Technical Writing Tips & Tricks: Taming MS Office

I am a firm believer that at some point in all our lives, we have wanted to destroy a computer due to a mildly violent disagreement with a Microsoft Office application (especially when a technical writing deadline is approaching).  However, throwing the computer off a tall building isn’t going to solve anything. Over the years, many list members have posted their frustrations and their workarounds to the problems MS Office present to technical writers. At Techwhirl, we want to share some tips and tricks when it comes to MS Office application to hopefully make your life a little easier. Most of these you probably learned in your early days in technical writing…but in case you’ve forgotten or just missed them, here’s a summary of ten basic tips to make MS Office work for you.

  1. In MS Word, try Ctrl + Shift + C and Ctrl + Shift + V. This copies/pastes the formatting of selected text.
  2. Use style sheets for everything including paragraphs. Do not just stick to Normal paragraph styles and manually bold and underline to create formatting and organization. Newbies to technical writing also add hard returns to create space between sections or paragraphs. But by the time page 10 comes around, it’s hard to remember what font and font size you used to head the current section.  Show your technical communications savvy and use paragraph styles to save time and keep documents looking clean and consistent. This also helps when your technical writing team starts moving beyond the basics into multiple outputs and single sourcing, and it’s time to start migrating legacy content.
  3. Let Word generate that Table of Contents. If you used Word’s predetermined heading styles, you can automatically generate a table of from the ribbon using Insert > References.  However, if like many of us, you create your own styles, you can generate the table of by going to Insert > Reference > Index and Tables, then choosing Options on the Table of Contents tab.
  4. Master Documents can be your friend. They were the bane of technical writing for many years. Recent versions of MS Word have made using Master Documents function less nightmarish. In fact, when dealing with massive word documents (500+ pages or over 32 Mb), Master Documents are a great solution for organizing and protecting your work from corruption. Essentially Master Documents act like large folders for lots of little files (called Sub-documents). There is typically no content in the Master Document file other than the TOC. Read more on MS Word Master Documents.
  5. In Excel, try Ctrl + Enter.  Sometimes we need to put the same information (including formulas) into multiple cells that are not necessarily all in the same row or column.  A quick way to do this is to hold Ctrl while selecting all the cells that need to be populated. Then, type the entry. Finally, instead of pressing Enter, hold Ctrl first and press Enter – your entry will be in all the selected cells.
  6. Comments Welcome.  When using Excel, try Shift + F2. This shortcut allows a comment to be added to a cell.
  7. Create folders for emails in Outlook.  This may seem like such a simple tip, but anyone who has spent more than five minutes searching through an Outlook Inbox for a specific email knows the value of folders.  Once you have created personalized, you can establish rules for sending all replies to an email thread back to the same folder as the original message.
  8. Utilize Views. Word provides three handy views for documents. Look at a document in Document Map to navigate through the documents via a column of headings on the left edge of the page.  Use Outline view to organize the document by structure, making headings and paragraphs easy to identify and edit (also useful for Master Documents).  Finally, if the final documents will be used as a web page, work on it in the Web Layout view.
  9. Lather, Rinse Repeat with F4.  A surprising number of MS Office users still don’t know about the F4 key. When you absolutely have to manually format words, or if you need to add or alter a reference in multiple references, you will find the F4 is one of technical writing’s best time savers.  F4 repeats your most recent action, saving valuable time that might have been wasted on selecting formatting actions for every occurrence. And it works in all Office applications.
  10. When in doubt, ask. There are a lot of forums out there filled with kind and helpful people. Start with the TechWhirl email discussion group! Other websites with useful information include: http://office.microsoft.com/en-us/help/CH010149515.aspx?CTT=5&origin=HA010233779 and http://www.techrepublic.com/blog/msoffice.

 

Other Technical Writing Resources for MS Office

Get a list of all default Word shortcut keys:
http://www.techrepublic.com/blog/msoffice/quickly-document-word-keyboard-shortcuts/4412?tag=content;siu-container

Crabby Office Lady Blog:
http://office.microsoft.com/en-us/help/CH010149515.aspx?CTT=5&origin=HA010233779

Geoff Hart’s Users Advocate:
Save Time by Mastering the Basics: Efficient Movement within a File

Laura McNeilly

Laura McNeilly has a MA in Writing from DePaul University in Chicago, Il. She currently resides in Los Angeles, CA and may be reached at: lauramcneilly@alumni.depaul.edu.

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