Tag Archives: advent 2011

My Advent Calendar for 2011, a month of hints and tips for using IT, particularly MS Word

IT tips #25: Use a notebook for the big stuff in life


Use  conventional tools if they’re better suited to the job at hand. Notebooks (real notebooks, not the electronic kind) are cheap, robust, durable, don’t need electricity, don’t require any special skills, offer  fast random access, and boot up immediately.  They are less distracting in a hundred ways than a computer, and much quicker to use. They’re light and portable, and can be tilted, folded, bent, torn, listened to, stroked and smelled.

A notebook hides nothing away in files, folders and applications. If it’s in there, you’ll find it. Handwritten notes bear the indelible marks of the day when you made them – the colour, weight and angle of the pen, the speed of your writing, minute irregularities of line and shape. A coffee or red wine stain may remind  you  where you were when you made it. These things are erased or never inscribed by a computer.

Many brilliant people I have met from fields as diverse as management, retail, choreography, design, writing, academia and  computer programming use notebooks for  the big stuff – planning, thinking, sketching, dealing with people. By contrast, I’ve watched hours of working life go by where technology has provided the appearance of serious activity but achieved nothing.

My personal favourites, for design and paper quality, are the B5 notebooks from Muji that come in packs of 5 for £4. What’s yours?





IT tips #24: How to make time-saving templates in Word


A real template in Word is a thing of beauty and magic that can be used to save you a lot of time and make your computer do what it does best:  quickly and painlessly automate repetitive tasks.  I say real templates, because a lot of people use the word ‘template’ to mean nothing more than a Word document that just provides an example of what a document should look like. A real template ends in the file extension .dot, and when you click on it, will automatically create a new blank document based on the template.  so if someone says ‘I’m attaching a template’ and the file ends in .doc, it’s not a template. Here’s how to do it properly:

  1. Think of a document type that has that you use a lot, like a letter or invoice
  2. Start a new document in Word.
  3. Spend time creating all the fancy elements that are particular to you such as
    – Your name and address and other contact details
    – An automated field for today’s date (see instructions below)
    – Page numbers, footers, headers
    – A scan of your signature, with your name and title underneath it
    – Bank details (if it’s an invoice)
  4.  Now go to the file menu, and select ‘Save As’
  5. From the dialog box that appears, look down to the ‘Format’ field, and change the Format to one of the Template (.dot) options.  Choose Word 97-2004 Template if you’re sending it to someone else (just to be safe), Word Template (.dotx) if it’s only you that’s going to be using it.
  6. Give the template a memorable and useful name, and press OK to save the document (which is now not strictly a document anymore, but a template)

To use the template (these instructions are for Word for Mac 2008 – in Word for Windows, you go to File>New and then select ‘from template’ ).

1. Go to the File>Project Gallery

2. From the menu that appears, select ‘My Templates’ and the template you created will be there.

3. Click on the template. A new blank document will be created with all the features that you specified. If you inserted an automatic date field, today’s date will be inserted (see instructions below).

4. Save this new document as something meaningful on your computer.


How to insert the date automatically every time you create a new document based on a template

1. Go to the Insert menu, and select Insert>Field 

2. Select ‘Date and Time’ and use the ‘Create Date’ option

3. Press’ Options’ and select the format that the date should have, and remember to press ‘Add to field’ and ‘OK’ afterwards

  • Templates can be very complex things: for example, I’ve got one that I use for creating units in module study guides that have to have a cover page with the company logo on, page numbering, particular heading and text styles, and so on. Clicking on ‘Template’ creates a whole new document with a cover page including all the graphics.
  • Used in conjunction with forms (see earlier post on forms), templates can be doubly powerful: you could for example create an invoice template with form  fields for all the variable data like the name of the job and the unit price and so on.
  • Another way to use templates is to drag a shortcut to the template to your desktop. That way, you click on the template shortcut and kerplang! Word starts up automatically with a shiny new document ready for you to type into. To do this, you need to know where the template it stored (see below).
  • If you need to edit the template, you need to know where templates are stored on your computer. Once you know, you then select File>Open and locate the template in question to edit it
  • To find out where your computer stores templates, on a Mac go to Preferences pane in Word and select File locations. (it’s under Tools>Options on a PC) Make a note of where the  ‘templates’ are stored. You can press ‘modify’ to put them somewhere else. Frankly, I wouldn’t though. 




