Word Processing Basics

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Those of you who are totally new to word processing, please read this page from start to finish. Please do not frog jump. If you do, your conception will not be clear. You will not be able to do word processing effectively and with confidence. Those who have some knowledge of word processing may click on their topic of interest from the following list, and jump straight into the subject. Remember to practice the lessons learnt here. If you don't practice, you are bound to forget. Please remember practice makes perfect. Good luck and happy word processing. I shall be interested to know how useful this page was to you. Thank you.


One of the basic things you do with your computer is that you write something with it. It could be a letter, a memo, an essay, a poetry, or anything – even a book. The software used for this purpose is called a word processor, which these days has virtually replaced the old-fashioned typewriter.

Windows comes with a very basic and free word processor called WordPad. You can access it by clicking Start, pointing to Programs, pointing to Accessories, and then clicking on WordPad. It is a very basic word processor, but unless you want to do real fancy things, you can get by with it. For writing a letter, or an essay, or even a resume, it just does a fine job – and the best part is it is free. But if you want to do real fancy things with your word processor, such as checking spelling and grammar, highlighting text, creating tables, producing charts and graphics, mail merge (same letter sent to a number of people, each addressed individually, without having to type the letter separately for each person), or creating footnotes, tables of contents, or indexes for books, you will need to buy a fancy word processor (like Microsoft Word or Word Perfect) at a fancy price.

What is the difference between a typewriter and a word processor? In short, aside from the fact that both can type, there is no similarity at all. With a word processor, you can change everything in your document without having to start all over again. You can change the type font, size, and color, change margin, line spacing, correct a typo, change a word, a line, a paragraph or even pages – the list goes on.

Since this site is primarily for the elderly, who probably just want to know the basics only so that they can perform simple tasks like writing a letter with the word processor, I shall use Windows WordPad to give examples and show them how to use it. Advanced students should seek help elsewhere.

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Open WordPad:

Unless you have already created a shortcut for WordPad on your desktop (see Creating shortcuts), open WordPad by following the procedure already described in the second paragraph of Introduction above. You may want to create a shortcut for WordPad on your desktop for ease of use in the future. When opened the program will look like the screenshot shown below (except, of course, there will be no writing in the work area). You will see the cursor blinking at the top left corner of the large white space called the Document Area (work area). This means you can start typing right from there unless you want to bring the cursor to another point and begin your document from that point.

A WordPad window showing its various parts, buttons, tools, and the document area
A WordPad window showing its various parts,
buttons, tools, and the document area.

Don’t forget you can resize this window by dragging its sides with your mouse pointer as described here. The three buttons on top right corner of the window is for minimizing, maximizing, and closing the window.

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Familiarize Yourself with the Various Buttons and Tools:

As recommended in How to Use the Program Menus, if you are really new to word processing, I suggest when the program opens, you first check out the various menu options in the menu bar by clicking on File, Edit, View, etc. Some of the menu options may not be available (remain dimmed) unless you enter at least one character in the document area (large white space in the center). Then you check out each buttons on the toolbar. These buttons are shortcuts to various commands, and you should make yourself really familiar with these as they are time saving devices. To check these buttons and learn what do they do, just hold your mouse pointer steady over each button for a second or two. It will reveal the secret! The screen shot above shows that when the mouse pointer is held over the fourth button from left, it revealed that it prints. A slightly more detailed description of the button will also appear on the bottom left of the window. In this case it says, "Prints the active document". In other words, when you are ready to print your document, just click on the fourth button on the toolbar (the icon showing a printer). What could be easier than that?

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Description of Various Buttons on the Toolbar:

  1. The first button on the left creates a new document.
  2. The second button opens an existing document.
  3. The third button (floppy disk icon) saves the active document.
  4. The fourth button (printer icon) – I’ll give you one guess only.
  5. The fifth button is for print preview.
  6. The next button with binoculars is for finding specified text in the active document. (Play with it to familiarize yourself).
  7. The next three buttons are for cutting, copying, and pasting respectively.
  8. Next is the button for undoing your last action. (Very handy for correcting the mistake you just made!)
  9. The last button inserts today’s date and/or time in the document.

