Book Review

Microsoft Word for Medical and Technical Writers

ISBN-13: 978-1604024456
Peter G. Aitken PhD and Maxine M. Okazaki PhD

Reviewed by Robert Delwood, Senior Programmer Writer

The myriad of Microsoft Word books on the market may be a disservice to the readers. Word is a deep application and many of the books try to cover all aspects. This brute force approach doesn’t always work since much of the information isn’t really needed by the readers. In addition, a book “for medical and technical writers” might appear to be the same fare but spun for those markets. However, this book deserves a look. It is not a tutorial and it’s not for beginners, which alone sets it apart. Instead, the authors recognized that it’s neither when Word is working properly that users need help nor even afterwards. It’s preventing the trouble in the first place. The emphasis here is prevention, and the authors offer their experience into the more obscure parts of the application.

The book format is different. They do two clever things. The first is that the book is spiral bound, allowing it to be laid flat while reading. The second is that the 8 ½” x 11” pages have larger print. The book can be on the desk and it’s still easy to follow the procedures, typically about five steps with explanation. The title is misleading. Ostensibly for medical and technical writers, there is not much specific to those fields. Rather, the authors tap their experiences of using Word to create long, complex documents with exacting requirements. It’s in those cases that many of the problems come up. Trouble areas include tables, cross references, automatic numbering, templates, and table of contents (really to name only a few). It’s also surprisingly short – 158 pages. Don’t let all that deter you. The tips, insights, and suggestions could save you a lot of time and grief.

The book covers Word 2003 specifically. Office 2007 is too new to tell if the problems are the same, or if the Word 2003 solutions still apply. There are nine chapters covering the common source of problems, from general options, to styles, fields, tables, templates, and best practices. Each chapter discusses the important options or cases, includes a brief discussion about the value or contribution of that item, and often includes a recommendation for using or not using it. For example, the first chapter discusses general options. Their tip is to use AutoText for complex words, a feature many users forget about. For medical writers, a monograph about Neisseria gonorrhoeae may require that name to be used dozens of times. In this case, add it as an AutoText entry and Word will prompt the writer to complete the term after only four letters. Their reason for using AutoText rather than AutoCorrect is that writers will have explicit control over the replacements. AutoCorrect makes automatic replacements, which may be acceptable for commonly misspelled words, but you may want to generally avoid letting Word do things automatically.

In another example, styles are often the cause of problems. Chapter two reviews the seriousness of styles and how to use them properly. We are reminded that all formatting should be a part of styles. That is, directly applying bold to text means that text can not be controlled effectively through styles and templates, and that copy and pasting that text introduces that error into other documents. The document’s owner can ask at any time not to have those words bolded. In addition, if the document belongs to a client, not having it styled correctly can look unprofessional for you and cause rework for them later; hardly a way to endear yourself. Furthermore, they recommend not creating new styles based on the Normal style. It is better to make a new one based on No Style. The reasoning is that Normal style is a common style and if the document is attached to another template (such as, it is possible for the Normal style to be defined differently. This may display unintended results. In combination with those, they recommend to always keep the New Style dialog’s options Add To Template and Automatically Update options unchecked. Each of those options can change the template, and template changes should always be explicit, not automatic.

Finally, it’s not possible to list all the causes for all of Word’s problems. It’s just too large, too complex, too buggy, and with too many subjective design features to list. Some features are known to cause problems and are best avoided, such as master documents, auto numbering, tables, and revisions. In the same way, the following are known to also cause problems: Editing the document on different computers, different Windows versions, and different Word editions; using Compare and Merge on long documents, and repeated use of Track changes, especially if done by several different users. Obviously it’s not possible, or even practical, to avoid all of these. In those cases, just be aware that problems are likely to be introduced. In all cases, “always always save your document.” This includes having multiple copies. The reasoning is that it’s easier to recover from a recent version than an older one. When you do a backup, don’t rely on Word’s automatic save feature but use Save As to create a new file without overwriting the existing file. They also recommend saving as often as every 30 minutes.

It’s clear, the more you know about Word’s inner workings, the more you distrust it.