Tweaking MS Word to Work for You

Let's face it. Microsoft Word is the most ubiquitous word processing program in the world. If you're an author, you're probably using Word to write your stories. Oh, sure, there are a number of alternative word processers, but the odds are you're still using Word for at least some of your writing needs. And if that's true, you're probably sick to death of Word's spell and grammar check.

The problem with those two apps is they just don't know good writing when they see it. Okay, maybe that's not the problem. The problem really is Word doesn't recognize you're writing a novel, not a college term paper. But you can change that.

Most users, including writers, use Word as it comes right out of the virtual box. Few realize you can tweak Word to make it work for you, and one of those tweaks includes how the spell and grammar check apps work. By making a few changes, Word can help you edit your work and create a cleaner product before shipping it off to a human editor.

How you make changes to your Word will depend on which version you currently use, but the differences in the procedure is minimal.

In most modern versions of Word, you need to click on File, then scroll down to Options. When the Word Options view pops up, click on Proofing. This is where you can make changes to how Word checks your document.

One of the best changes you can make here is to ensure the "Use contextual spelling" box is checked. In my experience, Word comes with this option disabled. Enabling it will make Word differentiate between such words as "its" and "it's." That can be a real time saver.

I also prefer to have Word check grammar at the same time it checks spelling. If you want that option, make sure the "Check grammar with spelling" box is checked.

The option called "Writing Style" is probably the most powerful tool for writers. Here you can have Word look only for grammar errors, or grammar and style. I choose the latter, then tweak it for my particular needs by clicking the "Settings" button.

The first three options under Settings can save you a ton of proofing time. A comma after the last item in a sequence? Punctuation inside or outside quotes marks?  One or two spaces between sentences? The last is particularly important for those of us old enough to have learned how to type on a typewriter. Back then, we learned to put two spaces between sentences. In the computer age, the style is now just one space. This option will automatically correct that for you.

The rest of the selections allow you to tweak Word to your personal writing style. Do you write in the first person? Then tell Word not to check for it. By default, Word will urge you to not to use contractions. However, most dialogue is written with contractions because that's how people talk. So uncheck the "Contractions" box. Do you have a tendency to use clichés? Make sure the "Cliche's, Colloquialisms, and Jargon" box is checked.

By default, Word always checks for passive writing. Depending on how you write, you may want to disable this option while working on your first draft, then turn it back on when you are doing your later drafts. (That's what I do.) I find this option challenges me to tighten my writing.

On the proofing page, you can also add custom dictionaries. This is handy if the piece you are writing uses foreign or technical words. When I was writing my sci-fi novella, Eden, I used dozens of words from the ancient Sumerian language. Spell check drove me crazy, especially when I told it to remember a Sumerian word that I misspelled. Had I known about custom dictionaries, I could have created a Sumerian language file and imported it into Word. It would have saved me hours of checking and rechecking Sumerian spellings. If you're writing a Star Trek fan novel with a lot of Klingon dialogue, this option is for you.

One word of warning. Make certain Word is using the proper dictionary for your version of a language. As I was proofing on my latest novel, The Last Refuge, Word kept telling me I had an incredibly large number of misspellings. I discovered Word had switched to UK English instead of US English. (Remember, we are two countries separated by a common language!) No matter how many times I manually switched Word's spell checker back to US English, the program would end up using the Queen English instead.

It turns out some fonts are used more often by one country than others. When Word encounters such a font, it automatically switches to that country's dictionary. I had laid out my book using a template with an embedded font used primarily in the UK; hence, Word kept switching the UK English dictionary. I switched to another template, and the problem went away.

Of course, there is no way Word’s spell check and grammar check apps will replace your manuscript’s need for a professional editing.  However, tweaking Word to work for you will make life easier for both you and your editor.