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A Rarely Recognized Cause of Inefficient Writing

Working with over a hundred people on their business writing over the past seven days, I recognized once again that people’s writing can be slowed down and weakened by something that has nothing to do with words.

That something is lack of knowledge of Microsoft Word features.

When people space manually to indent a list, when they delete a sentence they just typed by backspacing space by space, when they insert numbers one by one before the steps in a procedure, they are slowing down their thinking process and creating a document that is difficult to edit and easy to make errors in.

If you want to write quickly and efficiently in Microsoft Word–or if you want your team to–be sure you know how to:

  1. Change the size of margins in a document without tabbing or spacing.
  2. Vary the font size, color, and type.
  3. Number items automatically.
  4. Create bullet points without typing a dash (–) before each one.
  5. Vary the amount of white space between lines of text automatically.
  6. Find and replace words and strings of text (for example, to change global to worldwide).
  7. Insert frequently used words and phrases automatically to avoid having to type them and think about how to spell them. Proper names like Philippines should not be slowing you down.
  8. Create simple tables.
  9. Insert special characters such as copyright symbols.
  10. Check for errors in spelling, grammar, and style.
  11. Make the type look bigger on the screen for easy proofreading, without changing the font size.
  12. Undo a change or series of changes (and then undo the undoing if necessary).

Do you and your team know how to do these things? If not, you can attend a class, get advice from your information technology (IT) department, or complete online tutorials. The time you invest in your software skills will pay off instantly in more efficient writing.


Posted by Lynn Gaertner Johnson
By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English. She grew up in suburban Chicago, Illinois.

13 comments on “A Rarely Recognized Cause of Inefficient Writing”

  • You are so right, Lynn! And you didn’t mention how one’s lack of knowledge about the software’s features can slow OTHERS down as well. For example, I work in a law firm where we share and edit common documents often. When one person doesn’t know how to automatically number lines and I receive that document, I end up wasting time re-formatting that person’s error.

    Thanks for the great post!

  • You are on the dot. I agree with you that lack of knowledge about all the features of the word hampers the pace of writing.

    Thanks for the insight.

  • Also, learn keyboard shortcuts. Knowing tricks like Shift+ to select text or Ctrl + F3 to switch case saves time versus using the mouse. In Word 2003, search Help for Keyboard Shortcuts for a complete list.

  • Sounds like a workshop or a product to me, Lynn!

    Some of these things are actually a bit more complicated than it might seem. For example, I recently read a document that contained several nonsense words that were created by doing a global “replace” command and not checking each replacement.

  • I’m always amazed by the amount of people who don’t know what they don’t know and the amount of extra time they cost themselves by what they don’t know (because it takes them longer to do their work). I agree with Eve. As a communications specialist, I work with a lot of drafts written/created by other people. I often say that it is easier for me to start something from scratch than to fix what others have created. These same concepts apply to PowerPoint.

  • Thanks, everyone, for your comments.

    Eve, special thanks for noting (and Jennifer, thanks for elaborating on) how weak Word skills slow down others too. I hope your comments serve as an impetus for training in Microsoft Office.

    Jeff, I am glad you mentioned keyboard shortcuts and how to access them.

    Marcia, you certainly are right about global replace. I typically go through the document and okay each replacement. It eliminates crazy capitalization and other problems.

    I wonder whether other things slow down writing although they have nothing to do with writing skills. Slow typing, of course–anything else?


  • Thanks for another great post, Lynn. Can you direct us to more free or low-cost resources to help employees learn these Microsoft Word tips and tricks?

  • One thing I find that slows down writing is when Word does TOO MUCH for me. I find it a lot easier to get what I want if I turn off most of the automatic formatting. However, I then set my own formatting; for instance, I have to type several acronyms (like my company’s name), so I put those into Auto-Correct to always change to uppercase.

    To Lisa, I have learned so many tips and shortcuts from other employees. Maybe you could get your colleagues to share their tips.

  • Good point, Val. I turn off some formatting and automatic corrections too.

    I have written here about clients who did not know how to make Word stop changing HSA, which they intended, to HAS. They told me that my advice on the topic was worth the price of the seminar!


  • I must say that you have given nice information about Microsoft Word..I completely agree with you that sometimes people don’t know better use of Microsoft Word.Even I came to know some new things from your points for writing in Microsoft Word.

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