Using your word processor’s functions (but critically)
Using technology to help you
Technology (usually in the form of computer software) can be used at all stages of the writing process; from generating ideas, to planning, literature searching, through composing, and on to reviewing and editing, and then preparing the final communication. Technologies to assist in these processes are rapidly changing. Smartphones and tablets have revolutionised access to the kinds of software applications only previously available on larger computers. Nevertheless, most students still complete their university assignments using a desktop or laptop computer, and that is what I assume in this chapter.
A danger lies in this chapter rapidly becoming out of date. To avoid this, I discuss general strategies rather than focusing on specific software applications in detail. Using computer software and online technologies can help you better manage the various stages of the writing process, but their use needs to be tempered with caution. Learning to use them can be a distraction from the creative process of writing. On the other hand, they can save a great deal of time and effort once mastered.
Which operating system?
An operating system (OS) is the suite of software that manages your computer hardware to allow application programs to run. On desktop and laptop computers used by students, the commonest operating systems are Microsoft Windows, Mac OS and Linux. Your choice of operating system is best guided by the application programs you intend to use. It is helpful, therefore, to find out from your university department which application programs they advise you to use during your degree. This might help determine, for example, whether you purchase a computer that operates Microsoft Windows, Mac OS, or both. Proprietary software, such as Microsoft Office (and its components including Excel, Powerpoint and Word) are available in Windows and Mac versions. Microsoft Office documents saved in Windows can normally be read appropriately by the Mac OS version of Microsoft Office, and vice versa, with few exceptions. Occasionally, formatting can change in moving between Windows and Mac versions, and not all fonts are available for both Mac and Windows. One way of avoiding formatting problems in moving between Windows and Mac versions is to save your final file as an Adobe Portable Document Format (PDF) document. Check with university staff that this is an acceptable form in which to submit an assignment.
11.1 Using your word processor’s functions (but critically)
Word-processing software has revolutionised the processes of planning, composing, reviewing, editing, and publishing. Software makes it easier to draft and redraft text, compared with writing longhand, and electronic files can be readily shared, with reviewers’ comments and changes incorporated and tracked. Images, spreadsheets and other digital elements can be inserted into word- processed files and the whole document then exported to publishing software such as Adobe InDesign or Microsoft Publisher for professional presentation.
Used effectively, word-processing software can save you time and help ensure consistency of text and layout. But there are, of course, dangers. Using the technology needs to be moderated with critical awareness. In seeking to automate functions, word-processing software can ’get it wrong’, and only you know what you are seeking to convey in your writing. In this section, I will briefly review some of the ways word-processing software can be best utilised.
Microsoft Word®, the commonest commercial word-processing software, has many helpful features, including:
Set your software for the appropriate form of English
UK, US, Canadian and Australian forms of English differ slightly in spelling and grammar. In your software’s preferences you should set ’language’ to the appropriate version of English.
If you are a maths or computing student, or working in a discipline with a strong mathematical emphasis, you may well be used to writing within the document preparation system LaTeX (usually pronounced as in the Greek, LAY-tekh). This system handles mathematical expressions better than word-processing software. If using LaTeX, you can still benefit from the functions of wordprocessing software by importing text into Microsoft Word®, or another word-processing system, for checking.
A spell checker in your word-processing software will underline or highlight spelling mistakes according to the form of English you are using. It will also pick up occasions when you have joined two words by accident. It will not, however, be able to determine whether a correctly spelt word is the right word for you to use in a given context. It will not suggest which of the two in each of these pairs is the correct one to use in a specific situation: ’practise’ or ’practice’; ’its’ or ’it’s’; ’from’ or ’form’; ’not’ or ’now’. The grammar checker (see below) may, however, suggest the best form to use in some cases.
You can ’educate’ your software and add new technical words to its dictionary, against which it can check spelling. You can also ’teach it’ to accept unconventional spellings common to your discipline, or those from another language or another form of English. For example, using Word 2016 (for Windows), the English (UK) spell checker accepts both ’programme’ and ’program’, while the English (US) spell checker rejects ’programme’ but could be ’taught’ to accept it.
A grammar checker suggests stylistic changes (such as changing the passive voice to active) as well as pointing out grammatical errors. Given the sophistication (and quirkiness) of English grammar, the rules that a grammar checker employs are comparatively simple. It will fairly reliably catch errors in subject-verb agreement; for example, ’The use of acidic chemical reagents, many of which can be damaging on short-term contact with skin, are gradually being phased out.’ The plural verb form ’are’ is incorrectly matched with a singular subject ’use of acidic chemical reagents’. The verb form should be ’is’. The grammar checker will also detect misuse of ’that’ or ’which’. Grammar checking, as with other automated functions of word-processing software, should be used as a guide, which you may choose to override.
