Wednesday, March 08, 2006

The Word on Word

John Robinson is a retired software engineer who thinks that many people don't fully utilize the basic Microsoft Word programs on their computer. He thinks that I should handle my phone lists using a simple Word table. He plans to teach a class soon on using Word and is interested in how people use it, so if you want to post about that, especially if it helps you be organized, please do.

Here's his email:

"Having had your disorganization problem many years now, I read your article with great interest. The photo on the first page is quite impressive, although I wondered at first if it is really only a prop perhaps to make the article more credible.

Also, the fact that you look so happy in the photo doesn't help in this regard. But the content of the article convinces me that you have a problem, and it is very similar to my own case. It encourages me slightly, because I've solved at least one thing you seem to be having trouble with: Names and phone numbers on scraps of paper.

My solution is as follows: Since you have a computer on your desk, you probably keep it on all the time, and therefore you can immediately enter people's phone numbers and other info into your computer, rather than writing them on scraps of paper.

Since you are a professional reporter, you absolutely must have MS® Word on your computer, and so you can take advantage of Word tables. These are fantastic tools for storing and retrieving people's names, addresses (both street and e-mail) and telephone numbers, and any other pertinent info about the persons.

If you create a table with five columns and a few rows, you can enter the name in the leftmost column, the street address in the next one, the e-mail address in the third one, the telephone number in the fourth one, and any comments / info in the fifth one. Then when you are tempted to write down a person's address, etc. on a scrap of paper, just lunge for your keyboard instead, and enter the info in the first blank line of the table.

You could do a quick search on the person's name to see if you already have the information somewhere in the table (If your problem is as serious as the article implies, you probably have the same person's info on several different scraps of paper)."

John's point is well-taken and I think it would be very useful, but I'm not sure it's entirely right for me. I'm still thinking about this.

I have a lot of different ways I handle phone numbers and I'm trying to see what would be a more effective system. You have to keep in mind that a reporter's most valuable asset, other than a reputation for integrity and accuracy, is her phone list.

Here's what I do:
a. I get a lot of phone calls and voice mail messages. These I take down immediately in a stenographer's notebook, which I try to use for that purpose only. I often fail to transfer these numbers into the right place later and I often scribble other notes in these books. BAD, BAD, BAD!

b. People I need to call over and over again for stories, or people I think I will need to call, I do try to enter on our company's internal publishing system in a document that my colleagues can use it if they know about it. That list is fairly well-organized by category and of course is searchable. For example, I cover labor unions and so all the union phone numbers are together and separate from analysts who specialize in the staffing industry, which I also cover. But I don't always add the names to the list. BAD BAD BAD!

c. I also keep several Excel spreadsheet lists of "regular people" as I call them. These are just people that I meet in the course of reporting whom I think are intelligent or have an interesting viewpoint. They aren't experts or officials, which is good. That's because they are less likely to manipulate the news as much as some of the other people I deal with. Sometimes I call one of them to informally kick around an idea. They are almost an informal advisory board. Most of the people who have written to me for this "Digging Out" project fall into that category. I think it's great to know John Robinson, in this way, for example. My "regular people" lists I keep to myself, because my personal relationships forms the basis of the list. I very much value these relationships and I'm actually proud of these lists. I think Excel is good for this purpose, because I can see a lot of names at one time. This is sort of a variation of what John suggests that I do for all my numbers, but I think the tables would get to be too big.

d. A list of "source" numbers that is also confidential.

e. At one point, I tried to use the Microsoft Outlook Contacts, but it was cumbersome so I gave up. I'm kicking myself for that, because it seems to be a pretty good system.

What do other people do?


Blogger lynn said...

I use a Palm. It contains all of my contact information and another copy resides on my computer. For each person, there is room to put many phone numbers and identify them (eg: home, office mobile) There is room for notes about each person. Most importantly for you, names can be grouped anyway you want. You can look at all of the names in your contact list or just the medical people, for example.

6:37 AM  
Blogger Jane M. Von Bergen said...

Thanks Lynn,
A lot of my co-workers use a Palm or a Blackberry.
My phone lists are huge and if I switch, I need to get it right, because it will be days of work.

9:23 AM  
Anonymous joe said...

Corell(sp?) office sweet containing wordperfect is better (we all know how microsoft stomped its competition). Setting up tables in word can be tricky but works - setting up tables in excel is easier - or as others have suggested, use a hand held organizer (just remember that the keys and the print are small) Good Luck

2:29 PM  
Anonymous Mark said...

The MS Word list idea is quite simple and could be effective for a very basic phone list. The problem with this method is that it is a waste of technology. You could accomplish much the same thing with a pencil and paper list (without the search ability of course).

A much better and equally simple technique is to use a PDA. You can enter phone numbers into a PDA by hand (with a stylus) or with your computer keyboard (this requires you to synch the PC and PDA every now and then). One can then find, sort, search or categorize phone numbers in seconds. The little gadget is easily portable - about the size of a deck of cards. You can also very easily "beam" phone numbers to other people's PDAs or another of your own. I use two. They are inexpensive when bought new (about $100 for basic model) and really cheap when bought used (easily under $50).

I also use MS Outlook Contacts at my office for strictly business numbers. But these numbers are on my PDAs as well - it is quite simple to synch Outlook and a PDA. PDAs were once touted as an alternative to portable PCs. That is simply unrealistic. But they still remain a very powerful phone number tool.

You can even keep running notes on each person on your list if you want to. That alone should make a newspaper writer gleeful.

And... you can put cool games on them for dead time at airports. I like blackjack and chess.


2:40 PM  
Anonymous sarah said...

word is not the be all and end all. nor is powerpoint as many corporate types think.

i use outlook to manage my work contacts on my work machine.

at home, i set up an access database for my personal contacts because there are other fields i wanted for these personal contacts that outlook didn't offer.

access is also a great tool for organization. you can track huge projects with it extract the data you need without searching through extra stuff.

and access is much easier than most people seem to think

10:42 AM  
Anonymous Bill B said...

Outlook was designed to keep track of info about Contacts. Outlook 2003 is the most recent version and does a good job. "If the tool fits ..."
Using Word or Excel to track contacts will only cause you pain in the long run. You might be able to use this method for a single project (as I sometimes do), but it isn't the best long-term solution.
Another posting here mentions syncing Outlook with a PDA - great idea.

11:09 AM  
Blogger Jane M. Von Bergen said...

It seems so daunting to enter everything into Outlook, plus I don't fully understand the Categories aspect. I guess that's where the discipline comes in.

12:44 PM  
Blogger Ellen Faye said...


Why don't you hire a kid (or one of your kids, an intern…) to do the data entry for you into Outlook? They can do all the typing on your home computer or laptop. Then you go get one of those wonderful PDA's, sync it and then put the software on at work, sync it and you’re good to go. It is a lot of work, but the PDA's are fantastic because you always have all your information with you.

As far as categories, you can have business and personal and then break those down into more categories – for example you can have writers, leads, sources, Inquirer colleagues, etc. For personal you can have friends, doctors, services – then when you want to look something specific up you can just look at those contacts in that category.

I have over 400 contacts in my PDA and have no problem with space.

7:31 PM  

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