CIPS CONNECTIONSINTERVIEWS by STEPHEN IBARAKI, I.S.P.
Internationally Acclaimed Word Perfect Authority and MS Word Expert
This week, Stephen Ibaraki, I.S.P., has an exclusive interview with the internationally acclaimed, WordPerfect’s foremost authority, and MS Word expert, Laura Acklen.
Since 1993, Laura Acklen has authored and co-authored more than 19 Que books, including the most recent version of “Special Edition Using WordPerfect”, “Absolute Beginner’s Guide to WordPerfect 11”, “Absolute Beginner’s Guide to Microsoft Office Word 2003”, and a dozen Office applications and operating system titles.
Her WordPerfect experience includes five years as a corporate and law office trainer, designing and writing customized training materials for courses in WordPerfect, Windows and a variety of other applications. Laura was contributing editor for WordPerfect for Windows magazine for four years. She is now writing articles on WordPerfect features and troubleshooting issues for Corel's OfficeCommunity.com site and acts as a moderator at WordPerfect Universe (www.wpuniverse.com). Her wpwriter.com Web site boasts the largest collection of WordPerfect tips on the Web.
Her Microsoft Word experience includes her work on the development team for the Que Education and Training “Essentials” books at which time she wrote the Windows 3.1, Windows 95, Word for Windows 95 and Word for Windows 6.0 student manuals and instructor guides. Laura wrote Que Publishing’s “First Look at Windows 95”. She is also the author of Sam’s “Teach Yourself Office 2000 in 10 Minutes”, and the co-author of DDC Publishing’s “Upgrading to Office 2000” in the One-Day series. Laura is a Microsoft Office User Specialist in all levels of Microsoft Word 2000. Most recently, she conducted MOUS Certification courses for DDC Publishing in major cities all over Texas.
Q: Laura, you are the most celebrated authority in the Word Perfect “space,” and a noted expert in MS Word. We appreciate you taking the time out of your demanding schedule to speak with us.
A: It’s a pleasure to be here. Thank you for the opportunity to promote my new books.
Q: How did you get to your present position?
A: When I graduated with a degree in Computer Information Systems, I knew that I didn’t want to be a programmer, and I knew that I preferred working with PCs instead of minis and mainframes, but I wasn’t sure where I would fit in the current job market. Luckily, I found a job within a progressive banking software company with a title of “PC Support Specialist”. We defined the job as I went along, but it involved board-level troubleshooting and repair, beta testing software and providing technical support to customers over the phone. From there, I worked with a company that specialized in converting law offices from Wang systems to Novell LANs. Each law firm had a specific focus, so we ended up writing customized training materials for each office. I trained the entire staff, from the secretaries to paralegals to office administrators. During one installation, I trained the attorneys in one summer of Saturdays. After the company folded, I moved into the corporate training environment and progressed to writing student and teacher training manuals for Productivity Point International, an international training organization. A fellow trainer “put my name in the hat” for a WordPerfect book at Que Publishing. That was my first book, written in 1993 with Michael Miller. It was titled “Oops! What to Do When Things Go Wrong in WordPerfect” and it was written on WordPerfect DOS 5.x. I’ve been writing books for Que ever since.
Q: With your extensive background, you would have mastered many challenges, learned countless valuable lessons resulting in numerous stories to share with our audience including humorous ones…
A: As other authors have mentioned, “scope creep” is a tremendous challenge for freelance writers. Most of my lessons have focused around defining a project and negotiating some leeway for the inevitable changes that come along after you start writing. I’m very blessed to be working with an acquisitions editor who advocates for her authors. I’ve already informed her that she is not free to leave this business because I want to do all of my books with her.
I do have a story about one of the most difficult books I ever worked on, Que’s “First Look at Windows 95”. When I was approached about doing the book, I had some reservations about working on beta Windows software, then called “Chicago”. By then, I had already beta tested WordPerfect and MS Word software and knew about the pitfalls. Add to that the fact that I didn’t have the luxury of owning two computers, one to write on and one to test on. As things turned out, I ended up renting an IBM laptop because Chicago refused to load on my 386 system. Nonetheless, I needed the work, so I signed on for the book. Microsoft was being very protective about the new look and feel and didn’t want to give too much away. This was a bit surprising considering it was a “day and date” book which means it came out when the software was released. They began by saying that we could not include screen shots in the book. As you may have guessed, eliminating screen shots played havoc with my page count. My editors were upset about the low page count and I was upset because I didn’t have enough information to provide the content. When the book was about 75% complete, they informed us that screen shots were okay, which meant we had to backpedal through the entire book and cut content to allow room for the screen shots. Unfortunately, I had an ineffective acquisitions editor and spent all those extra hours without any additional compensation. It was a hard, but valuable lesson.
