What's the best way to learn about formatting documents?
August 23, 2010 4:48 PM   Subscribe

What's the best way to learn about formatting documents?

I need to create documents and manuals at work for either specifications or instructions. I have a template with the company logo, but I only know basic stuff like how to create a TOC. I've looked at books in the library on technical writing but they're not quite what I'm looking for - I found a lot of the info in these books was directed at writing about different things for different audiences, whereas I already know my audience and I'm only focused on one discipline.

What I really need is information on correct formatting, styles etc. Here's a good example:

The title page of our manual has the title at the top left and the author bottom right. If I was creating this, would I just enter the title and then return all the way to the bottom to insert the author? This seems, uh, unprofessional.

Additionally, I know nothing about indentation, or what formatting Word does behind the scenes etc. I do have a book on Word (Step-by-Step), but it seems more focused on explaining the tips and tricks.

So how should I go about this?
posted by forallmankind to Education (10 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
The book on Word is your best bet. It has all kinds of tools for formatting documents.

For your title page, look into formatting your paragraphs so there is a defined amount of space above or below. That does away with the "multiple returns" you mention.

Learn about Sections. These are what allow you to have one format for your Title page, another format for the TOC, another for Chapter title pages, and so on.

Word can also do "Fields". I'm not very familiar with them, but I know if you have a form, for instance, that you just need to fill data in on, you can use fields then "lock" the document so when you use it next all you can do is tab between the different fields. Once locked, you can't edit any of the other text outside of the form fields (i.e., the Name: field label). You can unlock it when you need to update that stuff. Note that this won't prevent other users from unlocking it, either. So if it's going to be a doc used by multiple folks, they may need a little schooling on how to use it.

Also look into Styles. You can make custom styles. I did this when I had a job writing technical documents. I needed something that would start with #1, and when I hit return would go into A), indented and in a non-bolded font. I was able to set it up just like I wanted via Styles.

Everything that you need to know is built into Word, so comb the internet and that book for everything you can find. You'll be an expert before you know it!
posted by wwartorff at 4:58 PM on August 23, 2010

If I was creating this, would I just enter the title and then return all the way to the bottom to insert the author? This seems, uh, unprofessional.

Lots of people do it that way, so if you did it that way, nobody would really care. You could use Word features such as text boxes and frames as well.

What I'd suggest is finding an organization local to you that does computer training and go there for some Word courses. This could be a local community college or a private training outfit such as New Horizons.
posted by kindall at 5:03 PM on August 23, 2010

I'm sure people will come along with advice about more regimented ways to learn, but I wrote/edited/formatted a 100 page manual by figuring out how I wanted it to look and then messing around with Word until it DID look that way. When I ran into a problem, I just google-fu'ed until I found a Q/A about my same problem.

I knew about Styles from the beginning, which helped, and I heartily second the suggestion to use Sections. I would definitely read about the way these two features work before committing to them; if you have time, make some sample documents and go crazy with Sections and Styles so you know what not to do in your real documents. Another feature I found useful at random times is tab stops.

Also, depending on your document, grouping pictures and objects (like text boxes) is essential.

One last feature I used often was in Paragraph > Spacing > 'Before' and 'After'. Tweaking the # of points above and below text is much more helpful than relying on only Single, 1.5, or Double spacing.

If you get a book about Word, I still suggest getting your hands dirty trying to format something specific first so that you can go through and focus on the information that is the most relevant to your document type(s).
posted by hellogoodbye at 5:27 PM on August 23, 2010

First, you will need to know the format styles of the documents you are creating. Get a copy of the Handbook of Technical Writing this will help you with requirements of the documents you are trying to create such as, a technical report, including components and structures. Second, you need to get an advanced MS Word 2007 techniques book that will show you how to things such as, working with styles, merges, auto correction, collaborative tools, and graphics. The third thing, is to simply download the templates from Microsoft and make adjustments which should allow you to reverse engineer and figure things.

Other books that may help you are like this and online tutorials like this.

Ah heck, send me your document and I will help layout it out for you.
posted by jadepearl at 5:27 PM on August 23, 2010

Use LateX instead of Word. While it is possible to do bad formatting in LateX, it is hard to do.
posted by yoyo_nyc at 5:46 PM on August 23, 2010

If at all possible, use LaTeX instead of whatever word processor you're currently fighting with.
posted by jjb at 6:34 PM on August 23, 2010

This is an opinionated (but well argued) piece about why you should switch to text processors rather than use a word processor, such as Word.

LaTeX can be straightforward to use with an editor. Also, you don't have to dig deeper into its features unless you want to or need to (but you can, which is great). You don't have to worry about formatting documents and you can focus on the structure and content of what you're writing without worrying about how your document looks. Writing became much more enjoyable in my post LaTeX life and my documents always look professional.

I heart it. Try LaTeX!

If you do end up using LaTeX, do change the default font. I can spot a LaTeX document from a mile away because lots of people just never bother with this. It's the little things...
posted by mkdirusername at 10:31 PM on August 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

Ignore the suggestions that you learn LaTeX, especially in a professional setting where you would be the only one in the company who knew it. The OP can barely use a GUI word processor, and you want him to start learning a non-WYSIWYG markup language? OP, don't go there. Other people will need to be able to work on your documents, and you do not want to have to train the whole company to use LaTeX and fix their broken markup when they break it, which will be always because they will understand it even less than you do. Also, you don't want to set things up so that the company will need to hire someone who knows LaTeX after you've left when they could hire a much cheaper Word jockey.

The suggestion that you don't have to worry about formatting documents with LaTeX is ludicrous. You need to tell LaTeX what styles to apply, which you do by entering codes. Your on-screen document, with all the codes cluttering it up, will look absolutely nothing like the final product. To see what the final product looks like, you have to run your document through a conversion step. If the formatting isn't what you expected, you have to go back to the document, fix the codes, and re-convert it. This is exactly as much of a pain as it sounds like, the very definition of "worry," and while LaTeX does give great results and has some other advantages, it is not a tool for the non-technical user.
posted by kindall at 9:14 AM on August 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Ignore the suggestions that you learn LaTeX, especially in a professional setting where you would be the only one in the company who knew it.
Agreed - that would be fairly pointless in the short term.

I DO agree that, in the long term, you could get a lot out of learning proper HTML/CSS. This would teach you a little about what's going on behind the scenes, why certain things happen the way they do, and why styles are better than marking up pieces of text (like headings) individually.

As far as Word (and most other software) goes, I recommend the Lynda.com tutorials, like this one.
posted by coolguymichael at 12:39 PM on August 24, 2010

This may be not exactly what you are looking for, but still helpful, Perdue Online Writing Lab . The teacher that I took Technical Writing from praised it merits enthusiastically. There is a section about workplace writing that may be of some assistance.
posted by worlddisciple at 12:57 PM on August 25, 2010

« Older can someone send me over the counter drugs abroad?   |   Montreal fruit picking - can I do this for free? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.