IT tips #23: How to hide your Facebook posts from particular people


Sometimes you want to share something on Facebook that you know might offend a person in your network because of their particular views or life circumstances. You can chose to hide your posts from that person or several people at once. You can do it before you post something, or retrospectively:

1. At the end of your post, click on the ‘Friends’ sign, and select ‘custom’

2. Underneath ‘Hide this from’ start typing the name of the person that you want to hide the post from. Their name will appear – select it.

From now on, anything you post will be hidden from this person or list of people (if you added more than one) until you revoke it, but they will not know that you’ve done it.



IT tips #22: In MS Word, how to put a landscape page into a portrait document


NB: Please read the 26/1/2016 update at the end of this page before you try the method below!

This is the problem: you need to insert a large table in landscape format into a document that is portrait the rest of the time. You don’t want to make the whole document landscape for the sake of one page, so you need a way of putting one landscape page into a portrait document. This is how you do it. Although the instructions here are for Word for Mac 2008, the over-riding principle is the same in any version of Word – create a section break, then apply the ‘landscape’ instruction to that section only.

Instructions for putting one landscape page into a portrait document in Word

1.  At the point where you want to create the landscape page, go to Insert>Break>Section Break (Next page)

Putting a landscape page into a portrait document in Word: use a Section Break

The Section Break menu

2. Now go to File>Page setup and change the page orientation to landscape, and if you’re using a Mac, after you’ve done that, change the settings to ‘Microsoft Word’ as shown below.

Putting a landscape page into a portrait document: the Page Setup menu in Mac OS

3.  From the menu that appears, select the option to apply the changes to ‘this section’ 
Putting a landscape page into a portrait document: use "This Section" when prompted in the page setup

4. Press OK. You will now have a landscape page at the point where you made the section break

5. Make your table or whatever it is on this page.

6. When you get to the bottom of the landscape page, repeat steps 1-4 above but change the orientation back to portrait and apply it to ‘this section’. 
  • If  you know that this is going to be the only landscape page in the whole document, you can select ‘from this point forward’ when you change the orientation back to portrait in (6) above
  • Even though they’re invisible in print-layout view, Section Breaks can be deleted. If you’re not careful, you can backspace over the section break and put your landscape page back into portrait, or vice versa. If this happens, scream and press ‘Undo’ (CTRL+Z or ⌘Z)
  • To avoid deleting section breaks accidentally, put the document temporarily in to outline view (View>Outline). This will allow you to see where the section breaks are. Once you’ve finished, go back to View>Print layout)

Update on 26th January 2016

A recent visitor to this page has pointed out that when she tries to print the resulting document, the page immediately after the landscape page has its margins corrupted, and is shifted 2.5 inches to the right, and bleeds off the page. I’ve checked this and looked on a number of forums, and sadly, it seems that this may be an intractable problem with Word and page orientation changes.  To be honest, I don’t know what the problem is, and I have no idea whether it’s all versions of Word, all tables, all documents or whatever, but be warned.

In this particular case, the table had been created with tab stops rather than a table grid, which meant there was a nice workaround. If you have tabulated data (rather than a “table”) you can try this:

  1. Select the “table”  (scare quotes are vital here: I mean  “tabulated text” not a “table” in the sense of a grid with data in it)
  2. Click on the Insert menu, and select “text Box” – this will put a text box around the selected text
  3. Click on the + handle on the top LH corner of the resulting text box
  4. Click on the “layout tab” (see below)layout grid
  5. Select “Text Direction” and choose “Rotate all text 270º (or 90º if you prefer)
  6. The text will rotate (rather than the page) – this means that the page numbers will stay in the same position (one of the unfortunate hazards of the other method, is that the page numbers end up relative to the new page orientation – i.e. in the wrong place. It is then a real pain to put them in the right place using text boxes etc.
  7. I guess if you were really keen, you could create a table with the page in portrait mode, but with columns and rows how you’d like them to be when you type in text at 90 or 270 degrees (i.e. long rows, and narrow columns). I don’t like the sound of that, but in theory, it could work if you can (ha ha) get your head round it.
  8. If you have a better way of dealing with this let me know.