Something a little more light hearted would be that whenever I get stuck trying to come up with an explanation for something, I pretend I’m trying to explain it to my Mom or my sister. Mom is a reluctant participant on the Net and has yet to use a word processor. She’s the perfect model for a beginning user. My sister is actually very computer savvy, but it’s been a long, hard road to get her there. I tell myself that if I can explain it in such a way that my sister is interested and my Mom understands, then I’ve done a good job.
Q: Please share some tips from your work with OfficeCommunity.com, wpuniverse.com, and wpwriter.com.
A: That’s a tough one because each of the three represents a different responsibility. Writing for OfficeCommunity.com is like falling into a comfortable sofa--it’s a lot like writing for WordPerfect Magazine. I have input on the topic and some flexibility if I want to include “sidebar” information. I’m looking forward to working with Corel to expand the content at OfficeCommunity.com by pulling in other WP experts from the community and to increase the dialog between the developers and the user community.
WordPerfect Universe is sort of like the coffee room at an office. I have a home office so I stop into WordPerfect Universe to see what’s going on. I get tips on news stories and participate in discussions with people from all over the world--all loyal WP users and all committed to supporting the product. I try to answer questions whenever I can and usually end up spending twice as much time there as I had planned. It’s a great distraction when I can’t get through a chapter at 2am! WordPerfect Universe is without a doubt the place to go on the Web if you have a question about WordPerfect. There is a wealth of information stored in the forum archives and FAQs. The WordPerfect newsgroups are also excellent, staffed by competent and friendly volunteers, but not everyone has access to a newsgroup reader.
WPWriter is my Web site. I created it after I wrote Que’s “Special Edition Using WordPerfect 9” in an effort to help market the book. Through the help of others in the WP community, it quickly grew into a comprehensive collection of links to resources and the largest collection of WP tips on the Web. I’ve got a complete table of contents for the “Special Edition Using WordPerfect” (9 and 10) books, the “Absolute Beginner’s Guide to WordPerfect” 10 and 11 books. I’ll be putting the table of contents for the “Absolute Beginner’s Guide to Word 2003” up soon since the book is now shipping. As others who maintain sites can tell you, it’s largely thankless work. You do it because it’s a service to the community and it’s your way of giving something back. WordPerfect doesn’t have the marketing muscle of Microsoft behind it, but it does have a very loyal base of users who are committed to helping and supporting each other.
Q: How about your stint with WordPerfect for Windows magazine?
A: Working on that magazine was one of the high points of my writing career. I considered it a pretty sweet deal since it provided a consistent form of income, which is rare for a freelancer. I met some wonderful people some of whom I still keep in touch with. In the early days of the magazine, they produced some of the most beautiful covers I have ever seen. I’ve hung on to all my copies of the magazine for that very reason. During my four years as an associate editor, I wrote the monthly Basics column for the first year and then I was promoted to the Troubleshooting column. I enjoyed the move because the content was more advanced and presented a greater challenge for me to be able to communicate technical concepts in such a way that a new user could understand. I already had a knack for writing to the “everyman”, but I really developed my skills during that time.
Q: What makes your book, “Absolute Beginner’s Guide to WordPerfect 11”, a compelling read? How is it different from the “other” books?
A: This book starts at the very beginning, so the person that just bought a new computer with WordPerfect included, has everything they need to start the program and learn how to use it. That said, the book doesn’t shy away from advanced topics, such as creating a mail merge, writing macros and using templates. The idea is to give enough information to get the task accomplished without getting distracted with the details. The result is a book that teaches a broad range of topics to the complete beginner.
How does it distinguish itself? I think by being warm and friendly, and not taking a condescending tone with readers. There is absolutely nothing wrong with being a beginner. Beginners are not dummies and they don’t want to be talked down to. I think my book gives a certain amount of respect to the reader who is trying to learn something new.
Also, since every edition of WordPerfect includes Quattro Pro (although not always Presentations or Paradox), I have included three bonus appendices that cover the basics of creating, formatting and creating formulas in spreadsheets. A fourth appendix covers the differences in the WordPerfect product family, so if you are trying to figure out which version to purchase, you’ll find all the details there.
