Computer Basics for Writers

By: Gary S. Kearney

Computers are not intelligent. They only think they are. Unfortunately in spite of all claims by Microsoft and computer salesmen, all responsibility for getting a computer to perform correctly rests squarely on the shoulders of the user.

You have a computer and an ambition to be a writer. You know that everyone says that computers can save you a lot of time and effort, but you surely don't want to spend all your time figuring out how to get the machine to do what you want.

The newest computers and word processors have all kinds of features that are supposed to help you get work done. The problem is that you need to spend so much time learning all those fancy features that you don't have time to do any writing. The frustration can be a big problem as well, and who needs that? The computer is supposed to simplify your life.

Here are some simple lessons and tips to help you get the most out of your computer. I will be talking mostly about Windows® and MS Wordpad with a little discussion of formatting of manuscripts with MS Word, but it should be easy to modify the ideas for other computers and word processors as well. This document was prepared using Windows® ME, but I have tried to use techniques that work with most versions. You may need to do a little experimentation or research to get them to work on your computer.

Finding Your Way

Top    Setting Up The Desktop    Putting It All Together    Template for MS Word

The Desktop

Very Busy Desktop

This desktop certainly looks busy. There are all kinds of windows, icons, programs, and menus with labels and arrows all over. I'm going to give some definitions and establish some conventions for notation here, so we all know what we're talking about.


The desktop is just the screen that Windows® puts on your monitor to show running programs and other information. It should look something like the picture above. You can think of it as a special folder that contains everything else on your computer. Right clicking will bring up a menu that makes it easy to control the running programs and the appearance of the desktop.


A window is a rectangular area that a program uses to display information. The title bar at the top of the window will generally give the program's name and perhaps additional information such as the name of the open file. At the far right of the title bar are three small icons that can be used to control the window. The underline hides the window. The next button changes back and forth between minimized and maximized views and the x closes the program. The active window is said to have the "focus." This is where commands or typing will take effect. The title bar of the active window will be colored while the title bars of the other inactive windows will be grayed out. You can move the focus by clicking anywhere on a window. Double clicking on the title bar will switch between maximized or minimized windows. Maximized windows take up the whole screen hiding the other open windows. Moving the cursor to an edge or corner of a window until the cursor turns into a double headed arrow will allow you to resize a window by left clicking to grab the edge and move it around. Clicking on the title bar of a minimized window will allow you to move it around on the desktop.Some windows may be split into two or more separate areas. The directory tree in the Explorer is an example, and some programs will let have two documents open in different panes. I guess that's why some people think Windows® is a pain.


The taskbar is the area at the bottom of the screen with the Start button at the left. The start button brings up a menu that allows you to start programs and perform various other functions. The Quick Launch area next to the Start button is another way to launch programs. Just click on one of the small icons. I will show you later how to add a program to this area. When you point at an icon a tool tip will appear after a few seconds to tell you what the icon does. The little icon that looks like a desk pad clears all open windows off the desktop to allow access to the desktop. Don't you wish that you could clean off your desktop that easily. Next to the Quick Launch area are buttons representing running programs or open documents. The button for the active window will look as if it has been pressed. Clicking on these buttons will change the focus to the button pressed. If the button is already pressed the window will be hidden. You can make adjustments to the task bar using a right click menu, and by clicking on a blank area you can drag it to either side or the top of the screen.


Clicking on an object is using the mouse to move the cursor over something on the screen and then pressing one of the mouse buttons. The left button generally selects the object, while the right button usually brings up a properties dialog that allows you to modify the object. In the lower right corner of the picture you can see the properties dialog for the desktop itself raised by right clicking on an open area of the desktop. A Double click is pressing the mouse button twice quickly. This is generally used in Windows® to open the file represented by an icon or to start a program associated with the icon.

Drag and Drop

Dragging is the technique of clicking on something, holding the button down and moving the mouse. This may be used to select objects, or to move or copy them once selected. Left click usually just moves the item while right clicking usually copies. When you release the mouse button the item you are dragging or a copy is dropped in the new location. With a right click you are usually offered a menu to chose what you actually want to do. I generally like to use the right click method of dragging and dropping because you get to check before committing yourself, and it allows you to create a shortcut or link rather than moving the original item.


