Put MS Word to Work for You

by Michael L. Cope

There are numerous books and websites teaching how to improve your writing, but little on the actual work of writing. This article will show you how to use Microsoft Word to help manage the writing process. All examples and instructions are based on MS Word 2000 for the PC, but are applicable to Word 97 and Word 2002/2003.

Protect Yourself.

The most important thing about writing on a computer is never to forget: SAVE EARLY AND SAVE OFTEN!

Word has an AutoRecover feature, but it is only useful if your computer crashes or the power goes out. When the computer comes back and you open Word it will announce it 'recovered' your document. I have mine set to ten minutes so I never lose too much work. To turn this feature on, from the top line menu select:

Tools -> Options -> Save and check the box for "Save AutoRecover info..."

Do NOT rely on saving multiple copies on your computer. Everything you save to the hard drive is still vulnerable to a virus or natural disaster ruining the computer. Put backup copies on portable storage media like a floppy diskette. The best backup media I have found is a USB data key. They make great keychain dongles so they are always with you -- at work, home or on vacation. They are inexpensive, very durable, and you can put hundreds of files on them.

Triple protect yourself. If you have a CD Recorder then burn a CD with all of your creative writing, emails, etc., every three or four months. Make a couple of CDs. If your house/apartment/boat gets damaged or destroyed, do not risk losing everything you have ever written. I put a CD in my portable fire safe with my other important documents. I also mail a CD to family members every so often.

Keeping Notes.

The biggest task Word can do is to help keep notes inside of your document. Some writers like to use 3 x 5 cards or Post-It Notes. Others keep a separate document open to put notes in. Why put up with all the organizational hassle? I like to see my notes as I am developing a story. It also makes writing on a laptop simpler.

Sometimes I will write a scene and "discover" something new and put that information in the notes, in my character bios or add it to my timeline (kept at the top of my document). Other times I may cut-and-paste a section from a note directly into the story.

Over time it can be difficult to pick out the story from the notes. Here is where text color, highlighting, and font properties come to the rescue.

Text Coloring

What is easier to see than different colored text? At the very end of the Formatting toolbar you see a big letter A with a colored underbar. This is where you choose text color. Here is the color scheme I use to distinguish between the different parts of my document layout and the parts of the story (use primary colors, they stand out):

Black -- Narrative and exposition. Too much black in my story and I know I have an info dump or am telling instead of showing.

Orange -- Dialogue. If a paragraph has a character speaking, thinking or a diary/journal entry -- anything that resembles someone speaking -- color it orange. Make it stand out from the black narrative.

Green -- Check story facts, a dictionary or thesaurus. This is great for keeping story facts like calendar math straight. I said this was two years later but does all the time references add up to two years or less? Whose uncle is Jed? Sometimes I will use a word I am not certain I have used properly or know there is a better word. No need to stop typing, color it green and keep typing. I can go back later and look them up.

Blue -- Notes. I frequently knock out a quick scene as a placeholder and to get my immediate thoughts down. By putting notes above the scene I can quickly get it back in my mind when I go back later to flesh it out. Most of my notes are background story, purely for my use while writing the story. Again, the notes' purpose is to get the creative juices flowing or to remember the inspiration I had earlier.

Purple -- Formatting. Anywhere I want to put a section or chapter break I put it in big bold purple letters. It is also good for manuscript formatting entries.

Red -- Revisions (changing/deleting/adding).


Next to the Font Color button on the Formatting toolbar is a Highlighter pen. By selecting a section of text you can highlight it just like you would in a book. I only use a couple colors here because some of the colors make the text hard to read.

Yellow -- Really important notes. At the top of each scene or chapter I like to put a note about who I intend the POV character to be (when I proofread later it reminds me to check for things the POV character would not know). In the story I am working on, one of the characters talks with his hands a lot. I have this highlighted in a few places so I remember to mention that in his dialogue tags.

Green -- Stopping point. I do not usually write or proofread from start to finish of a story. Before I step away from the computer or quit for the day I will highlight a couple lines in green and know that is where I left off.

Turquoise --Outline headers. For long stories I like to put the outline headers/bullets in the story so I can easily add or move story information around. It is great for maintaining the chronological order of the story. I have caught myself a couple times writing dialogue recalling a previous event BEFORE the event is shown in the story.

Font properties

Now you have a document that looks like a rainbow exploded on it. How do you separate the story from the scaffolding? You hide the scaffolding! First, we need to make hidden text visible.

1. On the top menu click on: Tools -> Options -> View. Under "Formatting Marks" put a check in the box for "Hidden Text"

2. To make something hidden, select a section of text and then right-mouse click.

3. One of the menu options is Font. In the "Effects" section put a check in the "Hidden" box. (You can also do this from the Format -> Font menu.) You should see a dotted line under your text.

4. To make the text disappear, go back into the Tools -> Options menu and uncheck "Hidden Text". If you hide all your notes then, instantly, all that is left is the story.

Whether hidden text viewing is on or off has significant impacts on your document. You can hide entire pages of notes and when you turn viewing on/off the page count changes.

NOTE: Turn off hidden text viewing BEFORE you do a word count. When it is visible the hidden text gets counted. Hidden text also does not get printed when viewing is turned off. When you cannot see the text, neither does Word.


Reading text on a computer screen is still a miserable task. For significant revisions and final proofreading I print out my document and put my red pen and highlighter to work. The re-editing I do when I first sit down -- to revise what I wrote last session and to get back in the groove -- I do onscreen. Here are a couple tips to make this easier.

The first is to make sure the text is in a proportional font like Courier. The Courier font at 12 pitch is what most editors and publishers require on manuscripts, so you really should make it your default font.

The second tip is to use the Zoom box (next to the Help menu button). I set mine to 115% or higher. As always, it helps to read your writing out loud.

MS Word has hundreds of features suited for all types of writing. These are some generic features I hope you find useful in any writing you do.

**Michael L. Cope has worked in the IT industry for over ten years, where he frequently writes documentation and technical manuals. He has been writing fiction since he first learned how to write. When he learned how to type, his writing improved and his penmanship stopped being an excuse to keep his stories private. Most of his fiction is humorous speculative fiction. He is a voracious reader of science, technology and history which fuels his desire to primarily write science fiction. Michael lives in Southern California where the great weather is usually a hindrance to writing.

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