We Work So Hard to Make Our Word Processing Lives So Complicated

Posted: October 10, 2016 | By:

Of all the applications writers of non-fiction use (database programs, spreadsheets, statistical analysis, bibliographical software, etc.), word processors are arguably the most complex. Product designers spend hours and hours haggling over features to include or exclude, programmers agonize about how to write the optimal code, and forty years into the information age we have word processors that do quite a lot of work for us.

Using style overrides, you can defeat all of that progress.

Let’s understand how style overrides interrupt the logic of applying styles. Recall from the post Style Overrides: Seduction on the Ribbon that our base style defines body text as 13-point sans-serif font and left aligned. Suppose Peter, the fellow with the journal entries we introduced in that post, realizes that he needs something provocative or topical that will spice up his journal entries. His first instinct is to talk about the oil spill: not the one off the Alaska coast that contaminated hundreds of miles of pristine nature reserve and placed rare Trumpeter swans in danger of extinction. Peter was thinking of something with which his audience can more easily connect, such as the oil spill in aisle 14 of his local supermarket next to the dry active yeast. Not only that, but Peter has been reading the blog posts on MSWordSupport.com, and he now realizes the importance of using styles. He changes his body paragraph’s style from left aligned to justified. His journal entry now looks like this:

January 15, 2016

The traffic today was just awful. For one thing, all those truckers were on strike, just like they do in France, driving 10 MPH below the speed limit. That was the good news; the bad news is that most people were stuck at driving 20 MPH below the speed limit because it was rush hour. You can imagine the bedlam that ensued. With trucks piling into cars, those cars piling into other cars, and those cars piling into other trucks, it was a complete mess. Then came the HELICOPTERS who tried to save people by extricating them from wreckage. Things only got worse when the health insurers came and canceled everyone’s coverage who was within a five-mile radius of the bakery truck that exploded, spewing unbaked yeast into the air and basically causing the largest biohazard in the universe’s history (not counting the Big Bang, of course).

Peter assumed that by changing the base style’s setting, all of the paragraphs with that style will adopt the style’s appearance. In this particular instance, because he changed the alignment to justified, all the body paragraphs should have justified alignment. Peter’s assumption collided with reality when he saw that the first paragraph holding the date is still right-aligned. This brings us to the first rule of style logic.

Changing a style’s definition does not erase an individual style override.

When you update a style definition, the word processor—

1. Applies the new definition of the style.
2. Re-applies the style overrides.

This means that if you have a paragraph with a right-align override, then changing the underlying paragraphs’ style to justified won’t remove the right alignment.

The larger implication is that there is no escape from a style override. Once it’s there, it stays until you remove it. Let’s go back to our three scenarios from the post How Styles Impact Your Career, Marriage, and Temperament and see how things shake out.

In the Academic Setting—You are desperately trying to submit your third research paper on time to the journal, a submission that will guarantee you a tenure-track position. Because you manually applied 10-point font to all of the body paragraphs in the first version of your manuscript by clicking on the ribbon, you also applied a style override to those paragraphs. The journal requires an 11-point font. You have no choice but to select all those body paragraphs again and re-apply a style override of 11 point.

In the Business Setting—Recall that the Chinese Merger & Acquisition team had demanded from you, the owner of Bart’s snack factory, to set all body text your company’s documentation in the font Stempel Garamond. You complied by opening every single file, selecting every paragraph in body text, and selecting Stempel Garamond from the ribbon. This was a huge undertaking that resulted in tens of thousands of paragraphs having a fatal style override. Two days after you finish that painstaking assignment, the Chinese call the deal off. They realize that they, too, cannot compete with an online snack factory that delivers from an alien mothership. They have decided to buy out a factory that makes alien motherships, and within five hours they are on a departing flight without so much as a “don’t call us, we’ll call you” closing.

The next day you get a call from a Middle Eastern M&A team who is ready to buy you out. Elated, you ask them for their terms. They are willing to pay your asking price; the only thing they want is for all body text to be set in the font Gentium Basic. Once you recover from the anaphylactic reaction, you open one of the accounting reports and change the Normal style to Gentium Basic. That has no effect; because there is a style override on every single paragraph that sets the typeface to Stempel Garamond. The formatting logic is blocked. You have no choice but to once again select all the body paragraphs individually and apply the required font.

In the Collaborative Setting—Jenny finally got her donut proposal submitted for the current year’s RFP. The crushing news was that her offer was not accepted. The word on the street was that the government agency evaluating the proposals had received instructions to give preference to vendors with long-term fungal infections on the left foot. That doesn’t phase Jenny, though, because the next day she received an opportunity to bid on a bagel contract. The amounts were astonishing. Compared to the 10-year contract for 50,000 donuts that she lost, this was a 20-year contract for 100,000 bagels. “Turns out the winners of the donut contract are the losers,” Jenny smugly said to herself. Her joy was redoubled when she read the requirements for submitting the proposal. Each body paragraph needs to be Times New Roman 11 points (compared to the current 12 points), with 0 points before and 0 points after (compared to the current 6 points before and after). Because Jenny sacrificed her marriage to apply styles, and not style overrides, to all of her body paragraphs, she is sitting mighty pretty. She opens up her proposal, changes the style accordingly, and then entire proposal automatically reformats without a single click from the ribbon. She’ll have the time and energy to participate in this week’s session with the marriage counselor.

The moral to these stories is as follows:

Once you introduce a style override, most often by clicking on the ribbon or pounding on the keyboard, your chances of exploiting a word processor’s productivity features are limited.

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If you are collaborating with someone else, you’ll need to reformat the collaborator’s text; if you are submitting to different journals or proposal offices, you’ll have to reformat text; if you are combining clauses from different attorneys into a single contract, you’ll have to renumber all of the clauses. In contrast, if you use styles, you’ll be able to re-purpose text with minimal effort—as we will see in future posts.

Folks, this will probably be the last attack I make on the scourge of style overrides. Going forward we’ll tackle how to eliminate them and, more importantly, how to prevent them.

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