teach your word processor how to read

There's more I want to write about document processing (as opposed to word processing). I'd love to get into master-/sub-documents, templates, tables of contents, tables of figures, indexing, lists, and all sorts of other fun stuff. But there are other blog topics out there, and I think it's time to let this series rest.

Last time I showed how to use the basic paragraph style — known as Text Body, Default, Normal, Regular Text, or something like that — for all your basic paragraph formatting. That included the basic font, first-line indents, between-paragraph spaces, line spacing, and just about anything else you would ever need to do with a paragraph. Today we're going to look at heading styles.

I feel like I have to tread carefully here, because I have had several writers, including Published Authors, tell me that they always make separate physical files for each chapter. When I swallow my incredulity and ask why, usually they tell me one or more of the following:
  • Book-length document files are too difficult to navigate for edits.
  • I won't lose everything if the file corrupts.
  • My computer runs faster with smaller files.
I have yet to have an all-out debate with anyone about this, mostly because when I start to their eyes glaze over and they say it's "too technical" for them. At that point I choke back any mention that I have an English degree and learned most of this stuff to stop from going completely crazy when I was teaching English lit to high school students. "Technical." Right. Feh. But my real responses to the above three points are:

  • It's not unusual for software specification documents to run to 300 pages or more. I know, I've written enough of them, and so have the ever-professional J-A, the ever-cool Cathy, the ever-prolific Jake, and many others I've met through work and elsewhere. Now, 300 pages is only about half a nice fat beach paperback, to be sure, but formatting-wise, the beach paperback is bound to be simpler. I've never seen a single fiction title with use case diagrams in it, for one. 300 pages of specs is probably about the equivalent of a 900 page book in terms of formatting complexity. Yet we edit them in single files all the time. We have to, or else the cross-references, figure numbering, and other automation won't work right.How we manage this is the how-to portion of this post.
  • I can sympathise about the fear of file corruption. Word starts to do this somewhere in the 250-400 page mark, depending on what's in the doc, although I've also had it happen on smaller files. Cathy's FrameMaker horror stories are enough to scare people off technical writing for life (although she always perseveres in the end). But there's a solution to these crises, and it's called backing up. If you back up all those little files (and I know you do), you're going to back up the big ones, right? Right?
  • If your computer is running noticeably slower with word processing documents that are completely text and only a few hundred pages long, YOU'RE PROBABLY USING MESSY FORMATTING. Sorry for shouting, but it's true. Think of it from the computer's point of view: is it easier to tell it: "Any time I write a Regular Paragraph, make it indent 1.5cm on the first line only, single-spaced, in Garamond 11pt," and then shut up about it for the duration, or is it easier to tell it for every single paragraph in the book, over and over and over again? That's what makes your file slow. Use styles, and things get faster (your file will likely be physically smaller too with all those extra instructions gone).

how to use headings

See that text just above that says "how to use headings"? That's in a headings style. Yes, even blogs have styles. I didn't have to do any explicit formatting to make it look like that — I just told the blog editor that I wanted a heading, and it formatted it for me. Easy.

Word processors have hierarchical headings. Heading 1s are the top-level. Then Heading 2s are beneath them, and Heading 3s are beneath them, and so on, and so on, usually up to Heading 9. To be honest, I have never needed more than five levels of headings in my work documents. If you are writing a novel, you will probably only use Heading 1 for chapter headings and stop there.

Heading styles are convenient the same way regular paragraph styles are. You decide that all your chapter headings (Heading 1) will start 12cm from the top of the page, be in Gill Sans Ultra Bold 24pt, centred, and will automatically start at the beginning of a new page, no matter where on the previous page the previous chapter ended. Make a line of text Heading 1, and it'll just happen. You only need to set it up once.

The bonus part about headings is that you will teach your word processor to read, at least a little. Word processors have yet to truly understand human language, but they understand hierarchies very well. In OpenOffice, headings show up in the Navigator:

(I didn't add any new-page formatting because I wanted all the headings on a single page.) Click on any of the headings in the Navigator (in Word, it's called the Document Map), and OpenOffice will navigate to that part of the document. You can move from Chapter 5 to Chapter 13 to Chapter 20 to Chapter 6 with ease. Er, but maybe Gill Sans Ultra Bold isn't the best choice for heading text.

Did you notice that the heading I have highlighted in the screen shot has a "+" sign to the left of it? That's because there's a Heading 2 beneath it. If you're writing non-fiction (or heck, maybe even for fiction), you'll be using Heading 2s for sub-headings, and maybe even Heading 3s for sub-sub-headings. You can fold up or fold down headings by whichever level you want to navigate by.

If you can use headings and regular paragraphs, that's enough to create a document that is organised at the most basic level. Most word processors have ready-to-use styles as soon as you open them, so you don't have to edit any styles to get going. Remember, once the styles are applied, you can always format after the fact to suit yourself — or a set of submissions guidelines.

I hope these last few posts will be useful to someone. If you have any questions, please ask in the comments or via the contact e-mail in the sidebar.