Save Time by Mastering the Basics: Efficient Movement within a File

We technical communicators aren’t so different from the rest of the world: we tend to reach a comfortable plateau in our skills, and so long as we’re meeting our deadlines reasonably efficiently using those skills, we tend to lack the motivation to pay close attention to what we’ve been doing and look for improvements. But what if I told you that you could potentially save 15 minutes per day without doing anything more arduous than mastering three new keyboard shortcuts? And what if I told you that you could double that time savings by learning a few more tricks? These numbers are real based on my own work as an editor. Your mileage may, of course, vary, but the time savings are still likely to represent a significant repayment for the time it takes to read this article, followed by a few minutes of effort practicing what you’ll learn.

To Save Time, First Review the Numbers

The keystrokes in question are three basic ones that each of us uses repeatedly to move around the page while we revise our own work or someone else’s manuscript: moving between sentences, between words, and within a sentence. If you’re an editor, you’ll use these shortcuts even more frequently while you edit someone else’s work. Let’s do some simple math to see how gaining efficient movement might work. (Skip ahead to “What do the numbers mean?” if you’re willing to trust my arithmetic and my assumptions.) These numbers are all based on a bit of Internet research, reality-checked using some sample documents on my computer, so treat them as reasonable approximations rather than hard data. Your mileage may vary, needless to say (for example, this article shows that I tend to write longer-than-average sentences and use longer words.)

First, let’s figure out the typical number of movements we’ll need to make per group of 1000 words:

  • The average length of an English word is typically considered to be about 5 letters. Let’s increase that to 6 to account for spaces and punctuation and the fact that technical terms tend to be longer.
  • The average length of an English sentence is typically about 15 words. Let’s assume that a typical English sentence has a single punctuation symbol midway through it. (Obviously, many will have more punctuation than that.)
  • Summary: At 15 words per sentence, we have about 66 sentences per 1000 words. Let’s call that 65 sentences to simplify the calculations.
  • Let’s assume that if you’re a really good writer, you’ll only need to make two changes per sentence, for a total of 130 corrections per 1000 words. In my editing work, I may make dozens of changes per sentence.

What Do the Numbers Mean?

Before we can calculate what all this means, we need a few statistics. Specifically, we need to find out how long it takes to reach the 130 positions per 1000 words where we’ll need to make corrections.

  • Using the mouse, this means a total of 130 clicks: whether you move to the start of a sentence, to midsentence, or to any given word, all that’s required is a single click.  However, each movement requires the following steps: you must move your hand from the keyboard to the mouse, move to the problem word or phrase, click the mouse to position the cursor, then return your hand to the keyboard before you can make the correction. To estimate the time per movement, I recorded the total time required for 20 of these cycles (ca. 60 seconds), then divided that total by 20 to obtain an average of 3 seconds per click. Total time: 390 seconds per 1000 words.
  • Using the arrow keys: To move between sentences, I set the keyboard repeat rate to its maximum, then held down the right arrow key and recorded the time required for the cursor to move 1000 characters. I multiplied that amount by 6 to calculate the total time per 1000 words, then reduced that by half on the assumption that about half the time I would use the down arrow key instead of relying exclusively on the right arrow key. As in the case of mouse use, there’s no difference whether you’re moving to the start or middle of a sentence or to a word midway through each half of the sentence: the time per character doesn’t change. Total time: 320 seconds per 1000 words.
  • Using keyboard shortcuts: The total number of keystrokes equals 65 times to move to the start of a sentence, 65 times to move to mid-sentence (a total of 130 moves), then 4 one-word moves to reach the word in each half of the sentence that needs correction (130 half sentences times 4 moves = 520 moves). Thus, the total number of moves per 1000 words is 650. To calculate the time, I recorded how long it took me to press 50 keyboard shortcuts, then multiplied that total by 13 to get the total for 650 keystrokes. Total time: 200 seconds per 1000 words.

 

Figure 1:  Time Spent Moving in a Document (assumes 65 sentences per 1000 words, and 2 corrections per sentence)
Method Actions per 1000 words Seconds per 1000 words
Mouse Clicks

130

390

Arrow Keys

320

Keyboard Shortcuts

650

200

 

These numbers will probably surprise you: depending on how you work, you’re spending between 3 and 6 minutes per 1000 words just moving around your document. But it’s the differences between the three methods that are truly astonishing: using the keyboard shortcuts instead of the mouse saved me 190 seconds (more than 3 minutes) per 1000 words, and using those shortcuts instead of the arrow keys saved me 120 seconds (2 minutes) per 1000 words. Multiply that by the number of thousands of words that you revise daily to calculate your potential time savings. For a concrete example, consider my typical day. I work as an editor for people who aren’t professional authors (they’re scientists and engineers), who are writing about complex subjects (science and technology) in their second (sometimes third) language. On a good day, I can edit on the order of 10 000 words, so using just these three keyboard shortcuts saves me a minimum of 20 minutes per day.