The cursor is just a fancy name for the mouse pointer that you move around the screen. It may change depending on what you are doing. Some of the shapes that it can take are shown in the inset above. The little plus sign in the cursor for dragging indicates that you are dragging a copy because you have right clicked on the item. It will be absent if you just left click and drag to move the item.


An icon is one of the little pictures that Windows® uses to represent an object such as a document file, program, or directory. Double clicking on a document icon starts the program used to edit that type of document with the document loaded, on a program starts the program, and on a directory starts Explorer with that directory open. Left clicking will bring up a properties menu for the item.


On the computer a file or just a container for some type of information. Files that end with .DOC, .TXT, or .RTF contain text. Each of these extensions is associated with a program that knows how to open the file to read, edit, or create the information inside. You might wonder why we need three different types for text. Didn't I promise this was going to be simple? The answer is that the different types of files contain different amounts of information about how the text is supposed to look. TXT files have no formatting information, so they are the smallest. RTF files can have pictures and font information, while the DOC files used by Word contain a complete description of how the text is supposed to look when it is printed. This means that it may be best to use TXT files while you are writing, since they are smaller and simpler. When you are ready to submit your article or story you can import it into a word processor and do the final polishing. Program files use the extension .EXE to indicate that they are executable, i.e. Windows® can run them. In general Windows® uses the extension part of the filename to keep track of the file type, so these are also known as file types.


A directory or folder is just a special type of file that contains a list of other files. Since directories are just files, you can put one inside another. This is known as nesting and creates what you see in the left pane of the explorer window called the directory tree. It's upside down of course. Windows® and the programs installed on your computer create many directories for their own use. The My Documents directory and the Desktop are set up for your use, and deleting files or directories that you didn't create yourself may make your system fail.


A shortcut or link is just a special file used to point to another file or folder ... usually in a different location. It's like a sticky note you put in a folder to tell you that the file you expect to find there is really somewhere else, and like those notes, it can be wrong if you move or rename the file after setting up the shortcut. However; if you know how to use shortcuts, you rarely need to move a file. Just create a shortcut in the new location. You can recognize shortcuts by the little arrow in the lower left corner of the icon. Double clicking a shortcut will open the original file. Dropping a document file on a program shortcut will open the document in that program for editing.

Menu Bar

The menu bar is right below the title bar of an open window. Clicking on one of items will drop down a menu of program commands. Items with a little right pointing triangle have a further cascading menu associated with them. Three dots mean the command will bring up a dialog box.


A menu is just a list of commands. Drop down menus are associated with menu bars, and pop up or right click menus appear when you right click an item. Not all items will have right click menus, but when they do it is a convenient way to change their properties. A convenient way of writing down the procedure of selecting a menu item and then a subitem from a cascading menu is "Menu|Item|Subitem." These could be selected with the mouse or using the keyboard shortcut of Alt-M,I,S where Alt-m is used to represent pressing the Alt key and the M key simultaneously. An example would be Start|Search|For Files or Folders. In this case the keyboard shortcut is [Windows® Key],c,F. The underlined letters on menus are the shortcut keys.

tool tip

Tool tips are the little yellow help boxes that pop up when you hover the mouse over some areas of the desktop to remind you what the item is or does.

Dialog Box

Dialog boxes are the forms that you fill out to execute some commands. They may contain drop down lists, text areas, check boxes, or radio buttons, which are a group or related buttons of which only one can be selected like the buttons on those old time car radios.

Drop down List

A drop down list is special type of input form which presents you with a list of choices. The font list used in most word processing programs to choose a typeface is an example, and we'll see another later when we're learning how to search for files and folders.


A template is file that contains a pattern for creating other files. The idea is very similar to a standard form that you fill out. You might create a template for your query letters that has your address and other contact information filled in, your standard signature block at the bottom, and instructions in the middle to remind you of what needs to go there as well as pre-entered blocks such as your publishing credits or experience. When you want to create a new query, you just make a copy of the template, rename it and modify it as necessary. It saves a lot of typing. Save the copy. If some misguided editor should be so foolish, you can just replace the information specific to that particular market and have a new query ready to print and send. Most word processing programs have their own facilities for creating special.template files, but you can always just create a regular file and use it as a template. You just need to remember to rename it before you modify it, so the contents are preserved for reuse later.


