Helpful Word Hacks for Writers

Here are some tips I use all the time while writing. Maybe you’ll find one that helps you.

Note that my instructions will be particular to Word for Windows 2016. If you use a different version of Word, some translation may be required.

Pick up where you left off

When you open a doc, Word usually asks you if you want to pick up where you left off. It’s a great feature when editing a long document. If you click on the option, your cursor jumps to where you made the last edit. But sometimes Word doesn’t offer it as an option. Why not?  ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

BUT, there’s an easy alternative. Just press shift-F5. It has the same effect.

FYI, the “where you left off” position is the last place you made an edit. If you’re doing a proofreading pass, that may be quite a ways back. Before exiting the doc after a work session, make a dummy edit and then unmake it (e.g. press the space bar where your cursor is, then back up over it) before saving. This will mark your spot more accurately.

Go back to where you just were

Sometimes my fingers do things I didn’t ask them to do. I’m hoping we all know that undo is an option (ctrl-z is the keyboard shortcut), but there are times when my fingers don’t do something so much as send me somewhere. Suddenly I’m at the end of the doc or two chapters away, and it’s a tedious business to find my way back to where I just was.

There’s an answer to this: alt-ctrl-z. If you know that ctrl-z is undo, remembering that alt-ctrl-z is “go back” isn’t too hard. You need to press it before moving the cursor elsewhere, obviously, so put a sticky note on your monitor to remind you. When you’re suddenly not where you just were, a quick alt-ctrl-z will take you back.

Em dash with a single keystroke

There’s a default keystroke for the em dash, which is ctrl-alt-minus (on the numeric keypad). This is a) hard to remember, b) difficult to execute, and c) not feasible on a laptop keyboard. So I’ve remapped mine. On my laptop, I can get an em dash just by pressing ctrl-m. And if you litter your docs with as many em dashes as I do, you can imagine how many keystrokes this saves me.

Go to the Insert ribbon and pick Symbol from the toolbar, then click More symbols. Pick the Special Characters tab, find the Em dash (mine is at the top), and then click the Shortcut key button. Press ctrl-m (or whatever keystroke you’ll remember and is easy to execute without lifting your hands from the keyboard). Ta da! New shortcut.

Yes, you can also type two hyphens in a row and let Word works its magic, but sometimes its magic is pretty wonky, and I find ctrl-m to be a much more elegant (and in my control) solution.

Recover that document you didn’t save

We’ve all done it. Word asks if you want to exit without saving and you click yes. Instantly, you regret your life choices. But all is not lost!

If, within a reasonable period of time (which I don’t know what it is, but definitely any time that day), you change your mind, just go to Open and look at the bottom of the screen for this button

Button says "Recover Unsaved Documents" and is found at very bottom of the File, Open screen

You’re welcome.

Adding an autocorrect entry for that thing you can’t spell

I have a bad habit of giving my characters names I can’t type. For instance, I have a character named Eduardo and my fingers are dying to get a W in there somewhere. Luckily, you can get Word to fix your common mistakes for you by adding your own personal autocorrect entry.

Go to the File ribbon and pick Options, then click on the Proofing tab. Click near the top where it says AutoCorrect options and make sure you’re on the AutoCorrect tab. Type the misspelling on the left and the correct spelling on the right and click OK. Next time you misspell this word, Word will correct it as soon as press the space bar.

Screenshot of the autocorrect dialogue box in Word

Removing double spaces

Calling all you old people (like me) who learned to type on a typewriter: we’re not supposed to be hitting the space bar twice after a period anymore. And yet, old habits are hard to break. No worries! Word can handle this for us too.

When you’re close to publishing/submitting, do a find and replace to find and fix all instances of double spaces. Simply go into the Find/Replace dialog and press the spacebar twice where it says Find and once where it says Replace.

Changing straight quotes to curly quotes

If you’ve done your typing in different places, especially if you used an online editor, some of your quotes may be straight while others are curly. That could be a nightmare to fix if it weren’t actually extremely simple. Just call up the Find/Replace dialogue and type ” into both the find and replace fields. Despite the fact that you’ve entered the same straight double quote character into both fields, Word will replace straight quotes with curly ones (as long as you have the AutoFormat option turned on), automatically using either the opening or closing quote as required.

