Stop Playing With MS Word and Get Writing: How to Stop Format Styles Derailing Your Train of Thought

As a writer, you will undoubtedly have used MS Word at some time. It may be your primary writing application and that would be no surprise. It's by far the most popular word processing application in use today but despite this, few people ever really get to grips with MS Word. For most writers, what they're writing is usually much more important than the tool they use to write it. MS Word has become the de facto tool of choice for most writers exactly because it's so common and so easy to use. It is, however, a tool that can sap the time away from your writing efforts if you let it.

When crafting a page, it's very easy to get caught up in how your page looks and whether your font size and weight is just right on paper, but you need to ask yourself even before you sit down to write whether this is really the most important part of the process. For most, it's not. Getting the words down and establishing a solid train of thought is much more important. Yes, you'll want to make sure you present your writing in the best light possible, but there are ways of doing this later, or earlier, that will stop your train of thought being derailed by annoying format issues.

One of the first things you need to get to grips with in MS Word, to help you avoid losing time in formatting, is the use of styles. No one's going to make light of how annoying and difficult the use of styles can be in Word, but with a little pre-planning and some self-discipline, you can make sure they work for you and not against you. Take an hour or two away from writing and investigate how to use styles for the version of Word you have. It will be time well spent in the long run.

Use your new-found knowledge to create your own template documents that you can use for every new piece of work. Preset the styles of headings, paragraphs, font weights and page numbers if you want them. You will then have a skeleton document you can use as a starting point for your projects without having to worry about whether the pages look good and without having to waste any more time playing with the formatting. If you do want to change something later, it's much easier to change a whole style element and apply it across your document than to go through and manually change each line or paragraph.

Once you have a template, you'll need to employ some of your own self-discipline. Concentrate your mind on what you want to write and ignore what it looks like on the page. Your efforts in establishing your template will ensure that it looks presentable and should stop any little annoyances jumping out at you to disturb your flow of writing. If you find the temptation to play with format too much to bear, try switching off or disabling your formatting toolbars, so you are working in an environment where you can only type words. Don't worry, you can switch them back on, but your cast-iron self-discipline won't let you do it until you've written what you need to. Word also has a 'view full screen' option that is very quick to enable and will give you the same effect withoutmessing with your toolbars. This eradicates all format tools from your view, allowing you to only type on the page.

If even that doesn't work for you, you're still not a lost cause. You might just need to try a different approach. Try removing formatting completely from the equation and write in a format-free environment like Notepad. This will give you completely unformatted text that's actually really easy to cut and paste into a Word document later when you have the time to format it. Maximise the Notepad window as well, so you can't see your desktop, and get writing.

Playing with format could be interpreted as a form of procrastination. Tinkering with the look and feel before you have the content is actually about putting off the real work by doing something that feels more creative and productive, despite the fact that it's not. The tendency to play around with how your page looks is not just a side effect of using MS Word though, it's part and parcel of using any modern word processing or desktop publishing application. The problem lies with you, the writer. You have to make sure you've taken the steps you need to get your writing head on and start to see the words flow onto the page. Finding ways of stopping yourself playing with the format of the page is really just about making it easier to apply your own self-discipline and giving yourself a set of boundaries to work within that will encourage you to get the words out.

If all else fails, there's always pencil and paper.