Ten things everyone should know how to do with a word processor

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Admit it: You don’t use half the tools in your word processing app—whether it’s Microsoft Word, Apple’s own Pages, or Google Docs—maybe even less than half. But without all those bells and whistles you’ve been ignoring, that app is little more than a glorified text editor. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that: I use my favorite text editor, BBEdit, as a glorified word processor.)

But a big part of owning a tool is knowing how to use it effectively. So if you ever use Word, Pages, or Google Docs, you owe it to yourself to know how to do a few essential things with it. Here are the ten of the most essential.

1. Use Keyboard Shortcuts

When I’m in the flow of writing, there’s nothing worse than having to lift my fingers from the keyboard, grab the mouse, and click to select, copy, cut, paste, or format text, or to save or print a document. But in most cases, my hands never actually need to leave the keys to take care of these things. I use keyboard shortcuts instead.

Every Mac application offers some keyboard shortcuts. The beauty of word processing apps is that these shortcuts tend to be consistent from app to app. Emphasis on tend, however: For example, take note of the Redo option in the Edit menus of Google Docs, Pages, and Word: Word and Google Docs use Command-Y, while Pages uses another Command-Shift-Z.

You don’t have to memorize all these commands, but it’s smart to memorize the ones you use most often. Following are a few you’re likely to use every day, and they almost all work in Word, Pages, and Google Docs:

  • Command-A selects all the text in your document.
  • Command-B bolds text.
  • Command-I italicizes text.
  • Command-N creates a new document (not in Google Docs).
  • Command-P prints your document.
  • Command-S saves your document.
  • Command-U underlines text.
  • Command-V pastes text at the cursor.
  • Command-X cuts selected text.

2. Create and Manage Lists

Word and Pages make it easy to create lists; sometimes they do so whether you like it or not. (See “Turn Off Automatic Numbered Lists” below.) Begin any paragraph with the number 1 followed by a period in either of these applications, and it’ll assume you want to create a numbered list, so each subsequent paragraph will start with the next number in the sequence.

When creating lists, the Tab key is your friend. When you create a new list item, pressing Tab indents the line and changes the numbering sequence to a different one, indicating a new level of organization.

lists word

The list-format chooser in Word.

Google Docs behaves a bit differently. Simply typing a number and a period won’t work. To create lists, you click the Numbered List or Bulleted List button in the Google Docs toolbar. The Tab key won’t work here either. Instead, you’ll need to click the Increase Indent or Decrease Indent button to change your list’s sequencing.

All three applications default to a basic numbered list, although Word offers more sophisticated list-formatting options than do Pages and Google Docs. Google Docs and Word let you change list formatting using the list tools in the toolbar. Click and hold on any of them, and you’ll get several list options to choose from; Word also offers an option for creating your own custom list formats.

To change list formatting in Pages, select all the paragraphs in your list and use the Bullets & Lists section of the Format sidebar to adjust your list settings.

3. Turn Off Automatic Numbered Lists

Hate automatically numbered lists? Turn them off, keeping in mind that to create lists in the future you will need to use the list buttons in the toolbar.

Word: Open the Tools menu and select AutoCorrect. When the AutoCorrect settings window opens, click the AutoFormat As You Type tab and uncheck the boxes next to Automatic Bulleted Lists and Automatic Numbered Lists.

Pages: Open the Pages menu, click the General button and in the Editing section uncheck the box that says Automatically Detect Lists.

Google Docs: It doesn’t offer an automatic lists option.

4. Find and Replace Text

Oh, I know you’ve done it: Written an entire document and then realized you’ve misspelled someone’s name. How do you fix your error? By using find and replace. The three apps provide slightly different options for replacing your found text with new text. But in each case, you have the option to use Replace or Replace All. Replace only replaces the currently selected instance of the word while Replace All changes every instance in the document in one fell swoop.

Word: Click the Edit menu, select Find and then Replace. (Or press Command-Shift-H.) A small sidebar will appear next to your document with two fields. In the Search Document field, type the name of the word or phrase you want to find. (You should see a list with every instance of that word below, and in the document itself every instance should be highlighted.) In the Replace With field, type the word or phrase that is to replace what you’ve typed in the search field.

find and replace pages

Finding-and-replacing text in Pages.

Pages: Open the Edit menu and select Find > Find (or press Command-F), then select Find & Replace from the gear menu on the left. Enter your search term in the field that says Find The Word Or Phrase You Want To Replace It With in the Replace field.

Google Docs: Open the Edit menu and select Find and Replace (or press Command-Shift-H).

5. Insert a Table

Adding a table to your documents is a simple task in all three apps.

Word: Select the Tables tab, then click the New button at the left of the toolbar. Word will display a ten-by-eight grid from which you can create your table. If you need something bigger, click the Insert Table menu that appears below the grid. When you do, a new window will appear giving you the option to create a table the size you want.

Pages: When you click the Table tool in the toolbar, Pages offers a menu of pre-formatted tables, all of which are four columns wide by five high. Selecting one of these tables inserts it into your document. To add more rows and columns, click the small button at the end of the row and column headings. Once clicked, it displays a menu you can use to add or remove cells.

tables google docs

Inserting a table with Google Docs.

Google Docs: Click the Insert menu, then select Table. Another smaller menu will appear with a five-by-five grid. Select the table size you want by dragging over the grid. It will expand as you drag down and to the left, to a maximum size of 20-by-20, and what you select will be inserted into the document.

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