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Friday, October 31, 2014

Character Styles

Referencing my previous post about character styles, I posted this to the Word-PC list:

I’m soliciting your opinion. The topic is how do you use character styles in MS Word.

Our department uses a template for our user guides. Within the template, I created character styles for each UI element such as “checkbox”, “button” “dropdown”, “dropdown_value” and others.

I did this because I vaguely remember reading a story about a manager coming to a Word user and telling the Word user that all the check box names should be changed from “bold” to “bold/italic.” Because the Word user had not created character styles, the Word user had to go through the entire document and manually find all instances of where check boxes were referenced. The moral of the story was that to avoid that type of manual effort, you could create a character style for check box (and each UI elements) to avoid the manual work that specific Word user had to do. The point was that if you created a character style and applied it consistently, changing the definition of that character style would make those requests easier to honor. Change the definition and let Word ripple that change throughout your entire Word file.

Is having character styles for each UI element making MS Word unnecessarily complex? Right now, the documents are not formatted with fanciness. Some character styles, like Button, Checkbox, Dropdown, & Tab_name look the same at the moment. They are all Verdana, 11pt, bold. Across the documents, there are three categories of formatting applied in our docs: bold; bold/italic, italic. Because the changes to the formatting can be broadly categorized in those three basic formatting properties, is ditching Button, Checkbox, Dropdown & Tab_name and replacing them with A1, which would be defined as Verdana, 11pt, bold, A2, which would be defined as Verdana, 11pt, bold/italic, and A3, which would be defined as Verdana, 11pt, italic, be a better solution? Would the document be less complex by using A1, A2, and A3 instead? When the Word user is applying styles, it would be much easier to find A1, A2, or A3 and apply that character style instead of Button for button labels, Checkbox for check box labels, etc.

I’ll be as direct as I can. I have tried to keep emotion out of my explanation above, but I totally disagree with this proposal. It reverts to creating the same situation in the story I cited above. To change all button labels from A1 to A2, you still have to manually search through the Word document and manually find all instances of button labels and manually change the style from A1 to A2. The way the template is set up, right now, doesn’t have that potential issue. In the story above, I would be able to honor that request by changing the Button character style – once – in my template. All documents that use that template would be automatically updated. If you have 10 Word guides using the same template with the styles applied consistently, one change to the template ripples through those 10 Word docs. I fully understand the perils and benefits of making template changes to update formatting in each Word document that uses the template.

And it’s not like I am new to the career of being a technical writer. I was hired at my first technical writer job on Friday, 2/10/1995. I have used Word pretty much every day of my career. I have posted many times on this list to expand my knowledge. While I am not trained as a programmer, I’m told I seem to think like one because if I can find a way to automate something and avoid a repetitive task, I will investigate and figure out a way to do that. That said, I have to ask if I’m missing the boat on this. Word already has its built in complexities and I don’t feel like using character styles is an unnecessary complexity. My critical thinking skills tell me that using character styles builds in the flexibility that the Word user in the story I cited above didn’t have and will lead to possible manual effort. I built this ‘system’ so I don’t see the complexity – I perfectly understand why I created each and every one of these character styles.

So, all that to say, I want to expand my knowledge and learn more. My theory of using character styles in a Word document is based upon a dim recollection of a story I read at some time over the last 19+ years. If my approach is not a solid foundation, I want to know why and understand why it’s not.

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