Key Concepts in Word Processing


David M. Marcovitz, Ph.D.

Loyola College in Maryland


Although modern word processors vary in their details, they are all based on a system of operations. WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) makes modern word processors much easier to use, but it obscures the system of operations. People spend many hours using word processors, and many never understand what actions will affect what parts of their document. At times commands seem random: sometimes they work and sometimes they do not.

Word processing is based around four types of operations:

  1. character-based operations
  2. paragraph-based operations
  3. section-based operations
  4. document-based operations

Understanding these four types of operations makes word processing a much more understandable task.

Character-based operations affect the current character and any characters typed after that. Paragraph-based operations affect the current paragraph and any paragraphs typed after that. Section-based operations affect the current section and any sections typed after that. Document-based operations affect the entire document.

This system is very straightforward when typing a document without making any changes to what has already been typed. The operations one performs will affect the document from that point forward. "That point" is defined as the current character, paragraph, or section, depending on the type of operation. For example, changing the style to bold is a character-based operation, so it will not affect any previously typed characters, just the characters from that point forward. Similarly, changing the paragraph to be centered is a paragraph-based operation, so it will not affect any previously typed paragraphs, but it will affect the entire current paragraph and any future paragraphs.

However, people rarely type a document straight through without editing it. In order to change something that has already been typed, one must move the cursor to or select (usually by dragging the mouse across to highlight) what is to be changed. For character-based operations, one must select all the characters to be changed. For paragraph-based operations, one can change a single paragraph by selecting all or part of the paragraph or simply moving the cursor into the paragraph. One can change more than one paragraph by selecting all or part of the paragraphs to be changed. For section-based operations, one can a change a single section by moving the cursor into that section, or one can change several sections by selecting all or part of the sections to be changed. Document-based operations always affect the entire document no matter what has been selected.


Character-based Operations

Character-based operations are things that can be applied to individual characters. These include all things related to the font, size, and style of the text. Fonts include changing the text to Times, Helvetica, Chicago, etc. Size is the size of the text, such as 12 point, 14 point, 72 point. Style includes bold, italic, underline, superscript, etc. All of these are sensible things to do to a single character or a single word. It makes sense to underline a single character or word. It makes sense to change the font or size of single character or word. While some word processors might have more or fewer options for things to do to characters (such as fancy styles like outline, shadow, or strikethrough), all word processors will have some basic character-based operations. The important point is that these operations will only affect the characters that are selected, or if no characters are selected, the next thing that is typed.


Paragraph-based Operations

Operations that do not make sense to perform on a single character or word, but do make sense to perform on an entire line or paragraph are generally paragraph-based operations. These include alignment operations (right justify, center, left justify), spacing (single and double spacing), indents, and tabs. It does not make sense to center a single letter within a sentence. This alignment operation only makes sense for an entire line or paragraph.

What is meant by a paragraph? In modern word processors, paragraphs are established by hitting the RETURN or ENTER key. Some will show a new paragraph symbol (¶) at the end of each paragraph. There is no need to RETURN or ENTER at the end of each line. Word wrap allows the user to continue typing past the end of the line; the word processor will automatically go to the next line. This is important because without it:

· Any changes that are made to the document would require the user to readjust all the line breaks instead of allowing the computer to take care of this automatically.

· Any paragraph-based operations would apply to each individual line, not the whole paragraph, unless all the lines of the paragraph were selected.

The concept of paragraph-based operations and the definition of a paragraph are particularly important when setting tab stops for a table. In a table, each line is its own paragraph. In order to change tab stops for the entire table, one must select all lines of the table because tab stops are paragraph-based operations and each line is its own paragraph.

For example, assume I was typing the following table:

If I decided that I wanted the last column to be centered, I could easily change the right tab stop to a center tab stop. However, any changes I make to the tabs will only affect the current line because each line is a paragraph. To make the change appropriately, I would have to select all four lines of the table and then change the tab stops:

If I did not select any lines, only the current line would be affected:

With all the lines selected, the entire table would change, and the columns would line up properly:

Advanced users of word processors generally know this intuitively, if not explicitly, but beginners (as well as most intermediate users) are perplexed by this. They make changes to the tab stops and wonder why some lines have different tab stops than others. Making explicit the idea that changing tab stops only affects the current paragraph, while seemingly a simple concept, is very enlightening.


Section-based and Document-based Operations

Some word-processors allow documents to contain different sections. A new section can be created with a command like "Insert New Section" or "Insert Section Break." Word processors that do not have the ability to create different sections (or documents that only contain one section) treat section-based and document-based commands the same: they both apply to the entire document. In addition, different word processors allow different operations to be section-based or document-based.

Headers and footers are generally section-based or document-based operations. Since most word-processors do not allow page-based operations, every page in the section or document has the same headers and footers. The only exception to this is that the first page might be different by making the "First Page Special" or by indicating the need for a "Title Page." It does not make sense for a character or a paragraph to have a header or footer or to have a title page; therefore these must be section-based or document-based operations.

Section-based and document-based operations include:

Advanced word-processors might also include operations to change numbers of columns and to manipulate how footnotes are numbered and where they appear.



Understanding the difference between character-based, paragraph-based, section-based, and document-based operations can help you have more power over your word processor. Taking full advantage of the word processor requires the ability to know what parts of the document each command will affect. While the exact commands might change from one word processor to another, these basic principles are part of the design of most (if not all) modern word processors. Everything you do in a word processor affects some part of the document, and these principles will help you figure out which part.

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This page was prepared by Dr. David M. Marcovitz.

Last Updated: November 17, 1998