Suffering Consequences in Style

Posted: September 18, 2016 | By:

Prior to a recent flight from Washington’s Reagan National Airport, I entered the gate area in Terminal B. The wall across from me was emblazoned with the following maxim:

Health is everything

This is difficult to deny. Without solid physical, mental, and emotional health, it’s difficult to get much done. (Although some unbelievably courageous and motivated people manage to accomplish quite a bit with little of all three.) What struck me about that maxim was its ineffectiveness. For right under those timeless and easily comprehensible words were hordes of early morning travelers seemingly volunteering to do instant damage to their health by standing in line to purchase doughnuts, pizzas, alcoholic beverages, and pretzels—not to mention placing gamma-ray cell phones next to their heads, not to mention undergoing irradiation by TSA body scanners, and not to mention listening to the high-decibel background noise articulated by gate agents, aircraft engines, and recorded security announcements. Generally, if you’re looking for health, look for it somewhere other than an airport.

Similarly, many articles on the Internet and many books about word processors extol the benefits of using styles. For some reason this corpus of readable, well edited, and well formatted text has not percolated into the general population’s consciousness. To verify this claim, prior to writing this post I took ten random Word files from the Internet, and found that none of them used styles properly. Apparently explaining the benefits of using styles is not enough to get people to use them. I’m going to take a different approach, and list the many consequences that will befall you if you don’t use styles.

If you don’t use styles, your fingerprints will wind up on the perpetual do-not-fly list, your significant other will a) abandon you b) remain with you (whichever is worse), you will always mistakenly drink full-caffeine coffee just before bedtime, the line in supermarket you are in will always the longest, the line to get onto the subway will always the shortest while you are fumbling for the fare, your relatives will a) live close by b) move far away (whichever is worse), your high-school nemesis will become shamelessly happy, dazzlingly famous, and obscenely wealthy, as you travel to pick up your brother-in-law from the airport your car will a) break down b) not break down (whichever is worse), and harshest of all, the product warranties you purchase will expire without ever needing them.

This is a brutal way to live a life, and the chances of any of these scenarios transpiring if you don’t use your word processor’s styles is actually very low. (Even if they do transpire, it’s unlikely the root cause is the word processor itself.) Nevertheless, there are consequences for not using styles, and they all pertain to the most glaring failure of the Carpal-Tunnel Test.

Typing on a keyboard for eight hours a day is not something the human body was designed to do. Neither is clicking on a mouse. Prehistoric men and women were hunters and gatherers. This lifestyle required a lot of gross motor movement, particularly to outwit and escape the saber-toothed tigers. (There are many articles in the mainstream press bemoaning species’ extinctions at the hands of humans; when munching on our infants to the verge of extinction, did saber-toothed tigers give their destructive behavior a second thought?) Fine motor movements were not necessary for their daily chores. As a result, we can surmise that the number of times they thumped their index finger in the same spot in the course of their lives was far less than what we do today.

In Even Bogart Didn’t Have This Kind of Style, we summarized the style overrides required in a journal entry to achieve the effects of italics, boldface, underline, and shading. To apply the style overrides, Peter (the author) needed to do a lot of mouse clicks or keyboard shortcuts. The following table summarizes the required level of effort.

Best-Case Scenario Worst-Case Scenario
6 mouse drags
9 mouse clicks
14 keystrokes
6 mouse drags
52 mouse clicks

The table indicates that if Peter has a good knowledge of Word’s keyboard shortcuts, then he can apply all the style overrides with six mouse drags, nine mouse clicks, and 14 keystrokes. If Peter has no knowledge of Word’s keyboard shortcuts, then he needs to do six mouse drags and a punishing 52 mouse clicks to apply the style overrides.

If, under the worst-case scenario, Peter did nothing for the entire day except click on the ribbon 52 times, we’d say he has lifestyle problems greater than the risk of failing the Carpal-Tunnel Test. Nevertheless, authors of serious non-fiction write reports, proposals, contracts, and theses, and they are at risk for greatly multiplying the number of mouse clicks to apply the same formatting over and over.

On page 13 of Lost Taxes and Other Costs of Marijuana Laws we see Table 3. Prevalence of Monthly Marijuana Use, by Age (1990 – 2005). In this table we see the following formatting:

  • Caption of table is centered
  • First line of header set in boldface
  • Second line of header set in boldface underline
  • Numbers in body rows are right-aligned

Using only the buttons on the ribbon, this formatting can be accomplished with 18 mouse clicks. There are 14 tables in that report, representing a total of 252 mouse clicks. Using styles only, the same table can be formatted in six clicks or 84 clicks for the entire report—and in much shorter time and with greater consistency. Here we have a concrete example that demonstrates how using styles reduces the number of mouse clicks and keyboard hits, with the corresponding reduction in time spent formatting text. You can make the same comparison with your own manuscripts.

Applying formatting with style overrides, as we’ve seen, is labor intensive and can be eliminated using styles. What about removing style overrides?

Suppose a user guide has the following sentence:

Users must be sure to wear sunglasses when operating this equipment otherwise zombies will enter our earth from the fifth dimension.

User guides are supposed to be very dry, very terse, and barely engaging—just like their authors. (When I go to parties and introduce myself as a technical writer, the conversation pretty much stops there.) Setting independent clauses in italics is considered bad form in user guides, and an editor will generally insist on removing them. Editors working on journal articles, contracts, and proposals exhibit similar preferences. As a result, an author who spends time and effort applying formatting with style overrides is at risk of removing that very same formatting! In contrast, an author who applied the formatting with styles (and not style overrides) can remove that formatting by just deleting the style, and saving the resulting repetitive stress injury on their fingers.

This post focused on the wear-and-tear of using style overrides; our next post will discuss how style overrides will effect your productivity as an author and maybe even negatively impact your domestic relationships.

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