by Al Kalar
Word processors are great. Make a mistake, just back up and correct it. Want to move a scene to a new place in your book, just “cut” it out and “paste” it in its new home. Those of us who grew up with typewriters really appreciate these features. But did you know that your word processor is more than just a glorified typewriter? It has hidden potentials that I wish everyone would use (since it would make my job a lot easier). I’ll use Microsoft’s Word 2000 as an example since it’s my tool of choice. Most word processors beyond Notepad have many, if not all, of these features.
In most Microsoft products (and others written for Windows) you have the ability to right click on an item and get a drop-down list of the most common things you can do with the item. For instance, if you highlight a sentence and right click on it, you’ll be able to cut, copy, paste, change the font, bring up the paragraph options, and other things. The list is not all-inclusive. Things less frequently done can still be found in the top menu and other usual places.
This is the feature most people use. The average writer runs the spell-checker after completing a piece to find mis-spelled words. Sometimes, a writer will forget this step. But did you know that you can tell the spell-checker to check your work as you type? In Word, click on “Tools” in the top menu, then Options and the click on the Spelling & Grammar tab. Select the Check spelling as you type check box. Also the Always suggest corrections. You can check or clear other boxes in the group to control spell checking of other items such as capitalized words. Now, when you finish typing a word, your word processor will check it and flag it if it doesn’t like your spelling. In Word, it will underline it in red. Of course, it won’t detect a correctly spelled word in the wrong place. For instance, if you used “to” when “too” is needed, the spell checker won’t flag it. If you right-click on the misspelled word, the checker will suggest alternative spelling choices. You can click on the correct one or try again. If your spelling is more than a couple of letters off, the checker may not be able to guess the correct version. If you coin a word or name and use it a lot in your manuscript, the number of wavy red underlines may become annoying. Again, you can right click on the word and tell the word processor to add the word to your personal dictionary or just to ignore all instances of the word in the document.
This is a relatively new feature, but one I used to rely on extensively. You can tell your word processor to check your grammar as you type in the same manner as the spell-checker. In fact, the option is in the same section of the Options choice of your Tools menu. Now, this feature is not always right, so use it as an indicator that a phrase or sentence needs to be examined. Don’t follow it slavishly. In dialog, people often speak in incomplete sentences or use poor word choices, and if you write your dialog in that manner, the grammar checker will put a wavy green line under your phrase (in Word). You can tell it to ignore the phrase so the line will go away or just examine it and move on. I particularly like the grammar checker’s ability to find passive phrases and suggest an active phrase to replace it (you have to right click on the underlined sentence). If you use just that feature, your writing will improve considerably. It also catches extra spaces between words within a sentence along with missing or incorrect commas and other punctuation.
Word processors are loaded with shortcuts that make our job easier. Keyboard tricks such as copy (ctl-c) cut (ctl-x), paste (ctl-v), and un-do (ctl-z).
For authors, the two I like save a lot of work. You can insert an em-dash (—) using ctl-alt and the minus sign on your numeric keyboard. The other shortcut I like is to produce an ellipsis (…) using ctl-alt-period (from the regular keyboard). Now, just because you can, please, please, please don’t overuse these two punctuations. If you use these two a lot, the reader will become annoyed (often without knowing why) and decide your work isn’t something they want to read. There are more features in Word and the other major word processors. Don’t be afraid to dig into it and learn more of the neat things you can do to make your writing life easier. You might want to start with style sheets (Format –> Style). Have fun!