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Why your document sucks and what to do about it

Lots of us use Microsoft Word on a daily basis to write reports, manuals and much more. We also inherit documents from OTHER USERS! And we all know how that goes, right kids?

Philosopher Jean Paul Sartre famously wrote “Hell is other people”, but I reckon that should be “Hell is other people’s Word documents”.

I’ve been using Word since, ahem, Version 1, and it seems that many people just still don’t get it. Although I have a love/hate relationship with Word (I sometimes love to hate it!), the fact is I use it virtually every day for my work.

I think there are two main problems.

  1. The idea that “I can type, therefore I can use a word processor”. Well, it isn’t true folks. I can make noises with my mouth, but that doesn’t mean I should try out for the Masked Singer!
  2. People just wing it instead of using the best tools or techniques. That’s OK for a one-off situation, but it becomes a habit. Not only does this waste time when creating the document, but it keeps wasting time whenever and wherever the document is used

Dealing with it!

So, what to do if we inherit a less than ideal document (that’s a polite way of putting it)?

Why your document sucks and what to do about it

The first thing I do is assess the quality of an inherited document. There are several ways to do this, but I have two techniques I like to use right away. Using these two tools will quickly let me see that it’s going to be a good day, or if I need to go outside and scream at trees!

Go Fetch the Tools

First, I go to the Home tab and turn on the show/hide button. That’s the funny looking thing that looks like a backwards letter P. With this turned on I can see where the document writer has hit the ENTER key to create a new paragraph, where they used TABS, and if a heading uses centre alignment or they just kept pressing the space bar and eyeballed it until it looked right! (Can you picture the trees blushing?)

Why your document sucks and what to do about it

Then I head over to the View Tab. From here I tick the Navigation Pane checkbox. Ticking this bad boy is going to reveal one of two things. Either all those headings are set up properly as styles, or our friendly neighbourhood writer has simply turned on bold and increased the font size. (This will require more caffeine).

If faced with option 2, you have some work to do. Best you get this out of the way and go swear at those trees later.

What I like to do at this point is, get myself some coffee to steel myself for the trip ahead, then clean up the document by doing the following:

First, select the entire document using CTRL + A. At this point, I can simply use the Clear All Formatting button from the Home ribbon, or I can use an old school method. I prefer to use my old school method because the Clear All Formatting button removes ALL formatting, just like it says on the label. The problem with this is if there are styles in use in the document, then they will be removed too, and I probably want to keep them.

Using Grandpa’s Method

My old school method is this, press CTRL + SPACEBAR to remove any manual character formatting, then press CTRL + Q to remove any manual paragraph formatting.

Why your document sucks and what to do about it

Once I’ve cleared out the rubbish, I can go ahead and start formatting the headings properly using styles. I usually tell my clients if you’re using Word and not using styles, then you’re probably doing it wrong.

I’ll write more about styles in another article, but for now I’ll outline some of the benefits of using them.

  • Consistency – when you apply styles to your headings, you know they are going to look the same.
  • Efficiency – using styles is much quicker than manually formatting documents.
  • Navigation – finding your way around a long document is easier if you use styles.
  • Outlining – when using styles, you can easily see and manipulate the structure of long documents.
  • Portability – properly structured documents can be properly saved to PDF, and the resulting document will be of much higher quality in terms of navigation and ease of use.
  • Repurposing – did you know you can start building a presentation by sending a properly structured Word document to PowerPoint in just a couple of clicks?

It’s not a perfect world, and we all need to deal with “less than ideal” documents, but we can ease the pain a little by using some quick clean up tools in order to get on with more important matters.

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