Tips and Tricks for Writing Digitally
The Quick, Easy, Cheap and Lazy Tricks for Any Word or Text Processor.
There are people who specialize in learning the ins and outs of whatever word processor they use, studying the latest books about Microsoft Word or exploring the latest update to the free LibreOffice, or Google Writer, or any of the multitude of other writing tools.
Then there are the majority of us: writing newbies, students, occasional writers who just want to get a simple job / article / school paper done quickly. If you are the latter type of writer, here are a few quick tips that you don’t need a 500-page manual to figure out. Better, they work in almost any writing tool you’re likely to come across.
First Things First – SAVE IT!
First thing when starting a new file, click Save or Save As. Give it a title. Maybe give it a new folder (or find a good one) so you can find it again tomorrow, or 24 months from now. Use folders to organize your work.
If you write online with Google Docs, use tags instead. Fine. Just have an organization system so you can Find the doc when you need it. Nothing is worse for a writer than not being able to find that file you spent 3 hours on yesterday.
Develop the “Save Twitch”
Then get in the habit of typing Control-S (Command-S for Mac users) at a pause or at the end of every paragraph. Or every five minutes. Or whenever the phone rings or you get a text message. Develop the nervous twitch for saving your files. Don’t just remember the keyboard command for SAVE. Develop the Save Twitch. Unless you can set your apps to save every 60 seconds, the twitch is better, at least if you’re writing from a keyboard.
The Writing Mindset
Separate Writing from Editing
Writing is a process. That’s why we have word processors. Too many people confuse writing and formatting, or writing and editing. As soon as you start formatting or correcting your mistakes, you exit the creative process and lose your train of thought, your creative spark, or that internal outline that was telling you what to put down on the page. As much as you can, ignore spelling, capitalization, style sheets, or anything that requires using a toolbar or a menu. Just write, write, write. This actually takes practice, but it will help you get your ideas down on paper (or pixels) more quickly and you will lose fewer ideas. After you get your first draft, then edit ruthlessly.
That’s why some people still prefer to write on paper rather than on a word processor. Paper’s good. I like paper. But a word processor is faster and closer to the speed of thought. I can type on an iPad or Android tablet on-screen keyboard about as fast as I can write by hand. But I can type on a full-sized keyboard at over 60 words per minute. That enables me to get the words down more easily as I think them.
If you need to speed up your typing, see our extensive Frugal Guidance 2 guide to typing tutorials.
If you can’t separate writing from editing because the computer or the program is just so distracting, see our articles on zenware writing tools.
Some writing tools have a menu-less writing mode. LibreOffice Writer, for example, has a distraction-free mode that hides the menus and everything else. You get there by using the keyboard shortcut
Command-Shift-J. Many other programs use the
The easy / cheap / lazy text-expander trick
This is for those who don’t want to take the time to learn a text expander app or feature. It’s also good if you’re writing in a plain text processor, a zenware writing tool, or an online tool without a text-expander, autocorrect, or auto-insert feature.
This is simply creating abbreviations for those words or phrases that you keep repeating. Then use Find and Replace to replace the abbreviation with the full term. (I used to do this frequently when I was still using an early version of MacWrite on my first Macintosh.)
The problem with using Find and Replace is that it will change every instance of an abbreviation even if it’s part of a real word. Although the results can be funny, fixing them can be a pain. Therefore, it’s best to make each abbreviation unique. I select a non-letter character to introduce my abbreviations. Since the semicolon –
; – is never followed by anything except a space in English, I usually use it to start any text abbreviation.
Then create one or two letter abbreviations for names and places you might be writing about. For example, if I’m writing a piece about Russian composers Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Dmitri Shostakovich, and Sergei Prokofiev, it makes sense to abbreviate them:
;sp. Then, before I finish for the day, use Search and Replace. If a word is sometimes capitalized, but not always, I might use one code for capitalized words and one for lower case.
When you’re ready, use your Find and Replace tool. Put
;pit in the Find box, then
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky in the replace box. Then click the Replace All button to replace each occurrence. Of course, if you only use the name once in a document, this saves you no time. But if you are writing it many times in a document, this would be useful.
Graduate to Real Text Expanders
After you do the Find-and-Replace trick for a while, you will probably find it even more convenient to use a text expansion tool. Many word processors include one, but you may prefer using a universal tool that works in all your software instead of just one writing tool. I really like a German-made program called PhraseExpress (free for noncommercial use) which combines a text expander, a multiple clipboard manager, and a basic macro maker, all in one. Windows users also have TextExpander (also for Macs and iOS), FastKeys, and PhraseExpander. Mac users have aText, Typinator, and TypeIt4Me. There are many other similar programs for both platforms.
Poor Man’s Quick Note
You’re typing along and, all of a sudden, you get an inspiration for another article. Instead of opening a new document, just type:
##NOTE and start writing. Stop with another ## at the end. (Or use the journalists’ end-of-file symbol
### when you’re finished.) Go back to your original writing. When you get a breather, search for the ##N files and either Cut and Paste it into a new document, or paste it into your Ideas file. (Or clip it into Evernote, whatever you use.)
Smart Quotes Hack
Beginner Tip: unless you are writing HTML or other code, avoid straight quotes, both double and single. Almost every word and text processor has a smart quotes / dumb quotes feature that will change your typed “straight quotes” (a.k.a. typewriter quotes) into typographically correct “curly quotes” (a.k.a. printers’ quotes). Sometimes this feature works great, sometimes it doesn’t.