The idea of boilerplate text is pretty much just the opposite of using templates. Instead of having a form that you fill out, it's a collection of text fragments like addresses or stock phrases that you use. You open both the file you are editing and the boilerplate file so you can cut and paste or drag and drop the items you need from the one to the other. It's kind of like an extended clipboard. You might have several of these for different types of information. If you have very much information in a file, you should consider adding short labels to the items to make them easy to find with your word processors search command. Starting the label with an unusual character will make the search easier. For example; you might have a standard block of text to describe your writing experience, which is labelled "[exp." The "[" is a good choice since it is easy to get to on a standard keyboard and very unlikely to appear in most text. It's also a good idea to put the most commonly used phrases first.

Setting Up The Desktop

Top    Finding Your Way    Putting It All Together    Template for MS Word

Searching for a Program

Searching for a Program

Here I've started setting up an arrangement on my desktop for my writing. I have right clicked on the desktop and selected New|Folder to create folders for this PC Basic article, my templates, and one for my LRWG articles. Now I want to create a desktop shortcut to Wordpad, a simple word processing program that comes with all versions of Windows®. There are five steps:

  1. Select Start|Search|For Files or Folders
  2. In the Search Results window I type "word*.exe" in the Search for Files or Folders Named: box. The "*" is a special character called a wildcard. I'll explain later. I selected Browse at the bottom of the list as the place to Look In:. Notice that Desktop and My Documents are right at the top of the list, and that had I been looking for a document file I could have entered some text in the Containing text: field, so that Windows® would only find files containing that text. When doing this type of search, you should pick the most unusual word that could be the file that you're looking for. If you search for "the," you'll probably just get every file in the search area. The search will be much faster if you narrow it down this way rather than searching your whole computer or hard drive. You could also select File Finder to perform the same sort of search. Both commands have very good help available. Just click Help on the menu bar.
  3. In the Browse window I select the Program Files folder as the place to look. Wordpad is a program after all.
  4. The search comes up with two programs, and the first is Wordpad. So I select it with the mouse and drag it off to the desktop. The cursor changes to an image with the little shortcut arrow to let me know that I am creating a shortcut.
  5. The small inset here shows the end result, a Wordpad shortcut on the desktop. To add Wordpad to the Quick Launch Area I just right click on the Icon and drag it down onto the area. When I drop the icon I will be presented with a menu where I choose Copy Here.

Using File masks and Wildcard Characters

The pattern "word*.exe" in the Search for Files or Folders Named: box is called a mask or file mask. The "*" is used to make the search find any combination of letters.

A wildcard character is a keyboard character such as an asterisk (*) or question mark (?) that you can use to represent real characters when you search for files or folders. Wildcards are used in place of one or more characters when you don't know what the real character is or don't want to type the entire name.

Asterisk (*)

You can use the asterisk as a substitute for one or more characters. For example, if you're looking for a file that you know starts with "gloss" but you can't remember the rest of the file name, type: gloss*

The search will locate all files of any file type that begin with "gloss", including Glossary.txt, Glossary.doc, and Glossy.xls. To narrow the search to a specific type of file, type: gloss*.doc

In this case, the search will find all files that begin with "gloss" and include the file extension .doc, such as Glossary.doc.

Question mark (?)

You can use the question mark as a substitute for a single character in a name. For example, if you type gloss?.doc, the search will locate Glossy.doc or Gloss1.doc but not Glossary.doc.

Creating a Boilerplate File and a Document Template File

Making a Letter Template

Building a Template File

We are building a template here. You can tell by the fact that the document is named T-Letter.doc. There's really no other significant difference between this document and any other as far as Windows® and Wordpad are concerned. I use the "T-" prefix to remind myself that the file is a template. The points to notice are that there are several areas colored red. These are the areas that need to be filled in when using the template to create a new document. The different color makes it easy to find these areas visually. These areas also all start with the unusual character combination "@#" that makes them easy to find with Wordpad's Find command. I'll save the document in my Templates directory on the desktop, so it's easy to find.

