Thursday, August 8, 2013

Useful Computer Tricks I Wish I Had Known Earlier

I use computers a lot, both as part of my job and also while writing. Much of the work I do involves preparing data for loading into a database of some sort. This often involves working with many thousands, often millions, of lines of data, switching between MS Office, Notepad, and the mainframe.

Every now and then, I discover a little trick or shortcut that makes my life just a little bit easier. And so, here is a brief list of tips and tricks I wish I'd known earlier. I hope you find something that helps you. They have all helped my with my work and my novel writing.

(NB: these all work in Windows XP and MS Office 2003. I'm not sure if they will work in later versions, but probably do.)

1. Windows - switching quickly between programs
You've got a whole bunch of programs running. You're doing research for your new book, which means you're browing the Internet while taking notes in Word. To switch between the two, you could have your browser and Word open side-by-side. Or you could click on the Taskbar. A quicker way is to use Alt-Tab. To switch quickly between two programs, just hold down the Alt button and tap the Tab button. If you have more programs open, hold down the Alt button and keep pressing Tab. After the first press on the Tab button a small window will show icons of all open programs. Keep pressing Tab (with the Alt button held down) to go to the program you want. To scroll in reverse order, hold down Alt+Shit and press Tab.

Try using the Windows button instead of the Alt button for a different effect.
The Alt-Tab selection screen in action

2. Windows - minimizing all open programs
If you want to quickly get to your desktop, you can do it using your mouse but you can also do it by using the Window key (near the Ctrl and Alt keys). Hold down the Window key and press M. All open prorams will minimize to the taskbar.

3. Windows Explorer - jumping quickly to a folder or fileWhile in Windows Explorer, select an item and then type the first letter of the folder or file you want. The cursor will jump to the first file or folder it finds starting with the letter you typed. If you want to be more specific, quickly type the first two or more letters. You have to be quick though. If you take too long to type the second letter, it will treat it as a first letter and look for a new file/folder starting with that letter.

This will even work in the My Computer window when browing storage devices.

4. Word - block select
Sometimes you need to select a block of text spread over a number of lines without selecting the full line. To do this, hold down your Alt button while selecting text with your mouse. This will select a uniform block of text.
A block of text selected in Word

And with the block of text deleted

5. Word - paste unformatted text
When doing research, I often copy and paste text from the Internet. A normal copy/paste action will result in the formatting being preserved, which can play havoc with your Word document. You can perform "paste special", or paste the text to Notepad first to strip off any formatting, but this gets long-winded. To save time, create the following Macro and attach it to a menu button or a key combination. Now you can paste unformatted text with one mouse click or key press.

Sub PasteUnformatted()
' PasteUnformatted Macro
    On Error GoTo Err
    Selection.PasteSpecial Link:=False, _
      DataType:=wdPasteText, Placement:=wdInLine, _
    Exit Sub
End Sub

6. Word - toggling between cases
As a non-touch typist, I sometimes get to the end of a line and realize I've hit the Caps button by mistake. To quickly fix this, select the CAPITALIZED text and, while holding down the Shift key, tap the F3 key. Each time you hit the F3 key, the selected text will change between lower-case, first-letter caps, and all caps.

how now brown cow
How Now Brown Cow

7. Word - moving/selecting quickly along a line
If you want to move to a point on your line, you can use your mouse. Or, if you prefer, you can use the keyboard. The End key will take you to the ed of the current line. Home will take you to the start of the line. Add the Ctrl key to move to the end and beginning of the document. To move quickly along a line using the arrow keys, try holding down the Ctrl key to move one word at a time. For all of the above, holding down the Shift key will select the text as the cursor moves.

If you prefer the mouse. double-click a word to select the whole word (excluding hyphens). A triple-click will select the entire line.

8. Word - quick format painter
To copy the formatting of one word to multiple words on a page, select the word with the formatting you want to copy. Then double-click the Format Painter icon. Now you can double-click target words to apply the formatting. The painter will stay locked on until you click the icon again, or you can press the Escape key.

Instead of double-clicking, use triple-clicking to apply the formatting to entire lines.

Well I hope you find at least one of these useful. Of all of them, Alt-Tab is my favorite and something I use constantly.

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