Publishing our family histories is a goal for many of us. There are many resources to help research, organize, write and edit those histories, but one necessary skill many of us lack is construction. This step is necessary if you are planning to publish your history yourself. By construction, I mean the layout skills necessary to format and style your publication and build the footnotes, tables of content and indexes needed to make it a finished work. Although most of today’s word processing applications have the features needed to perform these layout chores, you may not be aware of their existence let alone how to use them.
With a few exceptions, the layout effort happens after the manuscript is finished – written, proofed and edited. Yes, images and graphics are selected during the manuscript phase, but size and placement are part of layout. In publications with complex layouts full of images, graphs, tables and other precise components, one tiny edit can cause a lot of layout adjustments. For this reason, book designers seldom begin their work until everything else is ready.
What kind of word processing skills do you need to construct your own family history? Here’s a basic list:
- Styles. A style is a saved collection of formatting options – font family and size, color, alignment and white space are just a few examples. Your word processing app lets you save any number of styles for things like titles, headings and sub-headings, captions, paragraphs, bulleted lists and much more. Once you’ve set up your styles, all you have to do is select the text to be styled and choose the appropriate style. Styles not only insure formatting consistency throughout a long document, they save you a lot of time and effort. And, should you decide that lime green isn’t the right color for the 74 major headings in your publication, all you have to do is edit that heading style and your word processor will immediately update those 74 headings for you. Whether you’re working on a publishing project or not, you should make styles your word processing BFF.
- Templates. A template is a blank document file that has page sizes, margins, styles and other formatting settings ready for whatever purpose this document is used. Most apps come with a large template collection ready for you to use. The Lulu.com self-publishing platform has downloadable templates for each book size it offers. You can modify existing templates to add or edit any formatting or style options. You can even include boilerplate text – like the legal front matter found in books or the “About the Author” text – to save yourself work.
- Section breaks. Longer, more complex documents have more demanding requirements. You may find you need to insert a table or chart as a landscape page within a portrait document. You may also want to customize the page numbers to show both chapter and page. You can do these things, but you will need to take advantage of special functions like section breaks.
- Table of contents generator. Most word processing apps include the ability to automatically generate – and update – your table of contents for you. In order to do this, you must use styles to format headings and sub-headings within your document. You then tell the table of contents generator where you want the table of contents to appear in your document and which heading styles to include in it. The generator goes through the entire document and finds those styled headings, calculates which pages they are on and builds the table of contents for you. And, when you make editing changes that change where those headings are located, either the generator will automatically update the pages numbers for you or, worst case, you click a button to force an update.
- Footnotes and endnotes. Citations are usually added at the point of the reference using a command (like Insert > Footnote in Apple’s Keynote app). The word processing app will then place it wherever you prefer via your document settings. Your available options will depend on your app. Keynote allows footnotes at the bottom of the page and endnotes either at the end of a section or the end of the document.
- Bibliographies. If you are already using a bibliographic application like EndNote, check to see if your word processor works with it. Not all apps provide bibliography support and you may need to build yours manually.
- Index generation. Once again, not all word process apps support index generation. Even when they do, you will need to manually mark each text entry you want included in your index. Like the table of contents generator, you will identify where you want the index to appear in your document and the index generator will find all the marked references and calculate their page numbers. It will also update those page numbers when additional editing moves things around.
None of these features are difficult to learn, but you will want to get comfortable using them before you begin a large writing project. Experiment with each feature, playing with options and learning how you can make them work for you. Even so, if you’re like me, it will take a working project to really discover how these tools function. Once that first project is complete, you’ll find new projects much easier to manage. Tackling a big project has enough hassles. If you know how to use your tools, they can make your project easier and your final product much more professional.