You can customise how the software checks your document for correct spelling and grammar. For example, by consulting the ’Help’ menu for Microsoft Word, you can switch on the readability function so that the software automatically provides a Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level readability score (see below) at the end of a spelling and grammar check.
Some students have taken to using the online grammar checker Grammarly (www.grammarly.com) to check their spelling, grammar and punctuation. As in using such functions within word-processing software, it is no substitute for knowing and applying the rules yourself. If you choose to use Grammarly, do so critically, checking any suggestions it makes.
Dictionary and thesaurus
The dictionary and thesaurus provided as part of your word-processing software are comparatively simple. When you choose a specific form of English (for example, UK English or US English) the appropriate dictionary and thesaurus are accessed. The dictionary gives meanings. The thesaurus offers alternative words that have the same meaning, such as ’think about’ or ’reflect on’ as alternatives to the verb ’consider’. The closest matches in meaning are usually given at the top of the software’s list of suggestions, with less close matches further down. At the end of the list is sometimes given the word with the opposite meaning (the antonym); for example, ’retreat’ as the antonym of ’approach’.
Given the limitations of the generic dictionary and thesaurus that come with your software, it can be helpful to access more sophisticated dictionaries and thesauruses; perhaps, those specifically relevant to your discipline. Some of these are available online free or by subscription through your institution (for example, the Oxford Reference suite of dictionaries available at www.oxfordreference.com). Some specialist dictionaries can be downloaded, usually for a fee.
Microsoft Word can be set to calculate a Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level readability score when making a spelling or grammar check. It is a simple, automated calculation based on average sentence length and the average number of syllables per word. The Flesch-Kincaid score equates to the number of years’ education a typical reader needs, to read and comprehend the text (the system was originally based on the US education system). So, a score of 12 equates to 12 years’ schooling (an age of 17 for most young people in Western education). For many forms of undergraduate academic writing I recommend a target Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level in the range 12-18. Scores of 19 and above are high and tend to be associated with disciplines such as philosophy or sociology, where complex sentence constructions might be favoured. In most disciplines, it is appropriate to aim for scores in the region of 15. But this, of course, depends on the purpose of, and audience for, your writing. It might be appropriate to write your assignment with a lower readability score if the assignment brief makes clear it should be aimed at a general audience.
A useful learning exercise is to cut and paste an extract from a paper by an author whose writing style you admire. Running a readability check on such a document often yields a score in the region of 15 - proof that elegant writing does not have to be inordinately complex.
Although the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level score is a simple tool, it offers an additional source of information about your sentence constructions. In calculating the score, Microsoft Word software also gives the percentage of passive sentences in the extract. This is useful information if you are seeking to improve your ability to write engaging prose.
Save your file regularly
As soon as you create your file for a word-processed document, save it to your computer’s hard drive or local server using a logical file name, e.g. AnneBernsteinaccountessaydr1.docx, or that specified for you for your module and assignment, e.g. AnneBernsteinAccountMod1adr1.docx. Then continue to save the file manually after every few minutes of work (do this even if your software saves work automatically). This way, should your computer crash you will have a recently saved version of your file and will not have to waste valuable time recreating work you have lost. Every two to three hours, back up your work-in-progress file onto other forms of memory, such as a USB memory stick, a portable hard drive, a remote server and/or ’in the cloud’. Change the name of your document file as you work on it so that you have a saved ’electronic trail’ of revisions. Such strategies are designed to ensure that you do not lose valuable work and that, should you need to, you can retrace your steps to recover earlier work.
When using Microsoft Word, or similar word-processing software, use ’styles’ to specify the various kinds of text in your document. Using styles will help you organise the visual appearance and specifications of your document in a systematic and consistent manner. Each style specifies numerous qualities (either automatically, or selected by you). For example, within your document, for main headings you could use a Heading 1 style (Arial, bold, 12 pt, left aligned, and so on). When writing an essay or report, it is not unusual to use ten or more styles, especially if you include elements such as tables and figures. Once you start using styles systematically, it will save you time and avoid unnecessary complication. In Microsoft Word, for example, it will be an easy matter for you to change the font size of all your headings in one go, or to generate a contents list incorporating page numbers by using the ’Table of Contents’ function.