An American Editor

October 4, 2010

Different Approaches for Different Folks: The Mechanics of Editing

I’m writing this at 4 a.m. on the Saturday of the Finding Your Niche conference, while the topic is uppermost in my thoughts. Yesterday afternoon, I attended a seminar on using Word 2010 as an editing tool. The speaker was my friend and colleague, Hilary Powers, who has a well-deserved reputation as a Word guru for using Word as an editing tool.

Above all else that I learned at the session was this: different folks have different approaches to the same task and problem.

Hilary is keyboard focused and approaches Word as if it were a naughty child that needs to be disciplined. She dislikes many of the options that Microsoft makes available via the options/preferences panels. At first I was amused but then I realized that her choices were really dictated by the way she approaches the mechanics of editing. I then considered my own choices and approach.

In contrast to Hilary’s keyboard-centric approach, I want as little to do with the keyboard as possible. I am mouse focused. I want my right hand to leave the mouse (which, by the way, is a Logitech MX Revolution, which is programmable) as little as possible and my left hand to leave my Xkeys as little as possible. (For what it’s worth, I consider my Xkeys peripheral the best investment I have made in any piece of equipment for my business in the past 15 years. It is the sinlge most must-have device for the way I work, especially when I combine it with MacroExpress Professional software and my own EditTools macros.) Hilary, in contrast, wants her hands to leave her keyboard as little as possible, preferably never. With each approach comes different wants from Word (read Office) 2010.

This is where I believe Microsoft has failed the ultimate user: it didn’t do a good job designing the interface for either customer. It is a compromise position that leaves both disappointed and unhappy. This is not to say that Word 2010 isn’t a big improvement over its predecessors and clearly a worthwhile upgrade — because it is; rather, it is to say that with a little more thought and care, Microsoft could have created a program that accommodates the needs of users who approach using Word from different mindsets.

Of course, I’m ignoring the fact that an editor’s needs are different from an author’s needs or a casual writer’s needs or a student’s needs, but it does seem to me that there really are only two basic approaches to using Word — keyboard or mouse, that is, hands on the keyboard or hands off the keyboard. With only two approaches, it should be easy to offer two choice styles, with options/preferences geared to those approaches.

Yet, there is another difference in how Hilary and I approach Word. Hilary distrusts “editorial” decisions that Word offers to make automatically, such as changing two hyphens to an em-dash. A lot of the options Word 2010 offers are offered cryptically; for example, the explanation for measurement converter is measurement converter. How it works and what it does are not explained; the name is simply repeated. Hilary’s approach to many of these options with which she is unfamiliar is to turn them off. She prefers to make all of the decisions all of the time.

I, on the other hand, take a more relaxed approach. I know that if something flaky happens when I’m using Word it is likely to be because I have some option turned on. But letting that flakiness occur lets me discover what Microsoft had in mind and lets me decide whether I can make it work for me now that I know how it works and/or what are its consequences. If I don’t know what an option does, I tend to leave it on. One thing Word does very well is undo.

And this is where the new right-click context menus really work well (new, that is, compared to the right-click context menus available in Word 2003; I skipped the “beta” Office 2007, so I’m not sure what Office 2007 can or can’t do other than aggravate me with inflexible ribbons). The one truly outstanding feature of Word 2010 is the ability to see visually the effect of making certain decisions, especially with paste. I would almost have considered upgrading to Office 2010 for that feature alone — but note that I said almost.

With my approach to the mechanics of editing, the fact that 90%+ of the keyboard shortcuts that existed in Word 2003 are the same in Word 2010, is meaningless. I never used them before and so didn’t memorize them and so don’t know them. But for those of Hilary’s persuasion, this is the deal maker and why the change from a menu-centric to ribbon-centric interface is so much less traumatic than it is for those of my persuasion. Hilary uses Ctrl+B to bold; I prefer to click the B icon.

A significant reason why we have divergent approaches is automation. Hilary commented, for example, that she has a few standardized author queries and so she can assign each a keyboard shortcut. From her demonstration of it, her automated queries are inflexible; that is, they never need modification. I, in contrast, use a lot of standardized queries and if I were to assign each its own keyboard shortcut, I would quickly run out of available easy-to-use key combinations (and have a time remembering each). More importantly, I use standardized queries as shells that can be used wither as is or easily modified to fit the circumstance. Consequently, I prefer the system found in EditTools, which allows me to store numerous standardized queries (up to 99) and assign all of them to a single key combination. The underlying reason for this difference in our approaches is, probably, the kinds of books we edit.

The bottom line is that there is no single right way to accomplish the same task. The “right way” ultimately is dependent on your approach to Word. What one approach sees as cumbersome and time-consuming is quick and time-efficient in another approach.

What started all of this was my discussion with Hilary about using Toolbar Toggle as a transitional tool from menu-centric Office 2003 to ribbon-centric Office 2010. (See Transitioning in a Microsoft World: Toolbar Toggle for further information about Toolbar Toggle.) So next time you and I disagree about how to approach a mechanical problem, let’s remember that different perspectives mandate different approaches to reach the same goal. All that matters is that we reach our goal in the most efficient way possible for us.


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