content (perhaps replacing it with instructions for each area) and save the document as a template. Later, you can select this template when you open a new document, starting out with the set-up you like rather than starting each new document from scratch. My standard template has the correct font, a section at the top for notes, history and a list of things to do, my contact information, page headers and page numbers, all set up and ready to use as soon as I open the file.

Macros are programs or scripts. These take a little more finesse and skill to use effectively, but give Word the flexibility to do almost anything you want it to. If you perform a task over and over, you can record it as a macro, and then play the macro when you need to, letting the computer do the work for you. I have macros that show and hide my headings (since I don’t want them in submitted manuscripts), remove comments from a document and clear formatting from a selection. I have all of these mapped to buttons on my Quick Access Toolbar, so I can perform any of these tasks with a single mouse-click.

A warning on Macros: Macro behavior can be a little temperamental and the record function doesn’t always record what you expect. Because of this, I highly recommend thoroughly testing new Macros before you use them with your precious novels or stories. For complex tasks, you may need to manually debug or manually write the macro, a task which involves editing code in Visual Basic. A good skill to have, but not one common amongst writers.

So there you go. MS Word 101, and five good reasons to make it your writing tool of choice.

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