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Cutting, Copying, and Pasting:

On the toolbar, to the right of the binoculars icon (for finding specified text) there are three very interesting and useful buttons having pictures of (1) a pair of scissors, (2) two pieces of papers, and (3) a bottle of glue and a piece of paper. These are for cutting, copying, and pasting respectively. A word processor is probably best known for its ability to cut, copy, and paste text. All these buttons will remain dimmed until at least a character of text is entered in the document area (large white space in the center) and highlighted. Write a word in the document field and highlight it (double-click on it). You will see the cut and copy buttons are no more dimmed. That means you can now either cut or copy that word. Click on the middle button showing two pieces of paper to copy the word in the computer’s clipboard. Notice the paste button (with picture of a bottle of glue and a piece of paper) is no more dimmed. That means you can now paste the word anywhere in the document, or another document, or even in another application, such as another word processor (if you have any) or your Notepad. Not just that, you can paste that word in different places as many times as you want so long it is available in the clipboard! That means if you need to repeat anything -- a phrase, a line, or even a whole document -- type it once, copy it, and use it as many times as needed. This saves time, saves on typing and, therefore, reduces the risk of getting Repetitive Stress Syndrome (RSS). Can your typewriter do that?

Now let us try cutting. Type a different word and highlight it. Click on the button having the picture of a pair scissors on it. Notice the word has disappeared, meaning it has been cut from the document. With the copy button, things are not cut. They are literally copied in the clipboard. With the cut button, things are cut and sent to the clipboard from where they can pasted again and again on the same document, another document, or even another application so long as they stay in the clipboard. Remember, only the last thing you have cut or copied stays in the clipboard. All previous items in the clipboard get deleted automatically as soon as a new item is sent there. (This statement is not true for late versions of expensive word processors. These word processors have the ability to hold more than one item in the clipboard.) Items in the clipboard gets deleted when the computer is shutdown or restarted.

Imagine the advantages of cutting, copying, and pasting. You type a 10-page document. Then you decide what you said in the second paragraph of page 3, should go after the third paragraph of page 5. No problem. Just highlight the paragraph and cut it. Then click once where you want to place that paragraph to bring the cursor there and press the paste button. Voila! The paragraph appears there.

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Selecting Fonts and Font Sizes:

The row beneath the toolbar contains some more buttons and other useful tools. This row is called format bar. First in that row are various font options. The default option (i.e., the option automatically chosen for you) is always Times New Roman (Western). If you don’t like that font, just hit the downward pointing arrow on the right of the font name. A dropdown menu will give you numerous (too numerous for me) choices. Remember, you can scroll down that menu to see more choices. Just click on the name of the font you like. It will jump up to the top box replacing the original Times New Roman (Western). In the screenshot above, notice that I have chosen Verdana (Western). The box to the right of font name, gives a selection of font sizes. The default size is 10. But again you can change it to anything you want. Just hit the downward pointing arrow on the right of the font size box and make your selection from there just like you did for font name. In our current example I have selected size 12. The bigger the number, the bigger is the font size.

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Making Bold, Italicized, and Underlined:

The next three buttons have B, I, U written on them. They are for making your typed characters Bold, Italicized, and Underlined respectively. If you press say, B before typing, from that point on whatever you type will be in bold. Same holds good for italics and underlining. To turn off bold, italics, and underlining, click on the button or buttons again. To super-emphasize a word you can turn on two or all three of these buttons simultaneously! (Caution: Do not overuse these features. Your text will look clumsy and the emphasis will be lost.) These features can be used at the time of editing also. Just highlight the word(s) or sentence(s) you want to emphasize, and then press one of these buttons. The highlighted portion will change to whatever you have chosen. Click anywhere on the page to remove the highlighting. Click on the emphasis button again to turn it off and resume normal writing.

