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Save time by mastering the basics: efficient movement within a file

by Geoff Hart

Previously published as: Hart, G. 2011. Save time by mastering the basics: efficient movement within a file. <http://techwhirl.com/articles/save-time-by-mastering-the-basics-efficient-movement-within-a-file/>

We technical communicators aren’t so different from the rest of the world: we tend to reach a comfortable plateau in our skills, and so long as we’re meeting our deadlines reasonably efficiently using those skills, we tend to lack the motivation to pay close attention to what we’ve been doing and look for improvements. But what if I told you that you could potentially save 15 minutes per day without doing anything more arduous than mastering three new keyboard shortcuts? And what if I told you that you could double that time savings by learning a few more tricks? These numbers are real based on my own work as an editor. Your mileage may, of course, vary, but the time savings are still likely to represent a significant repayment for the time it takes to read this article, followed by a few minutes of effort practicing what you’ll learn.

First, the numbers

The keystrokes in question are three basic ones that each of us uses repeatedly to move around the page while we revise our own work or someone else’s manuscript: moving between sentences, between words, and within a sentence. If you’re an editor, you’ll use these shortcuts even more frequently while you edit someone else’s work. Let’s do some simple math to see how this might work. (Skip ahead to “What do the numbers mean?” if you’re willing to trust my arithmetic and my assumptions.) These numbers are all based on a bit of Internet research, reality-checked using some sample documents on my computer, so treat them as reasonable approximations rather than hard data. Your mileage may vary, needless to say (for example, this article shows that I tend to write longer-than-average sentences and use longer words.)

First, let’s figure out the typical number of movements we’ll need to make per group of 1000 words:

What do the numbers mean?

Before we can calculate what all this means, we need a few statistics. Specifically, we need to find out how long it takes to reach the 130 positions per 1000 words where we’ll need to make corrections.

Time spent moving in a document (assumes 65 sentences per 1000 words, and 2 corrections per sentence):


Method

Actions per 1000 words

Seconds per 1000 words

Mouse clicks

130

390

Arrow keys

320

Keyboard shortcuts

650

200

These numbers will probably surprise you: depending on how you work, you’re spending between 3 and 6 minutes per 1000 words just moving around your document. But it’s the differences between the three methods that are truly astonishing: using the keyboard shortcuts instead of the mouse saved me 190 seconds (more than 3 minutes) per 1000 words, and using those shortcuts instead of the arrow keys saved me 120 seconds (2 minutes) per 1000 words. Multiply that by the number of thousands of words that you revise daily to calculate your potential time savings.

For a concrete example, consider my typical day. I work as an editor for people who aren’t professional authors (they’re scientists and engineers), who are writing about complex subjects (science and technology) in their second (sometimes third) language. On a good day, I can edit on the order of 10 000 words, so using just these three keyboard shortcuts saves me a minimum of 20 minutes per day.

Adjust the numbers and assumptions I’ve presented here to suit your taste and calculate a number that’s realistic for your own work; your results may not be as surprising as my results, but they’ll still be significant. If you really want a surprise, calculate how much time you’ll save over the course of a year: 15 minutes per day for 48 weeks amounts to 12 hours over the course of a year. Now ask yourself: Would an extra 15-minute coffee break or mental health break each day during a deadline crunch justify learning three new tricks and practicing them for a week?

Creating the keyboard shortcuts

[A look back: On most laptop keyboards that lack dedicated Home and End keys, the Left Arrow and Right Arrow keys take their place when you hold down the Fn (function) key first. This also converts the backspace deletion key into the forward delete key, changes the Up Arrow and Down Arrow keys into PageUp and PageDown (respectively), and probably does a few other funky things I haven't stumbled across yet.]

Here’s how to create the three keystrokes I’ve described in Microsoft Word 2007 or 2010 (Windows) and Word 2008 or 2011 (Macintosh):

 

Word 2007/2010

Word 2008/2011

Start or end of sentence

  • Open the Word menu
  • Click the Word Options button.
  • Select the Customize tab.
  • Click the Customize button beside the words “Keyboard shortcuts”.
  • Open the Tools menu
  • Select “Customize keyboard”.