Q: What tips can you provide about using Reveal Codes to achieve total control over the formatting in a document?
A: Reveal Codes is the ultimate tool for control over your documents. Virtually every action you take on a document results in the insertion of a code. When you open the Reveal Codes window, which shows both the text and the codes, you get a look “under the hood” of a document. You can see everything that is being done to format the document text by reading through the codes.
You asked about tips, so here are two. One, codes are easily edited – just double-click one to open the corresponding dialog box. Make your changes, OK out, and the code is updated. Two, if you change your mind about something, all you have to do is click and drag the code out of the Reveal Codes window to delete it from the document.
Q: Describe the special features in the file management tools?
A: Traditionally, WordPerfect has offered more robust file management tools than the competitors. Files can be copied, moved, renamed, deleted and otherwise manipulated from within the file management dialog boxes in WordPerfect. You don’t need to open up a separate application to organize your files. New folders and subfolders can also be created, all without leaving WordPerfect. When you are finished manipulating files and folders, you can go right back to what you were doing.
In addition, the QuickFinder tool (available in the Standard and Professional editions of WordPerfect but may not be included in the Productivity Pack and OEM editions) is a file management application that rivals many full-blown document management applications. I’ve always said that rather than use a document management application which entails conforming to a specific standard, training the staff, and added difficulty in troubleshooting problems, stick to what you know and use WordPerfect’s QuickFinder utility. QuickFinder can be used to locate files based on a variety of variables, such as key words or phrases within the document, the name of the author or typist, modification date, and many other items that can be entered into a document summary. You can also create indexes of certain files for faster searches. It’s a tool worth looking at because it’s easy enough for a beginner and comprehensive enough for an expert.
Q: Can you go into more detail about the legal tools, creating pleading documents and publishing them to EDGAR?
A: At one time, WordPerfect was the leading word processor, due in large part to the integration of legal tools. These tools were developed early on so they have had plenty of time to mature. In addition to the built-in legal tools, like footnotes/endnotes and tables of authorities, the legal tools that were included in the Legal edition of WordPerfect 8 have been beefed up and added to WordPerfect Office 11.
There is a Pleading Expert Filler to walk you through the process of creating cases and pleading documents. A Pleading Expert Designer helps you customize the pleading styles to suit specific filing requirements. Many courts are now requiring electronic filing of pleading documents, so a standard was developed—the Electronic Data Gathering, Analysis, and Retrieval (EDGAR) format. In order to send a pleading document electronically, it must be in EDGAR format. WordPerfect will convert a document to EDGAR format in one easy step. There is also a new Legal Tools toolbar in WordPerfect 11, so you have quick access to the tools you use the most.
Q: What additional tips can you give from your books?
A: Don’t be intimidated by the sheer number of features that are available. It’s like anything, you find your favorites and you stick with them. The key to finding your favorite features is probably picking up a book that explains a bit about why you would want to use a particular feature. If you’re interested, there should be step-by-step instructions and enough information to complete a task. Then you can decide if this is something you’ll use and want to learn more about.
Don’t be afraid to experiment. You can always close a document without saving. If you want to try something, but you’re afraid you might mess up an important document, play around in a blank document first. Close it without saving, this is just like wadding up a piece of paper when you want to throw it away. Now, return to the important document and work with confidence.
Use the online help feature. There is a lot of information there and several different ways to access it. Granted, it isn’t as easy to get through as an Absolute Beginner’s Guide, but if I covered everything I wanted to, the size of the book would scare you away!
Q: Now provide us with those valuable rare “gems” that only you know.
A: That’s almost impossible since I included virtually every tip, note or caution I could think of in Que’s “Special Edition Using WordPerfect 10” book. Read Gilgen and I were able to start with our manuscript for the “Special Edition Using WordPerfect 9” book, so we were able to add things that we hadn’t thought about the first time around. I think each time we revisit one of our books, it gets better and better.
Q: What’s special about your book, “Absolute Beginner’s Guide to Microsoft Office Word 2003?”
A: This book has the same advantages that I mentioned earlier when I talked about the WordPerfect 11 book. I start at the beginning, cover powerful features and don’t talk down to the beginner. I think beginners are incredibly brave for jumping in and taking on the challenge of learning something new.
Q: Contrast Word 2003 to Word Perfect 11. Which do you prefer and why?