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Font Color:

The next button has a color palette and the letter A written on it. It is for choosing font color. (Hey, we are getting fancy here!) Click on the button. A dropdown menu will appear showing you a variety of colors. Click on the one you want. Now start typing. Your writing will be in the color you have chosen! (Caution: Do not overdo it. Your document will look clumsy. Moreover, when you are creating a formal document for printing, remember the standard is black on white. Colored fonts are useful for making greeting cards or similar things.)

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Line Alignment:

The next three buttons on this row are for line alignment. When you press the first of these three, all lines will be aligned to the left (standard). The next button will align lines to center (useful for creating headings). The button next to this will align all lines to the right (useful for special purposes).

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Creating a Bulleted List:

You can even create a bulleted list with WordPad. Click on the place where you want the bulleted list to begin. Click on the very last button on the format bar. A bullet will appear. Type your text next to it and hit Enter. Another bullet will appear on the next line and so on. When no more bulleting is required, click on the Bullets button on the format bar again. The last, unused bullet will disappear and normal writing will resume.

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Setting Tab Stops:

Underneath the format bar you will see a ruler useful for setting tab stops. If you don’t want to see the ruler all the time, click on View on the menu bar and on the resulting dropdown menu, click on Ruler to remove the checkmark in front of it. The ruler will disappear. To bring back the ruler in view again, repeat the process to put a checkmark in front of the ruler. The ruler will reappear. To choose tab stops (the default setting is 0.5 inches), click on the ruler at position(s) of your choice. To remove the new settings, drag the stops out of the ruler with your mouse pointer. Alternatively, you can go to Format --> Tabs --> Clear All and then hit OK.

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Word Wrapping:

Word wrapping is another very important feature of word processors. You don’t have to hit the Enter or Return button when you come to the end of a line to go to the next line. In word processors, the line changes automatically. (If that does not happen in your WordPad, click on View on the menu bar, click on Options. A multi-tabbed dialog box will open. Click on the Word tab. Under Word wrap, on the left side of ‘Wrap to window’ click once to put a check mark (select it). Then click on OK. Word wrapping will now begin.) You should hit carriage return only to begin a new paragraph. You will notice, if you add something to an existing line or delete (cut) something from an existing line, WordPad will adjust to new space requirements immediately in the entire document, and all the lines will look immaculate as if no changes have been made.

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Creating a WordPad Document (Start to Finish):

So how do you create a WordPad document? After opening WordPad you will see a cursor blinking in the top left corner of the large white space in the center of the window. You can start typing your new document right from that point, unless you want to change the default line alignment (align left). Font type and font size can be chosen before you begin or afterwards. To change anything afterwards, please remember you have to highlight the relevant part (or the whole document) first and then apply the command. If you want to begin a new document before you have saved the document you are working with, click on the first button on the toolbar showing a piece of paper. In the resulting dialog box, click OK to accept default file type (Word document). WordPad will ask you if you want to save changes to the existing document. If you answer ‘No’, the existing document will close (without saving the changes) and a new document will open up. If you answer ‘Yes’, the good old Save As dialog box will appear to let you save the document in the manner you want (See Saving a File. Please also make sure you understand the difference between "Save" and "Save As".) After your file is saved, a new document blank form will appear.

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Are you saying in your mind, I am already three-quarters down your Word Processing Basics page, but I still do not know if I make a mistake, how I can erase it? Okay, here is the answer to your question. You have several choices -- what else is new?

1. Bring your cursor to the right of what you want to erase and hit the Backspace key. This will erase one character at a time.
2. Highlight the portion and hit Backspace or Delete key. The whole highlighted portion will be erased at once.
3. Highlight the undesirable part and hit the Cut button on the toolbar. The highlighted part will disappear from your document but will remain in the clipboard of your computer which you may paste anywhere later.

