Style(s) Over Substance

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A Lesson Learned

One of the better lessons I learned very early in my computing career was:

“Always look for the lazy user: he or she will find the most efficient way to do everything!” 

I am one of the laziest you will find.

Improve Your Life

The use of styles in Microsoft Word is one of those things I can pass on to you: it’s not quite sliced bread, or a better mousetrap. But it will improve your life, by releasing a lot more of it for you to spend on things you like doing.

What is a style?

At its simplest, it’s a “named collection of formatting”. Formatting we assign a name to, so we can find it and use it again.  We collect formatting so we can apply it with a single click. Using styles, I can format well over 400 pages of text in a day, to press-ready standard.  Many people would struggle to do ten pages a day, unless they were using styles.

Let’s make some assumptions: 

You often produce substantial documents. Substantial documents are necessarily complex.

Quite often, these documents are “customer-facing” (i.e. documents that outside customers will see) so you will format and print with careful attention to design and printing, since your reputation is at stake. You often keep such documents in service for many years. And of course, you maintain them by adding and moving text around.

That’s the “Professional Documents” use case, how professionals work.

Dramatically different from the “single use” (throw-away!) documents you often see school kids produce. We all do those: write ‘em, email ‘em, delete ‘em. Presentation is not a primary concern in those.

Up there with godliness

In professional documentation, consistency is up there with godliness, and, some would suggest, well ahead of cleanliness. Consistent documents are quick to create, easy to maintain, and rugged when kept in service for many years. Styles are the way to achieve this: automatically, without thought or effort.

Remember we said a style is a “named collection” of formatting? OK, so let me format this paragraph… Because the entire world is younger than me, I chose a sans-serif font (anyone born after 1970 will struggle to read anything else). So Calibri, because I like it. I chose a font size of 11 points (12 points is a little large for corporate documents, and 10 points means us oldies have to find our glasses to read it). Then I chose a line height of “single” (that means Word will automatically adjust the height of each line to contain the font on that line). In a further article, we can discuss variations on that. On an 11-point modern font, each line will be automatically adjusted to about 14 points high. Next I need to specify the text colour (“automatic” because “black” burns up too much ink) and a face (not bold) and a variant (not italic) as well as decoration (not underlined, not strike-through…). To space the text out nicely on the page, we specify some inter-paragraph leading (10 points in this case, and always “space after”. I will explain why in another article, but it makes pagination automatic.) I justified the text flush left (ragged right) because full justification looks embarrassingly ugly and it’s hard to read. I specified… I could go on for pages here: there are something like 1,200 bits of formatting a piece of text can have in Word…

Did I apply all of this formatting to each paragraph? Yes. Every paragraph? Yes. How long did that take?  One click!

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You got it!  I clicked the “Body Text” style. All formatting was applied instantly.

If the style is right, the formatting is right

Actually, I didn’t work that hard: I set my styles to automatically apply themselves each time I create a new paragraph: but that’s another thing that will have to wait for the next article, because I am running out of space here!

I do a lot of editing and proofing for a living, and some of my documents run more than 2,000 pages. I never need to check the formatting: it cannot be wrong, throughout the whole document; because all of the formatting is contained in the style. If the style is right, the formatting is right — don’t have to look, don’t have to think, every character is correct.

Wouldn’t you like your documents to be like that? Stay tuned…

This blog post has been graciously provided by our new Contributor at Large:
John McGhie. 
Among other fine accomplishments, John is a Microsoft MVP (Word, Mac Word) and a Consultant Technical Writer at McGhie Information Engineering Pty Ltd in Sydney, Australia.