Be aware that you can’t flip a Word table around like this: it only changes the direction of the text, not the table grid. I’m thinking that the only real workaround if you have a complex table that has to have a grid, and can’t be done with tabs alone, is to export the table as a graphic, and then import the graphic and rotate it into the portrait page as required.

IT tips #21: Drag your most-used sites on to your links bar in a browser


I’m sure nearly everybody knows about this, but today’s tip is just a nudge to actually do it: if you have sites that you regularly visit – Facebook, email, the news, an online calendar, Amazon, favourite shops, etc. don’t waste time looking them up in your ‘favourites’. Next time you’re at one of those sites,  just drag the address into the links bar of your browser. Get rid of all the crap ones that were pre-loaded there first, so you’ve got room.

There’s a quick video below of how to do this in Chrome, but the procedure’s the same in every browser I’ve come across:

  1. Delete unwanted links from the links bar (or bookmarks bar as it’s called in Chrome) by CTRL-click  (Mac) or right click (PC) and selecting ‘delete’ for each unwanted link. This makes space for your own links.
  2. Go to  one of your favourite/most used  pages such as your web email account or Facebook, for example
  3. With the mouse, grab hold of the ‘favicon’ (the small image immediately left of the address) and drag it down to an empty space on the links bar. The cursor will turn to a + sign when you’re correctly positioned. Note: if you can’t see the links bar, it’s probably because you’ve opted to remove it from view – so go to the ‘View’ menu and make sure that the links/bookmarks bar is ticked.
  4. Let go of the mouse button (i.e. drop)
  5. Right-click/CTRL-click and edit the name of the link you just dropped  to something short and memorable (so you can get more links in the bar). I use initials – i.e. Metafilter becomes MF
  6. Next time you want to go to one of your favourite sites, just click on the icon in the links bar


  • You can re-order the links on the bar by dragging them from left to right
  • If you have links to several pages on the same site, you can create a folder on the toolbar and drop all the links to those  pages into that folder.
  • If your links bar starts running off the right hand side of the screen, delete some links. There’s no point in a links bar where you can’t see the links.

IT tips #20: How to compile multiple documents into one Preview pdf file (Mac only)


Update, May 18th 2015: Since I wrote this page in 2011, I’ve discovered that Apple have themselves published even better advice on their own site. So for the best instructions on how to do this, go to their page, OSX: Combing PDF documents using Preview 

For posterity, my original advice is below. The bit that was crucially missing from my advice was that you mustn’t import documents below the dividing line in the sidebar.

Using Preview on a Mac, this helps you compile a bunch of single, separate pdfs  – scans, articles, pictures, or whatever – into a single pdf. You can also re-order the individual pages or delete them.  This is the process:

  1. Open one of the files that’s going to be one of the final collection (it doesn’t matter which one)
  2. Save the file as something meaningful like ‘compiled scans’ or whatever
  3. Make sure that View>Sidebar>Show Sidebar is selected (⇧⌘D), and Thumbnails is ticked
  4. Keeping this first  file open, drop whole files, or individual pages into it as follows:
    1. For whole files: Select files in Finder and drag and drop them into the sidebar of the destination file
    2. For selected pages only: Open the  files that contain the pages that you want to include in the compiled file (Ensure that View Sidebar and Thumbnails is selected in the View>Sidebar menu in these files too).Arrange the windows on the screen so that your destination file (the one you’re going to drop all the others into) and the source file (the one containing the pages you want to drop in) are both visible.In the source file,  select the thumbnails of the page(s) that you want to add, and simply drag and drop them into the sidebar of the destination file.
  5. In the destination file, you can drag files up and down the sidebar to reorder them, or delete individual pages.
  6. Save the destination file.


