Writing tools

What authors need to know to use Word effectively

The first in a series of occasional posts about things writers who use Microsoft Word should know about the software if they want to get the most out of it.

Learn the basics

If you want to write novels in Word, you need to know something about:

  • Templates
  • Styles
  • Revisions (tracking and comments)
  • Navigation pane
  • Word count

You don’t need to know them in-depth, just enough to use them properly.

Look and feel

The look and feel of your Word document is controlled by templates, themes and styles. The Microsoft Office site explains how the three fit together.

For an author:

  • Template—sets your page size, margins, double spacing, font, headers and footers and page numbers
  • Theme—we don’t use theme for a standard novel template
  • Styles—controls chapter headings and breaks.

Most authors do all of this manually. My recommendation is don’t. Just don’t. It makes formatting your novel much so much harder.


Whether you track changes before you send your novel out is up to you (just make sure you clear them before you do send). I track mine, but that’s because I write with a co-author, and she needs to know what I have changed and vice-versa. Once you have an agent or an editor, however, you’re going to have to do it.

You should be able to use:

  • Track changes—how to actually track the changes, and the different ways to see what you have marked up; also accepting and rejecting said changes
  • Comments—alpha/beta readers, editors and agents will all make comments. You need to know how to see the comments, how to add your own, and how to delete them
  • Compare documents—great for when you want to show your agent/editor what’s actually changed since the last time they saw the novel
  • Navigation pane—since you’re now using styles you can use the navigation pane to move chapters around quickly. Or you can do a similar thing in Outline view.

Proofing and language and other tools

There are a couple of other things you should/can use as an author.

  • Word count—it’s is a simple thing, but it’s important
  • Document properties—in particular the user name and initials
  • Spelling and grammar—do I even need to mention these?
  • Language—even if your only language is English, it’s useful to know how to set the dictionary

In the next post we’ll set up a manuscript template.

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