The problem is when you use certain abbreviations, like the ’50s, or rock ’n’ roll, where software will often give you the wrong type of curly quote. Matthew Butterick’s Practical Typography has a quick and easy fix:
If you can’t remember the right keystroke for a right single quotation mark, just type two regular apostrophes. The word processor will change one to a left single quote, the other to a right.
For example, type:
In the ''60s, rock ''n'' roll ruled.
(Those are pairs of single quotes, not double quotes).
Smart Quotes gives you:
In the ‘’60s, rock ‘’n‘’ roll ruled.
Which you edit to:
In the ’60s, rock ’n’ roll ruled.
(Writing this in HTML is very weird, but that’s another issue entirely.)
See the excellent online book Butterick’s Practical Typography for much more on typography and design.
Spell Checking Lists
If you write about medical, botanical, legal or other topics, your normal spell-checker won’t help much. Fortunately, there are free resources with custom dictionaries you can import (or edit) to use with whichever writing tool you use.
If you write about Science, including accurate taxonomies and the like, download John Petrie’s Scientific Word List for spell-checkers: John Petrie’s LifeBlag in either American or UK English.
Note that this is a huge spelling dictionary to import into your word processor (say, Word or LibreOffice) – over 600,000 scientific terms. It may slow down your spell checking, but if you waste time adding terms or clicking Ignore, it may actually speed up your editing.
Rianjs.net has a free LexisMed medical spell check list with 66,239 medical, pharmaceutical, chemical, and associated words. For Word or OpenOffice / LibreOffice-style spell checkers.
The Chemistry Blog offers a free Chemistry Dictionary for word processors.
Write about fish? Not cooking them, but actual ichthyology? The American Fisheries Society has a free downloadable list of Common and Scientific Names of Fishes from the United States, Canada, and Mexico.
The unexpectedly friendly folks at SCOWL (Spell Checker Oriented Word Lists) and Friends have a large word list for spell checkers. See SCOWL’s website for tar.gz and zip files with the dictionaries for free spell checkers Aspell and Hunspell (two popular open-source spell checkers used in many programs).
See also the article 100 Most Often
Mispelled Misspelled Words in English.
Need other lists? These aren’t lists for spelling checkers, per se, but if you need a list for anything from composers, books, poems, plants, film festivals, to terrorist organizations (5,224 of them, yikes!), check out Carnegie Mellon University’s NELL Knowledge Base Browser.
Learn a Few Keyboard Shortcuts
Assuming you are actually using a traditional keyboard for your writing, there are a large number of keyboard shortcuts that let you avoid using the mouse or menus. This can speed up your writing and editing enormously. There are a few shortcuts that “everybody” knows and uses, except that many people weren’t taught them. On a Windows system, locate the Control, Windows, Alt and Shift keys. On a Mac, the equivalents are Control, Option, Command, and Shift.
So, if keyboard shortcuts are new to you, learn these on PCs (Mac users can try Command instead of Control):
- Control-S for save.
- Control-Z for undo
- Control-X for cut
- Control-C for copy
- Control-V for paste.
Note that on a standard English keyboard the four Z-X-C-V keys are all nicely laid out in a single row to make them easy to find.
If you undo your last edit, but then decide to undo your undo (or redo), try Control-Y, which is less universal, but common. (Think the last two letters of the alphabet: Y and Z.)
- Control-B for bold
- Control-I for Italic
- Control-U for Underline
To Find and/or Replace
- Control-F opens a Find (or Search) box.
- Control-G opens a Find and Replace (or Search and Change) box.
Open & Close Files and Programs
- Control-O to open a file.
- Control-P to print the current file
- Control-W to close the current file (but keep the program open). Some old-school PC program still use Alt-F4.
- Control-Q to shut down a program (which usually closes all the currently open files).
Study, practice and learn these basic shortcuts and you will speed up your computer work, whether its writing, spreadsheets, or most other programs.
Once you learn these, your next task should be to learn how to move your cursor (or insertion point) via the keyboard instead of the mouse or finger-tap. That varies more by the type of keyboard you use, including whether you have a separate 10-key style numeric keypad.
Windows users can also control most menus from the keyboard using the Windows key, but that’s another topic for another time.
Since almost every article on writing on the web uses photos of typists and typewriters, I’m using classic photos of typewriters and typists, too (which also follows a theme from my previous post).
The title Photo is “Woman at typewriter,” photographed between 1921 and 1923. From the Harris & Ewing Collection, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, DC. Note the fab ’20s hairstyle and the industrial (almost steampunk) typewriter! All photos were cropped and toned for web display, using Photoshop CC and Topaz Labs plugins.
“Cortez W. Peters, world’s champion portable typist” image was taken after he donated ten typewriters to the war effort in 1942. (There was a nation-wide drive for typewriters for the military.) The trophy does say he was judged to be the world’s champion portable typist (presumably the fastest typist on a portable typewriter, not that he had to move around while typing). Photographed by George Danor. Photo is from the Farm Security Administration – Office of War Information Photograph Collection, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, DC.
The Smiling Woman Typist photo is entitled, “ The Stenographer,” created in 1923. The photographer is not listed. From the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, DC.
The final photo is the oldest, “Young Woman with Typewriter,” by John Edwin Phillips, 1892. Some digital repair and retouching was done to restore blown-out highlights. The LOC copyright stamp was left in. From the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, DC.—I believe the image as shown on the LOC website is reversed because the carriage return lever is on the wrong side. So I flipped the photo, making the LOC copyright stamp a mirror-image. (A Google image search did find a Remington 1 typewriter with the lever on the right, but I still think the hand position is wrong for that.)