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Use of Backspace and Enter (Return) Buttons:

These two buttons are very useful in many ways. I have shown you above how you can use the Backspace button to erase something. Try placing your cursor on the left side of a word in the middle of a line and hit the Backspace button. The whole word will move to left. You can use this feature to erase an extra space you may have typed between two words or if you want to join two words. If you keep hitting the backspace button in this example, it will keep going to the left erasing everything in front of it and dragging the rest of the document behind it. When the cursor reaches the left most point of the line, and you still hit the Backspace button, it will jump to the line above it. If this upper line has characters on it, it will go behind the last character of that line and keep going left. If the next upper line happens to be blank, it will jump to starting point on that line and so on. You will find this feature very useful if you, for example, have left too much blank space on top of a chunk of text and you want to move the whole block of text up. Instead of cutting and pasting, just place the cursor on the left of the first line you want to move up, and hit Backspace. The whole document behind the cursor will move up one line. Hit Backspace again. The whole document will move up another line.

Similarly, if you want a word, a line, a paragraph or a whole document go down on your screen (and on the printed paper), place the cursor on the left side of the text and hit Enter (Return). Everything will go down by one line every time you hit that button. Cool!

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How to Undo Something:

Now, before I forget, let me tell you, in computers, if you make a mistake and discover it immediately, don’t panic. You can fix it just as fast as you made the mistake in the first place. Before you do anything else, to undo the mistake, click on the curved backward pointed arrow button on the toolbar (the last but one button). This will undo your mistake immediately. This feature is generally available in most, if not all, Windows based programs. If your program does not have an Undo button in the toolbar, click on Edit on the menu bar and then click on Undo. You can almost always undo at least one (the last) mistake. In many advanced Windows programs, you can undo several past mistakes (or editing) and redo them too!

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Use of the Scroll Bar:

If you are typing a long document (like the one I am doing right now), and you want to see a previous part which is no longer visible within the window, what do you do? You use the scroll bar on the right of the window. You can scroll up by clicking on the upward pointing arrow on top of the scroll bar, or scroll down by clicking on the downward pointing arrow on the bottom of the scroll bar. You can also drag the button (called scroll box) inside the scroll bar with your mouse pointer for faster upward or downward movement.

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Saving Your Work:

Don’t forget to save your work often in case disaster strikes. Just click on the third button on the toolbar (showing picture of a floppy disk) to save. When you click on it for the first time while writing a new document, you will get the by-now-familiar Save As dialog box (See Saving a File) which you have to fill out. Subsequently, as you make changes to your document and hit the Save button, you will not see that dialog box again. Your changes will be saved in the same file, in the same folder, and as the same file type. But if you want to save the changes as a different file, you have to click on File on the menu bar and then click on Save As to see that Save As dialog box again. I know I have repeated this many times in my tutorials, but I did this on purpose. This is where newcomers to computing often make mistake. I hope you do not do that.

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Print Preview:

Before you print your document, you might want to use the Print Preview button on the toolbar (this button has the picture of a magnifying glass over a piece of paper). That will open a new window in which you can see the positioning of your document on a piece of paper. WordPad does not give you a lot of choices for positioning your document on the printing paper like the expensive word processors do, but you can change the line alignments (left, center, or right) and increase or decrease the top margin to position your document in the center of the paper. To increase the top margin, bring your cursor to the left of the first word of the document and hit the Enter or Return key a few times as required. To decrease the top margin, bring your cursor to the left of the first word of the document and hit the Backspace button a few times as required.

WordPad Print Preview window
WordPad Print Preview window

The five buttons that appear on the top of the Print Preview window, just under the dark colored Title Bar, are all self-explanatory. The only thing you need to know is that you cannot adjust line alignment or increase/decrease top margin of the page from the Print Preview screen. To make any adjustments, you need to close the Print Preview window and make the adjustments in your original document. Then you can see the page again by clicking on the Print Preview button on the toolbar.

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Printing Your Work:

When you are happy with the look of your page and ready to print, just hit the Print button on the toolbar. (You will get a Dialog Box.) You can print right from the Print Preview window by clicking on the first (left-most) button on the toolbar. You can also print from the WordPad window, if you do not want to do Print Preview, by clicking on the Print button of the toolbar of that window. Make sure your printer has been turned on, and it has paper in it!

For more detailed instructions on Printing and screenshot of Microsoft Word's Print Preview window, please refer to How to Print a Document.


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Copyright © 2007 Silabhadra Sen
All Rights Reserved

This page was added on 08/31/07