Word Processing Tip: Add text colour temporarily to invisible formatting options

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Microsoft, Pages
November 15th, 2005 • 2:08 pm

For many years, as a Word user, I naively thought that using Word’s default paragraph style (called ”Normal”) was the… normal thing to do. But then I started experiencing various issues that led me to reconsider this approach. See, the “Normal” style is one of these built-in styles in Word that don’t behave exactly in the same way as other user-defined styles do.

If you take a trip to Word’s “Styles” dialog box, you’ll see that, unlike other user-defined styles, the “Normal” style cannot be deleted. If you edit it and try to rename it, something very weird happens: Word actually appends the new name you’ve tried to give it to the existing “Normal” name, with a semi-colon as a separator. Don’t ask me what this means. I think I’d rather not know. But this means that, effectively, you cannot really rename the “Normal” style either.

There are other, more serious problems with the “Normal” style, which I won’t detail here. They are subtle problems that you will not necessarily encounter if you only use Word to type the occasional one-page letter. However, if, like me, you use Word to compose new documents, edit existing documents created by other Word users, and prepare documents to be imported in a page layout application such as InDesign, you too might have experienced frustration with the behaviours of Word’s default built-in styles and decided to by-pass them altogether.

If you are in that situation, then, like me, you will have a legacy of thousands of Word documents where you did use “Normal” as the default paragraph style. And you will continue to receive Word documents created by other Word users which also use the “Normal” default paragraph style.

And this default “Normal” paragraph style might not look all that different from your user-defined default body style. For example, the default “Body” body style that I use in my Word templates is in Times New Roman 11 pt. The default “Normal” style in Word is in Times New Roman 12 pt. And the “Normal” style that I used in my documents for many years was also in Times New Roman 11 pt.

Because of this, I often have this situation where I copy text from an existing document and paste it into my own document, but then I forget to change its style from “Normal” to my own “Body” style. When you copy a paragraph of text from a document which is in “Normal” style and paste it into a document which is in “Body” style, Word keeps the text formatting of the original and pastes the text in “Normal” style.

And because the styles are not visually different and because I don’t always keep my eye on the “Styles” pop-up menu in Word’s Formatting toolbar, I don’t notice that some paragraphs are still in “Normal”…  (I could change the “Style area width” setting in Word’s “Preferences › View” dialog box to something other than the default value of 0, but I find that this style area is a significant waste of screen space.)

In order to avoid this situation where my documents contain a mix of paragraphs in “Body” and paragraphs in “Normal,” I have just thought of a pretty obvious thing to do: In my Word templates, I have now added a text colour to the style definition for the “Normal” style.

This way, whenever I copy text in “Normal” style and paste it into a document where it should be in “Body” style, the text will still be in “Normal” style and, because the “Normal” style include a text colour setting, it will stand out and I will thus have an obvious reminder that I need to change this text’s style from “Normal” to “Body.”

This also helps me in other situations where Word refers to the “Normal” style without my permission. For example, when I use Word’s non-contiguous selection feature to copy various bits of text at the same time, when I paste them they are in “Normal” style instead of my default paragraph style. It’s an annoyance, but with a different colour for the “Normal” style, I can spot the problem right away and fix it.

This text colour tip is actually a tip that can be used in a variety of situations. For example, in Word, the “Language” setting that defines the language of the text you are typing is effectively an invisible formatting option. There is no visual indication anywhere in the Word interface that such portion of your text is in English and such portion is in French, even after you’ve used the “Language…” command (in the “Tools” menu) to assign a language to your text. The only way to tell whether the text you are reading is in English or in French is to place your insertion point somewhere in the text (or select it) and take a trip to that “Language…” command.

Here again, a (partial) solution is to use text colouring. Unfortunately, there is no way to automatically associate a different text colour to each language setting in Word. But if you are disciplined in the way you format the text in your Word documents and use character styles and paragraph styles religiously (as opposed to manual formatting), then you can add a text colour setting to the definitions of the styles that use a specific language setting.

You only need the text colouring while you are working on your document, in order to better distinguish between the different sections of your text. Once your document is ready to be delivered, you just have to remove the text colouring settings from the style definitions.

Even if you don’t use styles systematically, you can still use Word’s Find/Replace command as a one-off tool to colour text that is in a particular language. You just need to do a document-wide search for text that is in a given language (“Language…” is one of the options in the “Format” menu in the Find/Replace dialog box) and replace all occurrences with themselves with a text colour applied to them.

And you can also write macro commands to automate this process.

Apple’s Pages also has a text language setting that can be applied to various portions of your document but, here again, the only visual indication of what colour the text is in is the status of the “Language” pop-up menu in the corresponding tab in the Inspector palette.

I find that I almost never use text colouring in my word processing documents. The immense majority of the documents that I produce are in black and white. If they have colour, it’s only in graphics. The text itself remains black. Yet I think the last black and white Macintosh computer must have been a PowerBook in the early 90s. Since then, all our computers have had colour screens, and we make full use of colour in all kinds of software applications. But we still make very little use of colour in our word processing documents.

One area where today’s word processors could innovate is in the use of text colour as a tool to visualize “invisible” text attributes, such as the current style of the text or the current language of the text. Word does use text colouring in its “Track Changes” feature. But there are other areas where text colouring could be used as an aid while the document is being edited, without the colour having any impact on the final document.

The tips described above are actually “hacks” that need to be undone before the document can be delivered. Our word processors could have a “Colourize Languages” option that could be easily toggled on and off and would show the language settings of the various sections of our documents in different colours. And they could also have an option to assign colours (either for the text or for the background) to styles as a way to distinguish them in the formatted text.

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