A: I learned how to use WordPerfect (version 4.2) first because in the late 80’s it was the dominant word processor. I started on Microsoft Word version 2.0 a year or two later so I’ve spent the past fifteen years working with both applications. During this time, the two companies incorporated some of the most popular features of the “other guy” so the lines between them have gotten blurred. I do know that the features I used to miss having in Word are now there, and vice versa.
That said, I’m a WordPerfect author first and a Word author second. I have a strong preference for WordPerfect because it lets me customize so many different areas of the program. I like the freedom I get when I can set things up the way I like to work, and not conform to someone else’s way of doing things. The program is so intuitive that my son is able to use it for his school projects without asking me a million questions. The robust feature set and the power of Reveal Codes has made me a huge fan of WordPerfect.
The thing is, there are things about Microsoft Word that I think are very cool. They were the first to incorporate a document mapping feature that creates a map of elements in the document. You simply click an element to quickly navigate through the document. I also like the fact that I can display the styles I’m using in the left margin. Word has a powerful forms creation tools that even a total beginner can use to create forms with drop-down lists, text boxes and check boxes.
Q: Comment further on Word 2003, sharing your most important tips.
A: Word 2003 is very tightly integrated with the Internet so you’ll feel a bit left out if you don’t have an Internet connection. While the standard help topics are available within Word, there is so much more information available online. By keeping this information on the Net, Microsoft can update it as often as necessary, ensuring that the customer always has the most current information. There is also a great collection of tutorials and articles and they are always adding more.
There is a new Research feature in Word 2003 that also uses an Internet connection to search through a variety of resources. All you have to do is Alt+click on a word or a term—Word conducts a search of online dictionaries, encyclopedias, and a huge collection of MSN sites. A company can even create a service and add it to the list so employees can search company databases for item numbers, current prices and product availability. Again, one of those wonderful features that appeals to everyone, beginners to experts.
Q: What future books can we expect from you?
A: I am hoping to update the “Absolute Beginner’s Guide for WordPerfect 12”, which is expected to be released this spring. I would really like to resurrect the “Special Edition Using WordPerfect 10” book and update it for WordPerfect 11 and 12, but I don’t know if I can prevail on that one. The Absolute Beginner’s Guide books have been very successful, so unless something happens to the series, I expect to update my “Absolute Beginner’s Guide to Word 2003” for the next release of Word.
Q: Give your top guidelines for working with documents of any kind.
A: 1) Save immediately. As soon as you get started, save the document and give it a name. If you are working from an existing document, you can avoid accidentally saving your changes to the original if you’ll get into the habit of saving the file with a new name right away.
2) Don’t interrupt your train of thought to format titles, headings and body text. Focus on getting the text typed in and the graphics inserted. You can make it look pretty and get those graphics exactly where you want them later.
3) Use styles. This is a lesson I’ve learned from years of tweaking document format and wishing I had started out with styles in the first place. When you format text with a style, all you have to do is edit the style and the text is automatically updated. Compare that to manually adjusting the formatting over and over again.
4) Take advantage of tables. They are much easier to work with than columns and you can always remove the lines if you don’t want them. Since you can do basic math calculations, you might be able to avoid using a spreadsheet program for simple projects.
5) Always spell check. It only takes a few minutes and you’ll catch embarrassing mistakes. Leave the grammar checker on and make sure you haven’t made any grammatical errors. You can always skip over the potential errors that aren’t really errors.
6) Don’t be intimidated by macros. They can be as simple as a signature block or inserting a page number. Anything that you find yourself doing over and over again is a good candidate for a macro. The biggest advantage is that macros play the same way every time, so the results are consistent and accurate.
7) Don’t be afraid to experiment with the fonts. Obviously, you don’t want to spend more time on the fonts than you did typing the document, but the right font can turn a plain jane document into something really snazzy. I like to use fonts that I think match the subject matter, but when it comes to creating birthday invitations and banners, anything goes.
8) Organize your files. Even if you are just getting started with computers, you can set up a filing system for your documents. If you need to go back to your paper filing system for a place to start, that’s fine. Take the time to create folders and subfolders so you can narrow down your search for a specific document. A good filing system will make it easier to perform backups (see #10).
9) Use Print Preview before you print. My Mom was a bit of a hippie so I grew up recycling paper and tin cans. The idea that someone might print out a 50-page report just to proofread the page numbers is appalling! Save trees and printing resources by turning on Print Preview. You’ll be able to zoom into details and zoom out to view the bigger picture. You can even make changes in WordPerfect’s Print Preview window.