Boilerplate text file

Constructing a Boilerplate File

Here I've opened a new file and named it BoilerPlate.txt by saving it as a text file in Wordpad. I've entered some clips, and you can see that I start each clip with a short character string starting with "[" for a label. If I search on a string such as "[ex," I will find the first clip starting with those characters. If it's not the one I want, I can continue searching. Using just "[ alone in the search box allows me to page through all my clips in order starting from wherever the cursor is. It's silly in a file this small, but if you keep a file with a hundred addresses in it you can save a lot of time.

It's also a good idea to keep your clips organized by sorting them alphabetically or by some other criterion, so you have a general idea of where to look for things. You can also keep different kinds of items in different files since it's possible to have a large number of files open at once. Don't forget that you can search using the Windows® search command as well. It will find text inside any file.

Putting it All Together

Top    Finding Your Way    Setting Up The Desktop    Template for MS Word

Putting it all together.

Here's how you can put all this stuff together to create a good writing environment on your computer. First I've opened my Templates folder and dragged Boilerplate.txt and T-Letter.doc to my Wordpad shortcut to open these files. Then I can start creating my new document:

  1. Rename the Template file to the name of the document you are creating by using the Save As. In this case I call the file JohnDoe.doc. Notice how the title bar of the window changes to reflect this. It's a good idea to always check the title bar before you save, so you don't overwrite a template or something. You can avoid this problem by right clicking on a file or folder, selecting properties, and clicking on the Read Only attribute check box in the Attributes section at the bottom of the dialog. With a folder you can apply the change to all files and sub folders by clicking on that radio button in the next pop-up dialog box. If you need to edit any of the templates, you can reverse this process, so you can save the file to the same name when you're done. If you use Save As instead, you can create a new file with a different name, so you have two templates. This file will be unprotected unless you change it's attributes also.
  2. Use the find dialog to find the special labels that you are using in this file and replace the text as necessary. The first item that I found in this case was "@#date" which is there to remind me to fill in the date.
  3. I can change the date by selecting the whole label and using Insert|Date and Time from the menu bar or just click on the little clock-calendar icon to bring up the Date and Time dialog where I can select the proper form of the date text to be inserted.

Add Boilerplate Text

Add Boilerplate Text

To add boilerplate text to our document, we click on the BoilerPlate.txt window and then select the text we want. In this case I have selected John Doe's address to put in the "to" field of my template. As I start dragging the selection the cursor changes to an arrow with an empty box to indicate that I am moving the selection, but after I cross into the JohnDoe.doc window the cursor changes to one with a "+" in the box to let me know that now I am making a copy of the selection in the new document.

Using a Scrap and Changing Text Color

Create Scrap & Add to File

In this screen I have dragged a selection from the BoilerPlate file off onto the Desktop and dropped it there to create a Scrap. When a scrap is dragged into a Wordpad window the contents are automatically copied into the document. If you have a small text fragment that you use a lot, such as a signature block with your contact information, you might want to keep it as a scrap on the desktop, so it's always handy.

On the other side of the screen I am using a drop down menu from the palette icon to change the color of the selected text.

Printing and Making Backup Copies

We're now finished with our new document, so we can print it. I've found that it's always a good idea to save a document before printing it. Occasionally you can lose a document in the printing process. In general its a good idea to save your work every fifteen minutes or so, and you should make backup copies of your files every hour or so. That's another reason for using simple text files for your writing. One floppy disk can easily hold the text for a 100,000 word book along with most of your notes. Since text files are relatively small they are quick and easy to copy. You should also keep more than one copy and check occasionally to be sure that the disks you're using haven't gone bad. The best back up procedure is to have three copies. Keep one copy in a secure location and alternate the other two copies as you make backups. Weekly or monthly exchange one of the current set with secure set so it's fairly up to date as well. This might seem like a lot of work, but I've heard a lot of stories about people losing years worth of work because of a lightning strike or a hard disk failure, and believe me that's much worse. Get in the habit, and you'll find it's really not too bad for the peace of mind you get.

