Formatting Documents–Your Computer is Not a Typewriter

Although word processors have been used for many years now, many of the documents I edit still use formatting more suited to typewriters. Take advantage of your word processing software by using these simple formatting techniques:

  • Use italics and/or bold rather than underlining to emphasize words. Underlining was used on typewriters as a substitute for italics. Avoiding underlined words is especially important if your document will be converted for use on the web. Your reader will expect underlined words to be hyperlinks to Internet resources, so it’s misleading and frustrating if in fact the underlined words are not linked. Underlining is also especially problematic if your document contains Internet addresses (URLs) that contain underscores. The underlining obscures the underscores when the document is printed, again frustrating your reader.
  • Put a single space, not two, after periods. Two spaces are helpful in seeing sentences when a monospaced font, such as Courier, is used. With monospaced fonts, each letter takes up the same space, so it’s harder to see where sentences begin and end. However, in most cases, documents written with word processors use proportional fonts, where each letter takes only as much space as it needs. For example, in a proportional font, an i takes less space than m. Using just one space after periods will give your document a more professional appearance. It’s also friendly to the environment. In a longer document, using single spaces instead of two spaces after periods can shorten the document enough to save an extra page or two when printing. If you’re in the habit of using two spaces instead of one, you can use the find-and-replace feature of your software to make the change. Just search for two spaces and replace them with one space.
  • Avoid using hard returns, tabs, and/or spaces to create columns or tables. If you do, it will be more difficult to reformat the document. Changing the margins or font size will throw off your formatting. Instead, use the column or table functions of your software. Table borders can be turned off if you prefer not seeing the lines.

Major word processors like Microsoft Word contain many more advanced formatting options, such as styles, borders, shading, auto formatting, etc. The simple tips suggested above will take you far and position you well to take advantage of more advanced formatting techniques when you’re ready.

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