27 April, 2009

Your word processor is no typewriter

I learned how to type before I had a computer. In fact, I traded in my quill-sharpening kit for a manual typewriter and learned how to type at night school. I was a graduate student at the time, and yet the bun-wearing schoolmarm in charge actually shouted at me in front of the class. My crime? Typing Shelley's poem "Ozymandias" from memory when I'd finished the repetitive exercises she'd given me.

So it is with some pleasure that I state that all typing teachers in that era were irredeemably wrong. In fact, they have caused more trouble and expense to computer users than anybody will ever know. As someone who's spent the past 20 years digging up digital documents and correcting them for publication, I can state this with some authority. Without exception, well-trained typewriter typists make messy digital documents. Oh, their documents may print out all right, but their redundant spaces and tabs make any attempt to edit or change a font an exercise in frustration.

These are the top four typewritten crimes against word processing:

Crime 1: Entering two spaces after a period. Typewriters couldn't adjust letter spacing, so typing teachers taught students to hit the spacebar twice so it was easy to see the end of a sentence. Word processors handle spacing automatically, so there is no good reason to do this anymore. In fact, it looks terrible.

Crime 2: Hitting the Tab key to indent a line. This terrible habit was the only way to do it with a typewriter. It's a waste of effort now that you can pre-format your document. If you have a document with a hanging indent (where each line except the first one is indented), it's a labor-intensive nightmare, especially when you need to make corrections.

Crime 3: Using combinations of tabs and spaces to line up text. Ever heard of word processed tables? You will. Read on.

Crime 4: Hitting the Enter key twice to space out paragraphs. Once again, a waste of effort. One that I occasionally commit, but really shouldn't.

So how do you do it right?

When you open your document, set the page layout right away. In Microsoft Word, press Ctrl+A to select the entire document, then pick Format, Paragraph. In the Indentation section, under Special, select First Line. Under Spacing, select the Auto option under Before. If you need to double-space, select that here too.

When you want to make two or more columns, don't use tabs. Instead, create a table with the right number of columns. In Word, select Table and Insert, and make the columns right. Then when the table appears, drag to highlight the whole thing, and select Borders and Shading. Click on None to ensure you won't see the lines on the table when you print it out.

How to Clean Up a Mistyped Document

Of course, if you correct a document that's already messed up, it will look even more of a mess. So you need to know a few clean-up tricks using the search and replace tool. In Microsoft Word, you open the dialog box with Ctrl+H or the Edit, Replace menu. Tidying up the two-spaces-after-a-period crime is easy: In the Find What box, enter a period and two spaces. In the Replace With, enter a period with one space. Presto!

Tabs and paragraph returns are harder to replace automatically, because you can't hit a Tab or Enter key in a search-and-replace box. But you can enter the code for these characters: ^t and ^p. Hold down the Shift key and press 6, and you've got that caret symbol (^). Follow it with a P for paragraph return or T for a tab.

Undoing the tabbed indent crime becomes easy, then. In Find What, enter ^p^t. In Replace With, enter ^p and click the Replace All button. Undoing the double-return crime is also easy: replace ^p^p with ^p and click Replace All.

Now, inspect your document. You may find a few indents made up of spaces. These can be removed by replacing ^p followed by a space with plain ^p and hitting Replace All several times, until Word tells you there were no changes made.

About the only residual problem I've ever found after going through these steps are blocks of data that used to look like tables and weird page breaks because people hit Enter five or more times to get over the page.

Page breaks are best handled in Word by holding down the Ctrl key and pressing Enter. This inserts a page break symbol.

Copying blocks of data out of "tables" made up of tabs is requires a little-known Alt key trick: Hold down the Alt key and use the mouse to draw a selection box around a column of text. Once you've selected what you need, cut it and paste it into a real Word table.

Now you've unlearned all the bad habits you learned from typing teachers, make sure the next generation doesn't commit them: Buy your kids a $30 copy of Type To Learn 3 from Sunburst Software (www.sunburst.com). In fact, if you still hunt-and-peck, buy it for yourself and try it out for a while. It's better for your wrists than online gaming, and it's kind of fun too. Best of all, it's guaranteed not to shout at you for typing poetry when you're done with your exercises.

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