Adjust the numbers and assumptions I’ve presented here to suit your taste and calculate a number that’s realistic for your own work; your results may not be as surprising as my results, but they’ll still be significant. If you really want a surprise, calculate how much time you’ll save over the course of a year: 15 minutes per day for 48 weeks amounts to 12 hours over the course of a year. Now ask yourself: Would an extra 15-minute coffee break or mental health break each day during a deadline crunch justify learning three new tricks and practicing them for a week?

Creating the Keyboard Shortcuts that Save Time

Here’s how to create the three keystrokes I’ve described in Microsoft Word 2007 or 2010 (Windows) and Word 2008 or 2011 (Macintosh):

 

Word 2007/2010

Word 2008/2011

Start or end of sentence
  • Open the Word menu
  • Click the Word Options button.
  • Select the Customize tab.
  • Click the Customize button beside the words “Keyboard shortcuts”.
  • Open the Tools menu
  • Select “Customize keyboard”.
For all three versions of Word, create a custom keyboard shortcut:

  • Under categories, select “All commands”.
  • Under the list of commands, scroll down to “SentLeft” (move to the start of the sentence) and “SentRight” (move to the end of the sentence).
  • Define a keyboard shortcut for each. (I use Control+Alt+Home and Control+Alt+End, respectively.)
  • Click the Assign button, then click OK to close the dialog box.

Word 2007/2010

Word 2011

Mid-sentence punctuation
  • Select the ribbon’s Developer tab.
  • Click the button “Record a macro”.
[Word 2008 doesn’t support macros, but you can record these keystrokes with QuicKeys (see the References section for details) or other macro software.]

  • Open the Tools menu.
  • Select Macro, then Record New Macro.
For both versions:

  • Click the OK button to proceed without assigning the macro to a keyboard shortcut. (You can assign a keyboard shortcut now if you prefer. I’ve chosen not to because it’s useful to know how to add a keystroke to a recorded macro.)
  • Open the Find dialog box (Control+F in Windows; Command+F on the Mac).
  • In the “Find what” field, type the following (i.e., the list of punctuation marks, bounded by square brackets): [:;,.\!\?]
    The \ character is necessary before the last two characters because without them, ! and ? have a special meaning in wildcard searches and the search function won’t find the two punctuation characters.
  • Select the “Use wildcards” checkbox.
  • Click the Find Next button.
  • Close the dialog box.
  • In the Developer tab, click the “Stop recording” button.
  •  Open the Tools menu.
  • Select Macro, then “Stop recording”.
Assign a keyboard shortcut to this macro using the Customize feature that I described earlier in this table, but under “Categories”, scroll down and select “Macros” to display a list of the available macros. I use Control+Alt+Right arrow to move to the next punctuation. It’s also useful to be able to move to the previous punctuation. Record exactly the same macro, but change one step: change the search direction to “Current document up” in the Find dialog box. (As the keyboard shortcut for this macro, I use Control+Alt+Left arrow.)

Word 2007/2010

Word 2008/2011

Next (previous) word Control+Right arrow (left arrow) Command+Right arrow (left arrow)

There are a great many other shortcuts you can develop for simple things like moving around. For example, paying close attention to how I worked revealed that I frequently needed to move to mid-sentence numbers, to opening brackets, and to closing brackets. Using the same “find” method I described above for moving to mid-sentence punctuation, I recorded macros that moved me to each of these things in a single keystroke: Control+3 (memory aid: the # sign is above the 3), Control+9 (memory aid: the left bracket is above the 9), and Control+0 (memory aid: the right bracket is above the 0). I haven’t calculated the time savings, but given that I may do each of these moves dozens of times per page, the saving is undoubtedly significant.

The simple example of moving around more efficiently reveals a larger principle: there are many actions that each of us performs dozens or even hundreds of times daily in our technical communication work. Failing to look for more efficient ways to do those actions may be costing each of us minutes per day and hours per year. Paying a little attention to how we’re working and specifically to the kinds of things we’re doing repeatedly can reveal these inefficiencies. If any of those actions wastes time, it’s worthwhile spending a few minutes to figure out whether there’s a way to do them faster. An investment of a few minutes thinking about how you work can save you hours over the course of a year.

If you’re interested in learning more, have a look at my book on onscreen editing. Chapter 5 provides more tips for moving around a document and selecting text, and Chapter 11 provides tips on using Word’s automation tools to drastically improve your efficiency.

References

Hart, G. 2010. Effective onscreen editing: new tools for an old profession. Diaskeuasis Publishing, Pointe-Claire, Que. Printed version, 507 p.; eBook in PDF format, 723 p. <http://www.geoff-hart.com/books/eoe/onscreen-book.htm>.

QuicKeys 4 for the Macintosh: <http://startly.com/products/quickeys/mac/4/>

 

A special thank you to Adobe Systems, Inc. for sponsoring our Users’ Advocate column. You can learn more about Adobe’s industry-leading technical communication tools by going to their website.

Geoff Hart

During a sometimes checkered career, Geoff has worked for IBM, the Canadian Forest Service, and the Forest Engineering Research Institute of Canada. In 2004, he threw away all that job security stuff for the carefree—not!—life of the freelancer. Geoff works primarily as a scientific editor, but also does technical writing and French translation, and occasionally falls into the trap of leading or managing groups.

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