Tech Talk — The Joy (and Efficiency)
of Multiple Monitors
by Amy J. Schneider
I’d like to digress from the topic of copyediting fiction and expand on something I mentioned briefly last month: multiple monitors and why you should consider adding them to your desktop. This discussion focuses on a PC running Windows 7, because, well, that’s what I have!
A few months ago, my 24-inch Flatron LCD monitor suddenly went dead. Black. Gone. I had a full docket of work, but no matter; I still had three other screens to work with. This is one of the joys of having multiple monitors.
I’ve always been like a gas: I expand to occupy all available space. When I started freelancing (working on hard copy), my husband built me a marvelous U-shaped desk system, including a rolling cart for my books and a slanted rack for reference documents, for maximum desktop real estate. But when my workload shifted toward onscreen editing, I began to feel cramped now that the monitor rather than the physical desk was my workspace. And I began to lust after multiple monitors.
I lived with a single monitor for years. My last CRT was a monster 21-inch refurb that weighed a ton. My husband had to build a special stand so my desk would support it. Today’s thin, lightweight LCDs are a welcome change. And as the prices drop, it’s easy to afford more than one. My first LCD, a 19-inch ViewSonic, cost nearly $900! But the 27-inch Acer I bought to replace the dead monitor a few months ago was $199 on sale.
But I digress in my digression. When it was time for a new computer in 2006, I had my trusty local computer whiz build me a tower with two dual video cards, so I could add monitors as the budget and desk space allowed. (As I mentioned last month, I named the new computer HARV, after the Harvard Mark I and also as a nod to my computer guy, whose name is Mark.)
At first I had just one widescreen monitor while I acquainted myself with HARV. With one monitor, I typically had my manuscript and style sheet open side by side, with browser and e-mail hidden underneath. If I wanted to look something up online or send an e-mail, I’d have to switch to Firefox or Thunderbird and temporarily say good-bye to my Word windows. If I needed to copy something from one window to another, that was more window-flipping. Then came the second widescreen. Huzzah! Now I could view three or four docs at once, without having to switch constantly between them. But a full page was still too small to work with on a widescreen monitor. When onscreen proofreading work started to arrive, I added a third monitor and rotated it to portrait mode so I could view a full page, nice and big. Soon after that, I added the fourth and final monitor, also in portrait mode. Now I can view manuscript and proofs side by side. Luxury!
Below is a photo of HARV as he appears today. The leftmost monitor, the 27-inch Acer, is my primary monitor. When you set up multiple monitors, Windows will ask you to designate a primary. This is where your Windows taskbar goes, and it’s also where your computer boots before activating the other monitors.
In the middle are monitors 2 and 3, both 24-inch LGs rotated into portrait mode. You’ll need to buy a rotating monitor to use portrait mode, of course; Windows enables you to designate a monitor as portrait, which rotates the display 90 degrees.
Finally, at far right is the 24-inch Dell. I have dedicated this screen to the Internet: Firefox, Thunderbird, Hootsuite, et cetera. Having it at far right makes it easy to ignore while I’m working, yet I can easily hop over to answer client e-mail or research something.
There’s one bit of third-party software I couldn’t live without: DisplayFusion Pro by Binary Fortress. They offer a free version, but the functions I use most are in the Pro version, so I found it worthwhile to buy. I have a taskbar on each monitor, so the taskbar button for each open window can appear on its corresponding monitor instead of having them all piled up on the primary. For me, this alone is worth the price of admission. You can also set up hotkeys for moving windows from screen to screen, maximizing/minimizing, and other window actions, as well as for performing a host of other functions. (Usual disclaimer applies: I gain nothing from mentioning this software other than a warm feeling; I’m just a satisfied customer.)
Some people use a laptop with a second, external display, or a laptop as an auxiliary to a desktop, or a tablet as an auxiliary to a laptop or desktop. These are other useful ways to maximize your screen real estate. Last December when HARV’s motherboard died (eep!), I survived on my laptop and an external monitor while HARV was in the shop. But I felt cramped with “only” two screens, and one of them a laptop at that.
The thing I like about having four monitors for one computer is the ability to easily copy and paste text and to rearrange screens to my heart’s content. That’s a little harder to do when your screens are on different machines. And occasionally when I’ve had my laptop running off to the side, I’ve been frustrated by not being able to move my mouse pointer from HARV’s screens to the laptop…until the neurons finally kick in.
How Do I Use All That Space?
In “The Commandments: Thou Shall Be Efficient”, Rich Adin reports, “Using two monitors increases efficiency by 50%; add a third and gain another 25%; add a fourth and gain another 5%.” So the fourth monitor doesn’t gain me much percentage-wise, but it sure is nice to spread out! It’s very handy to be able to see several documents at once, at a readable size, especially when copying and pasting between them.
When I’m copyediting fiction, I keep three documents on the leftmost widescreen monitor (see photo below): the manuscript at left, and my characters and places style sheets atop one another at right. The new big Acer gives me plenty of room to have the Document Map and the styles pane open in the manuscript and still have the style sheets at a readable size. Most of the time when I’m working with the characters and places style sheets, I simply run a quick Find to get to the section I need to see. Having both manuscript and three of my four style sheets visible makes it easy to compare manuscript against the style sheet to check a style point, or to copy text from one to the other.
On the leftmost portrait monitor (see photo below) I keep my general style sheet, because it’s nice to have as much of it visible as possible.
The rightmost portrait monitor (see photo below) holds my timeline, which is a Word table that simulates a monthly calendar page. It can get long for novels that have a long time frame (especially historical novels that stretch over years or decades).
Finally, as mentioned earlier, the rightmost widescreen monitor is reserved for the Internet, so I can easily pop over and check a URL or look something up while keeping my work documents visible.
Occasionally I have other documents such as a PDF of a previous book in the series. Usually those go on one of the portrait monitors. (Frankly, if I could have a single portrait monitor for each document, I would.) In my nonfiction work, the portrait monitors are also handy for viewing long tables or design samples and for quickly scrolling through a document a screen at a time, especially if you can zoom it down a little while you do so.
As you might imagine, it’s easy to get “lost” among so many monitors and windows. But there are a few tools that can help.
The mouse pointer can be hard to locate across several monitors no matter how much you wiggle it around. Fortunately, Windows has a solution. In Control Panel under the Mouse Properties dialog, go to the Pointer Options tab and check the box for “Show location of pointer when I press the CTRL key.” Now, when you press Ctrl, an animated “target” of concentric circles will zoom in on your pointer. Very handy!
To move among the manuscript and style sheets efficiently, I use a numbered naming scheme along with the Word shortcut for navigating windows: Alt+W, W, [number]. The general style sheet’s file name begins with the number 1; characters, 2; places, 3; and timeline, 4. This forces the files to always appear in the same order in the Switch Windows menu, and also forces the manuscript to appear as number 5. The keyboard shortcut quickly becomes second nature for switching focus without mousing.
I’ve read that it takes about two minutes after acquiring a second monitor to wonder why you didn’t get one sooner. I have certainly found that to be true! And If you decide to explore the world of multiple monitors, I hope you, too, find it to be true.
Amy J. Schneider (firstname.lastname@example.org), owner of Featherschneider Editorial Services, has been a freelance copyeditor and proofreader of fiction and nonfiction books since 1995. She has shared her insights on copyediting fiction as a speaker at the Communication Central conferences, in writing for the Copyediting newsletter, and in an audioconference for Copyediting.com. Amy can be reached at LinkedIn, via Twitter, and on Facebook.