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Monday, August 18, 2008

Of Styles, Documents and Stability

I see a lot of documents. Some good, most pretty bad. But, they all look pretty good. So, why do I call them "bad"? What's so "bad" about them? You just have to look at the finer details - how was the document put together? And what does this have to do with creating styles in Word? Well, let me give you my 2c about creating styles and making sure documents have a good, simple foundation. Warning: rambling ahead!

Use Styles appropriately

My personal (and M$-educated opinion) is that you should never use the normal style for anything if you're using any styles other than the built-in styles AND if you're not modifying them in any way. It's supposed to be the "shining style on the side of the hill."

In a purist sense, direct formatting (e.g., applying bold and 14 pt. font size to a paragraph formatted with the Normal style) is just pure evil. Styles are for overall formatting of paragraphs and like objects (like table headings, etc.). Direct formatting should only be used for subsets, or pieces of paragraphs that need an exception to the style rule.

In a pragmatic sense, when people don't like a built-in paragraph style, they select the paragraph and layer on some direct formatting to get it to "look right". This introduces unnecessary complexity into the document and requires a higher of level of trust that Word won't hiccup and corrupt the document.

A best practice in document creation is this: if you don't like/aren't going to use the built-in styles only in your document, then you should create new styles for use in your document. But, the one thing you always want to be careful of when creating new styles is to _not_ base those styles on Normal. You want a blank slate (e.g. "no style") to start your custom styles on so that no matter where these styles are used, no matter what system they're on, they look the same. There is a potential for styles based on Normal to look different across computers.

Don't Use Content for Layout

One of the things I hate to see is the use of carriage returns/enters/new lines for document layout. I remember the old typewriter days when creating a cover page: "hit enter 13 times, then type your name, then twice, then...".

Well, Word actually approaches things differently (and has for the last 15 years). When you want to start the next section of content on the top of the next page, use a page break (Insert > Break > Page break).

Another neat alternative (if you're using your newly found skills with styles for headings) is to tell Word to put a page break in when applying a specific style. You can do this with individual paragraph formatting too on a paragraph-by-paragraph basis. But, I can't think of any situation where you'd want to split each page manually. Word does the dirty work for you, so you don't have to.

Breaking Lines Appropriately

You have three options when breaking lines and choosing the right one in the right situation is important. Here are your options:

  • Wrapping Line Breaks

    This is when you type type type type type type and type some more, and when you get to the end of a line, Word wraps the line around. We all take this one for granted. These are shown in Word's non-printing characters (Ctrl-Shift-8) as a pilcrow (little backwards paragraph marker).

  • Manual Line Breaks

    This one is obscure. If you hit Shift-Enter, you'll get a newline without breaking your paragraph. For example, say you have a bulleted list and you want to have a title with the bullet, but the text starting on the next line (like what you see in this bullet list). Well, a Shift-Enter will break the line without breaking the formatting/style for the paragraph. When you're "done", give it a normal Enter and you'll end your paragraph and start your next bullet. Very handy!

    These are shown in Word's non-printing characters as a little line with an arrow pointing back to the left.

  • Non-breaking spaces and non-breaking hyphens

    This is probably a feature that not many people use, or understand. But, their names describe exactly what's going on. For example, if you have a hyphenated word that's going to word wrap, but doesn't make sense to break (you know, the hyphen usually implies that you're continuing the same word but on a new line and Word will allow line wraps on hyphens), then use a non-breaking hyphen (Ctrl-Shift -). This will tell Word not to allow a word wrap with that hyphen. Same thing with a non-breaking space (Ctrl-Shift-).

    You can see non-breaking spaces in Word's non-printing characters as an open circle between characters. non-breaking hyphens appear as a thicker longer hyphen.

  • Use Pictures Wisely

    We love to copy and paste junk into our documents from the web, PowerPoint, other documents, etc. Well, along with pasting comes a lot of junk. What's that got to do with using pictures wisely? Well, let me start here: we also love to insert pictures and bmp's are totally awesome and are used all the time. EXCEPT - bitmaps are often much much much much much much bigger than their more efficient neighbors like gif, jpg and my new favorites: png.

    These two topics are actually related. Two points:
    1. First, use paste special and paste pictures in as pngs or jpgs or gifs. Please, don't just do a regular paste on a graphic in your document (I see this a lot in screen captures <>). This just causes bloat. Instead, be specific and particular about what you're doing.

    2. Second, if you're bringing in data from the web or another app like PowerPoint, paste it in as a picture. Sure, Word has that neato feature to keep an OLE (or whatever they call it now... OLEDB?) link between documents so that the data can automagically stay in sync. Well, chances are you don't care if the data is in sync and you don't mind just pasting in a new copy to update it. So, if you copy a PowerPoint chart or drawing, or parts of a website, or something with complex information, paste it in as a picture - as a jpg, gif, or png. This will save you lots of headaches.
Again, Word is just not trustworthy with lots of stuff. The simpler you can make your documents (in terms of elements), the better Word can manage it. The smaller you can make your document, the better Word can manage it. If you think I'm crazy like Washington DC, then just have a look at the complexity of the Word document format; all 210 pages of it - you'll wonder how Word works at all.

Following these simple practices, you'll find that your documents are more stable and less prone to how-the-heck-did-that-happen-ness. If you find that your document is having problems, read over this other post on troubleshooting damaged documents. Step 5 will likely solve 70% of any damaged document problems that you have (in documents you can open).

In another article, I'll show you how to take the junk out of an old document and revitalize it.

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