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Unlocking Word secrets

Our Outfitter columnist has railed against commercial software. Now, he admits, a lot of the supposedly unnecessary functions are really very useful.

In my last couple of columns, I’ve railed against the commercial software machine for producing bloatware and forcing companies to pay high prices for stuff they don’t need. There is another side to the coin of this rant: A lot of these supposedly unnecessary functions are really very useful. The problem is, nobody knows about them because they aren’t documented anywhere. Also, office workers get into a groove using the bare minimum of their tools and convince themselves that they don’t have the time to learn quicker ways to do their jobs with the software they have. (The truth is, they don’t have the time not to learn.)

Unfortunately, feature bloat and skinny documentation are general aspects of the computing industry, and millions of users like me needlessly waste time as a result.

This is why publications like ComputerUser have been around since the advent of the PC. In addition to helping users with strategic buying decisions, we provide free pointers to get more out of the software and hardware they already have.

Obviously, I can’t list all the underutilized features in common hardware and software. So for now, I’ll stick to the most pervasive and one of the most bloated applications out there-Microsoft Word. I mentioned in a previous column that Mac users have the option to configure their version of Word to Word 5.1, effectively turning off nearly a decade of improvements. While I too have some nostalgia for that release, it’s not really an option. I have learned a lot of useful features since 5.1 that enhance my productivity, and it would take me a lot longer to do my job without them. So read carefully, because you probably won’t see this statement below my byline again: Microsoft has really enhanced productivity with some of its products. Here are six such enhancements to Word.

1. Track Changes

This feature has changed a lot in the last few releases, so I’ll focus on Word XP’s implementation of it. After you finish writing or if you want to review someone else’s work, open a file and turn on Track Changes under the Tools menu. Every change you make will be noted in color-coded text. And marginal notes will log all deleted text or comments you want to make. The feature is invaluable for collaborative projects, especially for editors.

I suspect the feature is underused because once you have made some changes, it’s hard to turn them off. But Word has a toolbar that lets you toggle between changes and accept or reject each as you wish. You can also accept or reject changes globally using other buttons on the toolbar. If you can’t find the buttons on the toolbar, just hover over all the buttons and hover help will tell you where they are.

2. Macros

Before I figured out how to turn off the “track changes” display, I always used Word’s Macro tool to accept or reject changes. If you don’t already know how to do something in Word, you can find all Word commands by choosing Tools > Macro > Macros and selecting Word Commands from the drop down. This is a list of intuitively named commands like Accept All Changes In Doc. Often functions aren’t used because they’re hidden in nested menus and dialogue boxes. With a central repository of all Word commands, you no longer have an excuse to not use a Word feature.

The best part of Macros is you can create your own macros of frequently used command sequences by choosing Tools > Macro > Record New Macro. Give it a name that starts in AA so it appears at or near the top of the list, and you’ve got a custom-designed tool for your job.

3. AutoCorrect

AutoCorrect can be one of the most annoying features of Word if you don’t know how to set it up. The default settings assume that you want all kinds of automatic formatting and typing that you might not want. I often need to use strange capitalization or words that aren’t in Word’s dictionary, for example. But Word is so smart that it will replace these words with words it thinks are right, and it’ll do it as you type unless you specifically turn this feature off.

Fortunately, if you just click a button on the lower-left corner of the toolbar, you’ll get a complex AutoCorrect dialog that lets you toggle all kinds of automatic functions on and off. For example, if you are merely producing text for the Web for export into another editor, you don’t want any automatic formatting such as smart quotes or em dashes. When Word autoformats, it places special codes in the text that only Word reads properly. A simple text editor might not catch them, but HTML doesn’t have a clue how to display them. So you get lots of strange symbols in your Web text. But if you want to publish something on paper, em dashes and smart quotes are very important. So you’ll find yourself turning these AutoCorrect features on and off a lot.

4. AutoText

Another huge time saver is Autotext. Choose Insert > Autotext > Autotext and you will get a dialog that lets you insert commonly used text (it’s also a tab in the AutoCorrect dialog). While Microsoft provides some typical business words and phrases, chances are you’ll want to type in your own. In my case, I have several geeky phrases and some signature lines, like “Life is a labor of love” that I append to the end of some of my correspondence. Every time you find yourself typing a word or phrase for the umpteenth time, you should be thinking about creating an AutoText entry to save time and keystrokes.

5. Customize

Few people do it, but it’s really easy to customize your toolbar for regular tasks. If you find yourself digging deep into menus for frequently used commands, choose Customize and you will get a dialog that lets you tailor the toolbar or create your own custom toolbars for specific jobs. For example, because my assignments typically specify how many words I’m supposed to submit, I regularly need to choose Tools > Word Count. I know it only saves a few seconds, but assigning Word Count to the tool bar does help. Customize also lets me assign keyboard shortcuts to commands, saving me tons of mousing around. Unfortunately, because you can’t assign AutoCorrect toggles to the toolbar, you’ll just have to make those extra two clicks.

6. Synonyms

One of the cardinal rules of writing is to avoid using the same adverb or adjective twice in the same sentence. While I’ve been called a wordsmith, there are times when I struggle to think of an alternative to a word and I waste time racking my brain for a synonym. No more. Now I simply select the word in question, right click, and choose Synonym. I then can select the best synonym for the context and keep on writing. It doesn’t always work (try selecting feature and see what you get). But when it does, it’s golden.

These six features alone have sped up my writing tremendously. I still think there’s a limit to the productivity enhancers you can add to software without making it buggier or harder to use. But as long as the features are in there, we might as well get our money’s worth.

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