 

For all four versions of Word, create a custom keyboard shortcut:

  • Under categories, select “All commands”.
  • Under the list of commands, scroll down to “SentLeft” (move to the start of the sentence) and “SentRight” (move to the end of the sentence). [A look back: The same commands move to the start and end of a sentence (respectively) in languages that are displayed from right to left in Word.]
  • Define a keyboard shortcut for each. (I use Control+Alt+Home and Control+Alt+End, respectively.)
  • Click the Assign button, then click OK to close the dialog box.

 

Word 2007/2010

Word 2011

Mid-sentence punctuation

  • Select the ribbon’s Developer tab.
  • Click the button “Record a macro”.

[Word 2008 doesn’t support macros, but you can record these keystrokes with QuicKeys (see the References section for details) or other macro software.]

  • Open the Tools menu.
  • Select Macro, then Record New Macro.

 

For all three versions:

  • Click the OK button to proceed without assigning the macro to a keyboard shortcut. (You can assign a keyboard shortcut now if you prefer. I’ve chosen not to because it’s useful to know how to add a keystroke to a recorded macro, which I'll show you how to do later.)
  • Open the Find dialog box (Control+F in Windows; Command+F on the Mac).
  • In the “Find what” field, type the following (i.e., the list of punctuation marks, bounded by square brackets): [:;,.\!\?]
    The \ character is necessary before the last two characters because without them, ! and ? have a special meaning in wildcard searches and the search function won’t find the two punctuation characters.
  • Select the “Use wildcards” checkbox.
  • Click the Find Next button.
  • Close the dialog box.

 

  • In the Developer tab, click the “Stop recording” button.
  • Open the Tools menu.
  • Select Macro, then “Stop recording”.

 

Assign a keyboard shortcut to this macro using the Customize feature that I described earlier in this table for moving to the start or end of the sentence. However:

  • Under “Categories”, scroll down and select “Macros” to display a list of the available macros.
  • I use Control+Alt+Right arrow to move to the next punctuation.
  • It’s also useful to be able to move to the previous punctuation. Record exactly the same macro, but change one step: change the search direction to “Current document up” in the Find dialog box. (As the keyboard shortcut for this macro, I use Control+Alt+Left arrow.)

 

Word 2007/2010

Word 2008/2011

Next word Control+Right arrow Command+Right arrow

Previous word

Control+Left arrow

Command+Left arrow

There are a great many other shortcuts you can develop for simple things like moving around. For example, paying close attention to how I worked revealed that I frequently needed to move to mid-sentence numbers, to opening brackets, and to closing brackets. Using the same “find” method I described above for moving to mid-sentence punctuation, I recorded macros that moved me to each of these things in a single keystroke: Control+3 (memory aid: the # sign is above the 3), Control+9 (memory aid: the left bracket is above the 9), and Control+0 (memory aid: the right bracket is above the 0). I haven’t calculated the time savings, but given that I may do each of these moves dozens of times per page, the saving is undoubtedly significant.

The simple example of moving around more efficiently reveals a larger principle: there are many actions that each of us performs dozens or even hundreds of times daily in our technical communication work. Failing to look for more efficient ways to do those actions may be costing each of us minutes per day and hours per year. Paying a little attention to how we’re working and specifically to the kinds of things we’re doing repeatedly can reveal these inefficiencies. If any of those actions wastes time, it’s worthwhile spending a few minutes to figure out whether there’s a way to do them faster. An investment of a few minutes thinking about how you work can save you hours over the course of a year.

If you’re interested in learning more, have a look at my book on onscreen editing. Chapter 5 provides more tips for moving around a document and selecting text, and Chapter 11 provides tips on using Word’s automation tools to drastically improve your efficiency.

References

Hart, G. 2010. Effective onscreen editing: new tools for an old profession. 2nd edition. Diaskeuasis Publishing, Pointe-Claire, Que. Printed version, 507 p.; eBook in PDF format, 723 p.

QuicKeys 4 for the Macintosh.


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