My top five favourite word processing tips and features

As a writer I spend a lot of time with my word procecessor. Here are some of my favourite word processing wrinkles you might also find useful.

1) Paragraph settings
How do you indent the first line of your paragraphs? If your answer is “I hit the tab key” then you’re giving that tab key a lot of wear and tear it doesn’t need and may be annoying the people you submit your work to.

Now if you’re lucky, you might be using a word processor program that figures out that you’re tabbing to indent and instead sets the paragraph settings to indent the first line automatically, so all you have to do is finish a paragraph, hit return and start typing the next paragraph.

If not, you need to change your paragraph settings. Find it under Home on the ribbon in Word 2007+, or wherever it’s lurking in other versions and programs. What you want to change is the Indentation of the First Line. 0.5″ is the standard amount, but check the submission guidelines. If later on you find a different depth is required, you just need to select all your text, come back here and change the 0.5″ to whatever’s required.

You can also change this setting using the ruler by dragging the “First Line Indent” along with your mouse.

2) Search and replace
Oh for goodness sake, I hear you cry, I know how to use search and replace! Well, I’d hope you do, but are you using it at full power?

Suppose you’ve written a novel set on a ship, called, I dunno, the Frangipani. Now suppose someone says to you “Hey, the ship’s name should be in italics every time!” Oh, god, you must use it dozens of times, how are you going to be sure you’ve spotted them all and italicised them?

Easy! by replacing formatting. In your Find field you’ll put Frangipani, in your replace field again, Frangipani, but take a look at all those extra bits in the dialog box (you might have to click “More” to display them) and you’ll see Replace Format. Clicking on that will give you various options to change, like Font, highlight etc. Choose the Font option, choose Italic and let ‘er rip! All uses of Frangipani will now be in italics.

The best way to figure out all the search and replace options is to take a document (or rather a copy of a document so you don’t mind messing it up!) and have some fun with it checking out all the various options. Check for yourself if you get the result you expect for the replace you’ve set up. If you don’t, can you figure out why? Check out the “special characters” you can replace.

Really getting your head around what search and replace can do could end up saving you a lot of work making manual changes. But you do need to understand the logic behind it remember that the computer will only do what you tell it to do. If you don’t quite understand what you’re telling it to do, you may get some odd results! Which is why practicing on a document you don’t mind messing up is ideal.

3) AutoCorrect
AutoCorrect is a boon to us bad typists. And to those of us who have certain words they cannot spell and now will never learn to, because the spell-check always fixes it. Create an AutoCorrect entry for words you continually type wrongly and you won’t even know you’re getting it wrong ever again.

There are times it does things you don’t want though. Like making your quotes curly when you want them straight, or putting in pretty and apparently completely irremovable horizontal lines when you enter — or *** for example as a scene divider. AutoCorrect Settings is the place to go to decide which of these changes you want to allow and which you don’t. The lines one is “Border Lines”. Uncheck it and Bob’s your uncle.

But AutoCorrect can do more than correct your spelling and apply some fancy formatting. It can save you time. Say your novel has a Lieutenant as a main character, so the word Lieutenant appears a zillion times in your novel. How about creating an AutoCorrect entry, so all you have to type is “lt” and the AutoCorrect pixies change it to lieutenant for you? Same goes for long, long names. Get a lot of these AutoCorrect entries set up and you feel as if you’re typing in shorthand.

4) Turn off the grammar and spelling squiggles while drafting

Spell-check may be one of the best inventions ever. Grammar checker is a bit more hit and miss and you have to exercise your own judgement more, but it’s still saved my arse plenty of times.

But spell-check is an editing tool. Which is why I never have the infamous red and green squiggles on while drafting. They’re distracting. They make me want to go back and edit right now. They can also slow down your document once it’s full novel length. And there’s nothing quite like the shame that comes when you open a document which tells you the errors are now so numerous it can no longer display all of them. If you listen hard you can hear your PC sniggering at you then.

So turn them off. How to do it depends on your version. In Word 2007 it’s under Word Options, Proofing. Uncheck the options for Check spelling as you type and Mark grammar errors as you type.

It’s up to you if you turn them back on during editing. I don’t even do that anymore, just run the spell checker after I’m done editing that part and make the changes then if I haven’t spotted and made them so far.

5) Track changes – Word users only
A very useful feature that allows several users to collaborate on a document, making changes which are marked so that others can check if they like the change and accept or reject it. Used in conjunction with Comment balloons for more general suggestions for rewrite the Track Changes features are ideal for an editor and author working on a manuscript, and there’s a good chance an agent or editor will expect you to use this feature in your editing.

So learn it now! Use the Help on Word and check out the Microsoft Office site to find training articles and demos about how it works in your version of Word. There are tips and demos elsewhere on the web too. Maybe find a friend who also wants to learn and exchange documents with Track Changes turned on, making lots of different types of changes and comments, to see how it work – learning by doing.

Learn this now and when the days comes that you have to do it for real you can concentrate on the actual editing and not the mechanics of the tool.

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8 thoughts on “My top five favourite word processing tips and features

  1. OOH – I know most of those, but I didn’t realise there were more options with search and replace – I’m going to have to investigate that one (hope they’re there on Open Office too). It would be really useful to have the ability to search and get rid of those extra spaces that sometimes sneak onto the end of paragraphs.

    1. See if you’ve got “Reading Highlight” or something equivalent in your Search and Replace too. It highlights the search terms, so you can see at a glance (especially if you zoom out) whether there’s some problem word or phrase you’re scattering like confetti. Definitely one of my favourite editing tools!

  2. I have Word 2007 and all you need to do is tab the first paragraph, and there after it auto-formats to indented paragraphs.

    As for Track Changes – do you want to be my friend? I used to use it eons ago when worked in an office. But I’ve recently found the ‘notes’ or comments option in Word which is really handy when beta’ing a document.

    I don’t think I can ever turn off my spell checker and grammar… I like to go back and fix typos as I see them as I worry I’ll miss them. I tend to make the wrong type of typo like platonic… 😛

    1. If you want to send me something shortish over to beta, I’ll turn on track changes and edit with that and send it back to you to see how that all works.

      With typos, I figure if they’re spelled wrong the spell checker will get it eventually. If it’s a wrong word then I’d have to spot it on my own anyway.

  3. open office also uses track changes and is compatible, with care – with Word.

    I have to say I never turn off the spellcheck.

    Also I ALWAYS have the “show all formatting”on – it makes life so much easier when you can see where you’ve put double spaces or what kind of return you’ve put in.

    1. I’ve got Open Office on my netbook. I’ll have to give it a go with the track changes. I know it can do comments, but I didn’t think it could do the rest. Will play a bit.

      Show all formatting is dead useful, yes! I don’t have it on all the time, but I use it often.

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