  • If you need a title page, make it in Word, print it to pdf, and then drag it into the destination document
  • It’s a good idea to make a blank page in Word or other program and print that to pdf so that you’ve got a blank page handy to insert where necessary – for example, you may eventually want to print this file double-sided, and if the first two pages are a double-page spread, you’ll need a blank page to start with. This is particularly relevant for music books.
  • As you can put image files into a pdf, this is also quick and dirty way to make a presentation without PowerPoint – just drop the relevant pictures and pages you need into a pdf, and wiggle them around.  You can use Preview or Acrobat to show the presentation, too.

I discovered this tip by accident – as far as I can see, there’s nothing in the menus that seems to offer you this fantastic option.

IT tips #19: How to stop procrastinating by turning the Internet off


I don’t mind admitting that I am so easily distracted by stuff on the Internet, that if I didn’t have a program like Freedom (Windows & Mac), I probably wouldn’t get much done at all.  Freedom is a very simple utility that allows you to block your internet access for an amount of time in minutes. During this time, you won’t be able to access anything online, thus forcing you to do whatever it was that you were supposed to be doing (writing an essay, sending an invoice, tidying your room).

It costs $10, but there’s a trial version which allows you to try it five times for free.  One of the unexpected benefits of getting this software has been that I now have a much better idea of which kind of job I am likely to procrastinate on or avoid, and on days when I know I have something like that to do, I switch Freedom on for 90 minutes as soon as I turn the computer on.

IT tips #18: If you’re transcribing, get a USB foot control


(I’ve blogged about this before, but I’m passionate about how much time they save, so I don’t mind doing so again)

If you do things like record lectures or interviews on your mobile, laptop or portable voice recorder, or want to transcribe speech from a video, what are you going to do? Press play with your hands, listen a bit, press pause with your hands, type a bit with your hands, stop, press rewind with your hands, press play again with your hands…and repeat  til insane.  You get the point: you need two pairs of hands if this is going to go anything but dead slowly.

But with a USB foot control (like the Infinity) and some free software called Express Scribe  you can sail through this kind of job.  For example, you can easily set Express Scribe to automatically go back, let’s say, one second when you release the ‘play’ pedal with your foot. That means you don’t in fact have to use the rewind button at all if you’re on a roll.

It is so much faster than any other method involving your hands alone, I would be lost without it for any transcribing job. And it’s not just speech that it’s good for – if you’re  a musician trying to work out the chord sequence or melody to a song, it’s perfect for transcribing music from audio files where you have to listen several times over to the same little bit.  Your hands never need to leave the page or keyboard that you’re working with.

IT tips #17: How to force a YouTube video to start at a particular time point


Let’s say you want to send someone a YouTube clip or embed it in a post, but the bit that you want them to see is right in the middle of the clip. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could just link straight to that part of the clip? Well you can. All you have to do is this. There are two different processes here: sharing a link on something like Facebook, and embedding in a webpage. Both processes are shown below.

Sharing a link 

1. Find the place in the video where you want it to start, and pause the video there.

Click on “share”


2. Another menu opens up. Click on “share” and make sure that the box is ticked that says “start at.”



3. The time in the box will be automatically updated from wherever you paused the video – that’s why you have to pause it, because otherwise the time in the box  keeps changing as the video plays. You can manually type in the time, maybe adding or subtracting a second or two if you didn’t quite pause it in the right place.

4. Copy the code and paste it into your Facebook post. Be sure to make a space and press return after the link – this seems to be necessary to cause the video to be embedded.


1. Temporarily turn on “text” mode (not WYSIWYG or “visual”). In WordPress it looks like this (click on the “text” tab”


2. Note the time  that you want the video to start.

3. Convert the time (minutes and seconds) into seconds – so if it’s 2’36, that’ll be 156 seconds

4. Click on “share”



5. Another menu opens up below. Now click on “embed”


6. In the embed code, right before the final double quotation marks after the link, add ?start= and then the number of seconds, e.g. ?start=156 if you want it to start at 2’36”.