10) Backup, backup, backup. This is the number 1 most important thing to remember. We rely so heavily on electronic versions of our documents that it is absolutely essential for those documents to be backed up. Personally, I store my manuscript files on my hard drive. I don’t have printouts of every chapter! If I don’t make a backup copy of my chapters as I finish them, I’ll be retyping them. From scratch. And don’t think I haven’t done that before.
Q: Now can you extend this to other applications you have worked with?
A: Right off the bat, I can say that I learned early on to create a good filing system for my browser bookmarks. I wrote several training manuals for high school students, teaching them how to use the Internet as a research tool. If I hadn’t developed a good system for cataloging the Web sites I consulted, I would have gone mad. I still have those bookmarks, in a backup file, just in case I would ever need to consult those sites again.
Q: What are your top recommended resources for both businesses and IT professionals?
A: Hands down, the Internet is the best resource. Newsgroups, forums, knowledge bases, news sites—it doesn’t seem like anything is too obscure for an Internet search. I get most of my information from links that someone else has posted on a newsgroup or a forum that I frequent so I’m usually reading articles on sites that I never would have found on my own. If I need to research something, I use CNet and Google. I use Google Groups to locate newsgroup posts on a particular topic and Google searches to locate resources on the Web.
Q: What kind of computer setup do you have?
A: I have a P4 2.53GHz with 512MB RAM and an 80GB drive, DVD/CD RW combo drive, nVidia GeForce4 with 64MB DDR SDRAM and a 19” flat screen Viewsonic monitor. I’m networked to another PC through a Netgear wireless router so I’m able to share the cable modem with the kids and my husband (on his laptop).
Q: If you had to do it all over again….?
A: I wouldn’t change a thing. I’ve made some bad decisions, but I learned from them. I’m proud of my contributions to training centers and people who use Windows, WordPerfect and Word applications. Obviously, it would be great to have a best seller, but the chances of that happening with a computer book are slim to none, so I choose to write about products that I believe in without thinking too hard about the bottom line.
Q: What drives you to do what you do?
A: Somewhere along the line, I realized that I had a gift for breaking down technical concepts into a language that almost anyone can understand. When I began writing training manuals, I soon learned that just because the order of steps looked good on paper, didn’t mean it would work in the classroom. I learned the value of breaking things down into very simple steps with lots of notes and cautions to help catch readers that might get discouraged because they missed a step or got off track.
When I started writing books and studying books that others had written, I was disappointed in the number of books that had a condescending tone about them. As if the idea that I was learning something new made me a dummy or an idiot. I make a concerted effort when writing a series of steps (and illustrating them with captions and callouts) to be warm and friendly and to sound as if I’m sitting right next to the reader, pointing at screen elements and telling them exactly what to do. I want to respect the reader as someone taking on a new challenge, not make them feel as though they should have gotten started a long time ago.
Q: If you were doing this interview, what three questions would you ask of someone in your position and what would be your answers?
A: Q1: Would you have ever guessed that you would be writing books when you graduated from college?A1: No way! I just knew I didn’t want to program mainframes, beyond that, it was a roll of the dice. The one thing I was sure of was that I wanted to work directly with people, not with machines. Most of my classmates were just the opposite and they quickly found jobs programming for government agencies.
Q2: Do you enjoy the long hours?
A2: Yes and no. I don’t enjoy being cranky from lack of sleep, but I do like the quiet of late night. The phone isn’t ringing and the email stops coming in. You really don’t have a choice but to focus on getting the chapter out.Q3: What advice would you give to someone who was thinking about working as a freelance writer?
A3: First, set up a place in your home where you work and keep it separate from the rest of the house (as much as possible). You will end up working every day of the week and most nights because your work is close by. You can’t say “oh well, I left those files at the office” and work on it tomorrow. Second, don’t burn any bridges. You never know when you might run into someone again. The publishing world is a small one and I’ve learned that even though I might not “click” with someone, it’s best to stay friendly since you might end up working on another project with them, even if you move to a different publisher. Third, take work when you can find it. It’s a classic dilemma—you’ll have more work than you can handle, then nothing for months at a time.
Q: Laura, thank you again for your time, and consideration in doing this interview.
A: You are quite welcome, Stephen. You asked excellent questions and I enjoyed the process of formulating my answers.