This also works for single quotes, but there’s one caveat with single quotes: elisions. Let’s start with reviewing what an elision is. It’s when we remove characters and replace them with an apostrophe, e.g. do not becomes don’t. The apostrophe represents the missing o. When using curly quotes, the apostrophe should curl like a closing quote.

Word does fine with that when the elision happens in the middle of the word, like with don’t. But it’s not smart enough to recognize the difference between an elision and something being marked off by single quotes when the elision is at the beginning of the word, the most common example of which is ’cause (for because). Word will put in an opening single quote and you need to manually replace it with a closing one. (Curiously, WordPress got this right automatically.)

If your doc is close to done, you might not want to mess with a global find and replace, so you can also search specifically for straight quotes and fix them yourself. If you type ” into the find box, Word will find both curly and straight quotes, but there’s a way to specify straight only. To search for straight double quotes, enter ^34 into the find box. For straight single quotes, enter ^39.

Fixing other formatting mistakes

You have been a bad author and have done things that make editors hate you. (Or maybe you copy/pasted from elsewhere and bad things have happened). Here are three awful choices that are easy to fix:

1. Pressing enter twice between paragraphs. Please don’t do this. How to fix it: search for ^p^p and replace with ^p

2. Using the tab key to indent the first line of a paragraph. Not quite as heinous, but definitely not best practices. How to fix it: search for ^t and leave the replace field empty

3. Pressing the space bar fix times to indent the first line of a paragraph. You will quite literally burn in hell for this. How to fix it: type five spaces into the find field and leave the replace field empty

For the correct way to get extra space between paragraphs or have the first line indented, please refer to any of the hundreds of tutorials on this subject

Changing character names, aka safe(r) find and replace

We’ve all been there. At the last minute you decide that Bill should be called Bob and do a quick find and replace only to discover that you now have one character who needs to pay the electric bob and another who’s a bobionaire.

First tip: remember that undo is a thing. One timely undo will undo the whole kit and caboodle. But what usually happens is that we don’t discover our horrible mistake until we’ve made a bunch of other edits. So here are two ways to make your find and replace safe(r).

From the Find and Replace dialogue, click the More button. Here you’ll see two useful options: ‘Match case’ and ‘Find whole words only’. With ‘match case’ selected, if you search for Bill, it won’t find bill. With ‘find whole words only’ selected, a search for bill won’t find billionaire. With both selected, if you type Bill in the Find field, you should be fairly safe. Remember to capitalize the replacement name as well.

Find and replace dialogue highlighting the options for "match case" and "whole words only"

Notice that I called this safe(r) find and replace. That’s because there’s never a 100% guarantee. Even with both of those options checked, a find and replace for Bill/Bob will still change “Bill me later” to “Bob me later.” Any character name change needs to be followed by a complete read-through, so don’t make sweeping changes at the proofing stage.

Automatic chapter numbering

If you’re a pantser like me, you may sometimes find that you have unexpected chapters, and that these chapters don’t always occur at the end of your document. If you’ve been manually numbering your chapters, inserting a new one means manually renumbering all the succeeding chapters, but if you use automatic numbering, it’ll happen automatically.

On a blank line, apply the Heading 1 format. This might not produce any visible result. Next, from the Home ribbon, click on the Multilevel list button and select Define new multilevel list. Where it says “Enter formatting for this number” type Chapter before the number 1 and click OK. The blank line should now say Chapter 1.

Now we need to update the Heading 1 style so numbering will be automatic going forward. Right click where it says Heading 1 on the ribbon and pick “Update Heading 1 to match selection.”

Whenever you want a new chapter, just make a blank line and assign the Heading 1 style to it. You can type text after the heading (the name of the chapter or the name of the character whose POV it is) or just press the space bar one time to leave it blank.

If you’re using headings this way, you can turn on the Navigation pane to your left and easily jump between chapters by clicking on them

Finding the word count of a chapter

For this to work, you need to be using the heading styles as described above. From the navigation pane, right click on a chapter and pick “Select heading and content.” On the status bar below, you’ll now see how many words were in that chapter—useful for balancing word count between chapters.

Have other questions? Ask! If you’re struggling to do something, I can almost guarantee there’s a better way, and I’m happy to work through it with you.

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