Microsoft Word skills for editors: basic to advanced

Many editors prefer the features and power of Microsoft Word – especially when copyediting – over Google Docs and other online and collaborative programs. So, even though the latter are increasingly being used for writing and producing documents, Word remains the standard program for editing documents. Nowadays it’s pretty much assumed that writers and editors have basic Word skills. Yet even among people who work as editors, skills in Word vary enormously.

While you can edit perfectly well with basic Word skills, using advanced features (and some key add-ons) will help you work faster and produce a better final document – and efficiency and consistency are among the top goals of professional editors.

Knowing some tips can really help, too – including simple ones that are not necessarily commonly known. Often it’s just a matter of taking the time to click a button on the ribbon, like this way to open multiple copies of your document – a game changer if you’ve not tried it before!

Word has so many features that it’s not possible to cover them all. But here are some of the ways that advanced Microsoft Word skills can improve your life (and editing business).

Customise Word to match your preferences

In the Options dialog box (File > Options), you can set all sorts of preferences that will speed up your work. For example, I often want to change just a letter or two in a word when editing, so I uncheck ‘When selecting, automatically select entire word’, saving much deselecting and re-selecting as I work.

You can specify how items are pasted (with or without formatting) from other programs or documents and how images are pasted in (I choose ‘Inline with text’ for easier handling). This will save you from repeated re-formatting.

See a full list of options on the Microsoft support page for the General, Display and Advanced tabs.

Delving deeper, you can show additional ribbon tabs (e.g. you’ll need the Developer tab for some advanced features) and customise ribbons, dictionaries and the Quick access toolbar so that commands you use often are readily available.

As well as learning standard keyboard shortcuts, you can set your own shortcuts for other commands or menu selections you use frequently.

Finally, editors can benefit from add-ins such as PerfectIt and Editor’s Toolkit Plus that automate many other aspects of editing.

Control format with Styles

The Home ribbon shows many straightforward controls for formatting fonts and paragraphs, but if you’re still manually formatting through the ribbons and dialog boxes, then using Styles will open up all sorts of possibilities (and improve productivity and consistency).

I find working with Styles so useful that my first step in editing a Word document is to make sure headings, text and tables etc. are properly assigned to suitable styles.

My number one recommendation for raising your Word skills above basic is to learn to use Styles.

What can you do with Styles?

Styles let you define the font and paragraph formatting (including bullets or numbers) for a particular use (Heading 1, Heading 2, body text, italics etc.) that you then apply each time for a consistent result.

This lets you more easily control your text formatting – with one simple edit to a Style you can changing multiple headings or paragraphs in a document, rather than editing each case. This improves your consistency and efficiency.

But using styles also lets you:

  • build a table of contents (or of table or figure titles)
  • find (and replace) according to style
  • select text by style
  • navigate according to headings (in the Navigation Pane)
  • and so much more!

I’ve posted some articles to get you started with Styles, and will add more throughout 2020:

Use Track Changes wisely

Track Changes, on the Review ribbon, lets you show the edits you’ve made to a document. Clearly this is useful for reviewing edits – the author/client may wish to accept some of your changes but not all. But viewing the changes can make the document virtually illegible.

Choosing what you see can make reviewing the work much easier; for example, I rarely edit with insertions and deletions or formatting showing but usually show comments. This is a matter of setting up how you view the markup – in the one document you can view it any way you like.

If necessary, educate your clients on how to view markup

You can also do some editing without tracking. This might include technical things like formatting headings and paragraphs and reducing double spaces to single.

Because it’s so hard to read a heavily edited document when insertions and deletions are showing, I encourage my clients to hide those changes but to show the comments. I’ll comment when I’ve made a change that might be significant (e.g. affect the interpretation) or where I have a query or alternative suggestions.

Manage files (and keep control when clients go rogue)

Beyond the basics, managing multiple files and handing files over to clients (or other authors) is easier with a few Word tools, like setting a frequent AutoRecover or AutoSave that will literally stop you from losing work if your computer hangs up.

It can be handy to know how to password-protect a file or otherwise restrict editing (for all the editors whose clients forget to track changes they make to a document you’ve already edited!)

In those cases, or if file management goes awry, it’s extremely useful to know how to compare or combine files. I must admit I’m wary of using the latter as I’m not sure what the outcome would be if the combined files had different changes to the same text – something I should explore!

Automate repetitive tasks

Here’s where ace Word users can make the rest of us look like duffers by using various strategies to automate repetitive tasks. Simple examples include changing a column of names from ‘Smith, Bella’ format to ‘Bella Smith’ or changing dates from one format to another.

You can run sophisticated Find and Replace actions using special characters, formatting (including styles!) and wildcards.

The next level up is to become proficient at macros. These are simple programs (or sequences of actions) that will run from a single command.

I’m working on these skills myself. Luckily, there are many resources freely available to help you learn. For example, macro guru Paul Beverley has released a series of videos to help macro newbies get started. Check them out on his YouTube channel and look for Macros for the terrified.

See more tips & tricks. Tips on Word Styles are gathered in this collection.

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