My Tools: Word Outlining

Jimmy and GrandadI pondered for a little while how I should start this series of posts on the tools that I use. I only pondered for a little while, for some reason I settled quite quickly on the outlining capabilities with Microsoft Word.

Most of my working hours used to be spent editing reasonably large documents. A significant proportion of my time creating documentation. Many of these documents already have a defined structure, but I don’t think in linear defined structure, I think non-linearly. I have never written a document by starting at the beginning of the document and writing until I have finished, my brain just doesn’t work that way.

There are a lot of people who are exactly the same as me.

The information that I need to complete a documents is rarely available when that I start it. Most of the time it’s not until I start the document that I know what information I actually need.

These two major factors mean that it is inevitable that I work on different parts of the document at different times; adding something here, adding something there, moving something from one section to another section, adding new sections, removing sections.

When I work with other people I watch how they do things to see whether there is something I can learn. I’m always amazed at the small number who are using outlining.

I don’t know how I would cope without it, the alternative is lots and lots of scrolling.

Using Word Outlining

For those of you who don’t know what outlining is I thought I would give a short overview of how to use it.

Outlining mode in Word is accessed via the View controls in all version of Word.

Word then strips away all of the document formatting and gives you a structure of the document with each sub heading indented to show its level within the overall document.

You can open and close sections by clicking on the “+” and “-” at the start of each heading.

Sections are moved up and down a level by using the controls at the top of the screen (click on the arrows) or by using Tab (down a level) and Shift+Tab (up a level) with the cursor at the start of the heading.

To enter text inside the section, within the body, you need to choose the “Body Text” level alternatively you can use the incredibly useful key command CTRL+Shift+N. CTRL+Shift+N sets the paragraph style to be “Normal”.

The other really useful capability is the ability to only show sections at a particular level, do this by selecting from the drop down list in “Show Level”.

You can also drag and drop whole sections around the structure.

I find that keyboard shortcuts are really important for outlining because outlining is about the content and not about the style. Moving a mouse around takes away the focus, keyboard shortcuts retains the focus.

The outline viewing mode is very minimalist, more so in Word 2007 than any other, and this again helps to keep the focus on the content.

Sometimes when i am reviewing someone else’s document I view it into outline mode to see whether it tells the story from a structural perspective. It’s often the best way of noticing that whole sections are missing.

If you haven’t used outlining and you write documents, then you should.

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My Tools – The things I use to do the things I do

GrandadMy great-grandfather was a wheelwright and a very skilled one by all account. I never really knew him but I did know his tools. My granddad still used them, even though he was a  church minister. My granddad loved to use a spokeshave, I assume that it reminded of good times with his own father. There is a skill to use a spokeshave, they are wonderful tools if you know what you are doing with them, they can also be quite dangerous.

When my granddad passed away, my dad made sure that he inherited at least one of the spokeshaves. Unlike my great-grandfather I live in a “throw away society” when it comes to tools. Few people go to the DIY store to buy a tool for life, this is especially true for IT tools where we are constantly chasing a newer model.

Human beings are one of the few creatures that uses tools. Sometimes we don’t recognise them as such, but that is what they are.

There are many definitions of “tool” – the one I like is this “anything used as a means of accomplishing a task or purpose”.

The tools I use are probably not the tools you use, and if they are you probably use them in a different way to me. So I’ve decided that there is probably a lot of value to myself and to others to open a conversation on the tools that I use. Perhaps someone will learn something from the things that I do, but I hope I’ll learn a lot from the tools that others use.

I’ve created a new category for these posts too.

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