Embed code: <iframe width=”420″ height=”315″ src=”//www.youtube.com/embed/sy5K4YtpNsk” frameborder=”0″ allowfullscreen></iframe>

Embed code with start time: 

<iframe width=”420″ height=”315″ src=”//www.youtube.com/embed/sy5K4YtpNsk?start=156″ frameborder=”0″ allowfullscreen></iframe>

7. Paste this into the place where you want the video to appear in your page.

8. Turn “visual” mode back on (just because it’s easier). A greyed-out screen will appear where your embedded video will be (it will only show up when you preview the page, or publish it).

Legacy instructions

I’ve revised the information above on January 9th 2015  because the previous method (see below) seems now to be obsolete – but leaving it, in case the legacy method is useful for any reason. I’m borrowing the method from this external post, but simplifying and slightly amending it to fit the way it looks on my screen.

Make a note of where the section starts that you want your friend to see

  1. Copy and paste the YouTube link into the email/Facebook, Twitter, whatever it is
  2. Before you press ‘send’ , add the following straight on to the end of the link:

#t=[number of minutes in]m [number of seconds in]s

e.g. if you want to start this clip of the Avengers episode at 17’08”,  the point where it all gets rather camp  at a place called ‘Terpischorean Training Techniques’, you’d add #t=17m8s to the end of the YouTube link, or


which will give you this:

Another way to do this is to press  ‘Share’ then select ‘Options’, then tick  the check box next to ‘Start at’.


IT tips #16: How to use iTunes to convert files to MP3 and back


If all you want to do with your music is play it on your computer or phone, the  iTunes default setting which imports music files as AAC  (Advanced Audio Coding) is fine. It’s the  the standard format for Apple products and several others, and is supposed to be better in quality than MP3.

But life gets more difficult if you want to do anything else with it – like edit it in Audacity, for example, or send it to someone who hasn’t got a device that can play AAC files, or transfer it to one of your own devices that doesn’t like AAC.  In this case, you’re better off using MP3. You might just want to convert a single song to MP3 for a particular task, while keeping the rest of your library as AAC.

Here’s how you can do it for free in iTunes – no need to pay money for ‘format converters’. It’s the  same procedure  that you’re offered when you first put a CD into iTunes – there’s a button in the bottom RH corner of the screen called ‘Import settings’.    The point about this tip is to show you how to apply the procedure retrospectively, even after you’ve already imported the CD.  The instructions below are for a Mac, but the principle would be the same on a PC.

1.  Open iTunes and go to the Preferences menu

2. From the ‘General’ tab, select Import settings (see below)

3. From the menu that appears, select MP3 Encoder (obviously, if that’s already selected, you don’t need to do anything!). The other settings don’t so much matter, though ‘Good quality 128kbps’ is quite enough for most purposes.

 4. Now you’ve done that, go back to your library, and select the track that you want to convert to MP3, and CTRL-Click on it. A shortcut menu will appear. Scroll down it until you find ‘create MP3 version‘ (see below)

5. In your library, a new track will appear with exactly the same name as the original, but with a newer date in the ‘date added‘ column – so if you can’t find it, sort this column to bring it to the top or bottom of the list.  It’s a good idea to rename this track putting ‘Mp3 version’ in the title, so that it’s clear which track is which.

6. In the folder where your iTunes library is kept, there will now be two versions of the file, one in the original AAC format, the other (newer) one in MP3.


  • If you want to retain your library in AAC  format, remember to switch back the preferences after you’ve finished this task.
  • iTunes removed this capability from one version of the program, but it’s come back again in the latest version. I can’t guarantee that they won’t remove it again – it’s just too good to be true, frankly.
  • Converting to MP3 or AAC results in a certain loss of quality, so choosing to convert AAC or MP3 back to WAV or AIFF is not going to improve the quality – it would just be  like putting Cadbury’s chocolate in a Charbonnel et Walker box. However, if you know that you are eventually going to  use the track for a show, where the highest possible quality is desirable, remember to import the CD as WAV or AIFF in the first place, or get the CD and re-import it as WAV/AIFF.
  • If you’re the kind of person who has a library full of things called ‘Track 1’, it’s a good idea to name the track you’re going to convert to MP3 first, so that it’s easy to find the new track in your library. If you’re not sure which track is which, CTRL-click on any of the columns in the browser to add more columns, and select ‘Kind’ so that you can see what format the file is in.