Effective Word Processing

Written and published June 2, 2000

One of the biggest time-savers and creativity-openers a Mac offers is word processing. But word processing's greatest benefit is often overlooked.

The biggest difference between computer word processing and other written communication is that its text isn't etched in stone or otherwise committed to a position on a page. No matter where you place text in your document, you can move it later. I know ... you already know that. So why am I stating the obvious? Because for many of us, our formal training runs contrary, often preventing us from taking full advantage of this strength.

How We Learned to Write

When you were in school, did you learn to always begin a term paper or report with an outline? This helped you get your thoughts in order so nothing was omitted. Did any wise teacher go one better, teaching you to write each topic of your outline on an index card so you could then reorganize the flow of your thoughts at will? With a word processor, you have the flexibility of those index cards, but many times better. Not only can you reorganize the cards, but you can also refine the words that would be written upon the cards.

When you were in school, did you learn to write a first draft? From there you'd cross out words and write new ones. Maybe after a time, you couldn't even read the first draft any longer; the more you refined, the harder it was to read. If you were very diligent, you'd do a second draft and refine it, too, before finalizing your work. Did you ever do a second draft? or a third? In reality, chances are good you didn't even make many changes (cross outs) in the first place. After all, each cross out meant more writing or retyping.

Get Messy

Back in the olden days, I was one of the messy writers. Whether outline or draft, I crossed out, added, then crossed out additions. I was forever rewriting or retyping papers or even cutting pages apart to reflow their paragraphs. Boy, was I a ripe candidate for a word processor! Truth is, we're all great candidates for a word processor. Some of us, wanting to be "good" students, learned to be neat. But at what price? That price was often creativity or clarity of our messages.

Think back to your school days or to the last thing you wrote (even if on your Mac). Did you struggle for a moment to find the right word, only to lose your next thought? Did you stop for a fraction of a second to bold a word, or color it, or wonder about punctuation? What fleeting thought did you lose when you did? Perhaps a thought so fleeting you might not even have realized it was there.

The secret to great writing -- letters, reports, documents of all types is getting messy. With word processing, you can get as messy as you'd like! So go for it! Get messy. Change your mind. Play "what if." Let your words be food for thought and play with those words.

Get Your Thoughts Out

Forget what you learned about starting with a proper title or a full outline. Perhaps you don't even have any idea where you need or want your writing to go. Don't worry about that. Before you begin to write, you've probably had a few words, sentences, or stray thoughts about your ultimate message floating around in your head. Just start a new document and get those down. Hit Return between thoughts, but aside from that, don't worry about a thing.

It doesn't matter what type of document you're creating. If you're creating a long document for which an outline will be helpful, you can use these thoughts as the starting point for your outline and its sub-contents. (I even do this as a starting point for a book's table of contents and when starting a chapter.)

Don't worry about spelling. Let Spell Catcher beep or the red lines appear (in Word/OE). Stopping to fix a word can cost you the next true thought. Let typos happen -- it's okay. Your mind works faster than your fingers can. Don't let that cost you. You can fix these things later.

Don't worry about grammar. Get the rough thoughts out first. Stop to think about proper phrasing or punctuation, and you risk losing another valuable thought.

If you can't find the "right" word as you work, use the closest word that comes to mind. After all your thoughts are out, it may be easier to see the right word in your mind. And if not, at least you haven't interrupted your thought flow.

Forget organization for now. So what if one thought fragment ultimately belongs in one paragraph while your next fragment belongs in another? You can move them later.

Most of all, definitely don't stop to make a word bold, italic, red, etc. Such special effects are for adding emphasis to words when your sentence construction doesn't do that. Wait until your writing is complete before adding these attributes. (The only time I do recommend stopping to color or bold a word is when it's a placeholder for the right word you really seek.)

Organize Your Thoughts

After you have all your thoughts down, read them from the top, then begin to organize them as you read or after a once-over. Move sentences around into logical groups. Move groups around into paragraphs that flow. When you're ready, flesh out the sentences, adding details or conjunctions.

You're bound to hit some parts where you wonder what you meant to say or why you said something. If you're not sure what you meant, before you edit the thought, drag a clipping of your original words to the desktop or put a copy of them at the end of your document. That way you can return to them later, in case it turns out you alter the thought when you edit it.

As you come across the words that weren't quite right, change it now. Otherwise, let it go again.

There's no right or wrong time for adding words, editing what you have, and fixing spelling. Do what's comfortable for you and for the document. Just don't get hung up on any one thing at the cost of the overall message.

As you notice misspellings, fix them so they don't drive you crazy. Spelling does count and using proper spelling is a good habit, but don't get hung up on spelling while you're concentrating on word flow.

Keep organizing. This is not a one-time step.

Polish Your Words

After the words are in order and put together, read through them again (and again), changing words that aren't "just right." Keeping your message in mind, consider your choice of words. Perhaps you'll hit on a better word or phrase to better convey your message. You can always undo your change.

Now's the time to seek out the words that weren't quite what you meant and find the words that fit your meaning -- if you haven't done so before. (I love Spell Catcher for this. Just select the word, choose Lookup Selection, then use the Dictionary and Thesaurus tabs.)

When your words don't flow right, don't be afraid to move sentences around within paragraphs, change the point at which a paragraph breaks, or move entire paragraphs. You can even delete words or entire sentences or paragraphs. Often, in writing, less is more and concise is clearer.

(Again, before you mess around with words, you can copy a paragraph and paste it safely at the end of your document in case you want to return to the original words. Or paste the copy immediately below the original.)

As you polish, make sure you've used the correct form of each word and check/fix spelling, grammar and punctuation. This makes sense now, as you've decided upon the order of your thoughts and words.

Give It A Rest

It's easy to get too close to your words. Put the document away for a while and return to it later for a fresh look. Or if you're not fully comfortable reading on screen, print the document, then read it on paper later.

By returning to it with fresh eyes, you get to read your message anew and see whether it really says what you intended. Don't be surprised if you find yourself wondering what you meant to say or wondering why in the world you chose the words you did. And don't be afraid to make changes! That's what it's all about.

Read through your document again and again, making changes until it feels right.


Go ahead, be creative. Your words are not engraved in stone. You're not wasting paper. Bytes are fully recyclable and totally flexible. So with your words as food for thought, have a few bytes. Have many!

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