Making a Manuscript Template in MS Word

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I don't use MS Word for basic writing. I want to get the words down on the screen as fast as possible without worrying about spelling or grammar while the ideas are fresh in my head. I find that all the fancy features are a distraction at that point. However; for editing it's a godsend. Just don't rely too heavily on its grammar and style recommendations.

Word is great for printing a manuscript, and it's fairly simple to create a template to format your LRWG assignments according to the guidelines.

Setting up the Page Margins

Setting Margins

Open Word and select File|Page Setup, and set all margins to 1" being sure to remember the Header margin at the bottom of the dialog box. The Footer margin is not important since we won't be using footers, but you can set that to 1" too if you like.

Creating a Header

Creating the basic header

Select View|Header and Footer and fill in the. various items as shown: Name/Story, Assignment # and Student number. Here again I've used the convention of using red text to indicate items that you will need to replace to personalize this form. Some such as the assignment number can be left as is until you use the template to create a particular assignment. This is the heading for all pages after the first.

Note that the Show/Hide Formatting Codes button is pressed in this view to show you all the tabs and carriage returns. It's the one with the paragraph symbol on it. Showing all these special characters is handy when you're doing layout. A special macro item to insert the page number has been added by clicking on the page number icon on the Header|Footer bar.

A Special Header for the First Page

First Page Header

Select View|Header and Footer and click on the open book icon or select File|Page Setup|Layout. Either will bring up the Layout tab where you need to put a check mark in the different first page check box by clicking on it with the mouse. Doing this will hide the previous header until you add enough text to the document to force Word to create a second page. It's just another one of those little annoyances that Word uses to keep you on your toes.

After clicking the OK button, you will be presented with another blank header to fill out as shown. You don't necessarily need all those carriage returns, but they do insure that the first line of your manuscript with the title appears in the proper location.

The date is a special command added to the template using the Insert|Date and Time command. The inset shows the dialog box for this command. This will update automatically when you create a new document, so that the date will be entered automatically for you.

Creating Special Styles

Choose Format|Style|New

to create a style that you can apply to text selections. I have named mine "My Text" and based it on the standard style "Plain Text." Using the Format command on the New Style dialog box we can bring up the Font and Paragraph properties dialog boxes for our new style.

Using the Style Dialog

Setting Paragraph and Font Properties

We need to select the Font: Courier New, Font style: Regular, and Size: 10. On the Paragraph dialog we choose Alignment: Left Indentation Special: First Line, Size: 0.5", and Line Spacing: Double.

I also created a TITLE font based on this one with Indentation set to (none), the alignment set to Center, and Spacing After to 40 pt. On the Font dialog I chose the Effect All Caps.

I have chosen to use Courier as a font here because I want the document to look as much like a standard typewritten manuscript as possible. Editors seem to be rather conservative in their practices, so it's best to err on the side of caution. Using Times Roman or another modern font would likely be acceptable, but anything fancy is definitely out.

To use a style you can select the text you want and then use the Style box drop down selection list to choose a style. Making a change to a style will change all the text with that style.

You can download a copy of the template as a Word document here. Clicking on the link should open the document in Word or download a copy to your computer. If the file is downloaded make a note of where it is placed, so you can start Word an open it from that location. In either case once you have the document open, you should make any desired changes and then use the File|Save As command to save the file as a Document Template (*.dot) file so that it will be available at the File|New command. If the download fails for some reason, use the directions above to create your own.

You can then use it to format your manuscripts for submission by selecting the File|New|More Word Templates to open a new document based on the template. Use cut and paste or the Insert|File command to insert your text. You can then apply styles, edit and make other changes as necessary before printing.

Final Thoughts

I don't actually use all of these techniques myself because I have a free form information management program called Info Select that I use for all of my writing. It is the electronic equivalent of a desktop, card file, calculator, E-mail folder, spreadsheet, and piles of sticky notes with the advantage of several different types and levels of organization and lightning fast searches. I have an article posted in the Surviving and Thriving section Make Your PC Work for You with more information on how to set up your computer and some software that I have found useful, but the tools that I have given you here should be enough for most purposes. I hope you find them useful, and remember to experiment to find out what works best for you. You own the computer. It doesn't own you.