Word 2010 for the Novelist

How to set up Microsoft Word 2010 when all you want is to write a book

(Note: yes, there’s an Office 2013 now; maybe some of this will apply to it; no, I’m not touching it with anything, ten-foot or otherwise)

What did you say the first time you saw Microsoft Word 2010?  Was it “Where did they put everything?”  Or maybe “I can’t use this,” or just “What?”  Or maybe something less polite?

If you’re a novelist (especially if you’ve only got limited writing time, you’re doing NaNoWriMo, you’re ADD, etc.), the last thing you want is an extra distraction to wrestle with, and the stock setup of Word 2010 places it among the most distracting programs I’ve encountered.  What if you’re stuck with it, though?  What if you just want to write a book and you just wish you didn’t have all that stuff in your way?


You can fix it.  I’ll show you how.

Change is okay.  Sometimes.

My first encounter with Microsoft’s sweeping updates to Word (first with Word 2007, then Word 2010) came in the form of an emailed student paper I couldn’t open.  (I was teaching freshman comp at the time.)  “Docx format?” I exclaimed, watching my copy of OpenOffice choke on it.  “What’s this garbage?  Why would Microsoft invent some new format when everybody can work with .doc files?”  I asked my students not to use the format, but when a student asked me to show her how on her student copy of Word 2007, the program looked so alien I couldn’t even figure out how to save files in the first place.

More recently, after six months on the job as a technical editor1, my workplace switched from Word 2003 to Word 2010.  I was horrified.  Word 2010’s interface was so busy!  The ribbon was a stupid idea!  It crowded the actual document half to death, and couldn’t be stuck to the side instead of the top, and its organization made little sense.  Word 2010 even tried to stop me from using macros.  I hated it for the incomprehensible, meddling, muddled program it was.

1 technical writers write it, we make sure you can read it.  Most companies just don’t bother with our sort of department, which is why, among other things, nobody figured out how to program their VCRs before VCRs became obsolete.

So you can imagine my surprise when, after I was forced to figure it out and use it professionally for forty-plus hours a week — going on eighteen months now —

I discovered that there’s a very useful, very powerful program hiding inside Word 2010.

Useful enough, in fact, that I abandoned OpenOffice (after 7 years of using it at home for writing novels) and ponied up for a copy to use at home.

You just have to know how to scrub off all the crap, and where they hid the good stuff.

Will this help you?

I’m not going to bother with a thorough breakdown of Word 2010’s pros and cons here.  I’m also not going to do a comparison between Word 2010 and other writing programs.  That info (and debate) is out there already, probably.  I just want to show you how to dig a useful program out of something many people already have.

I believe the big up and downside to Word is that it can do a lot – but most people don’t need most of what it can do.  Me?  I came for the interface customization and the editing tools (both of which I much prefer over OpenOffice’s).   I shoot to write 20+ hours a week outside of work, though, and I’d happily write more if I was unemployed, and I like the efficiency bonus of using the same software at work and at home.  I care a lot about efficiency.  Your needs might be different.

If you don’t have Word 2010 already, and you’re a) short on money2, b) looking for “novel-writing software” to make you a better writer3, or c) don’t care much about optimizing your writing workflow4, you’re excused early.  However, if the following apply to you, keep reading and I’ll make sure you take home some nice treats:

  •  You have Word 2010 already5 OR you could lay hands on Word 2010 for a sum that wouldn’t bother you, if you thought it was worthwhile
  • You write a lot (especially if what you write is heavy on text rather than format, e.g., novels, screenplays, etc.)
  • You use Word 2010 for writing but you find it distracting, clumsy, irritating, etc., OR you don’t use it because you opened it one time and that was too scary, OR you use it, but you’re getting tempted to shell out for a writing program that is specifically for writing novels because you want more features
  • OR, you don’t write a lot, but you still wish Word was a little less irksome.

If that’s you, read on, and we’ll get your copy of Word whipped into shape.  You might be surprised at what you wind up with.  It’s a fine tool for writing a novel and with a little work to configure it, I think it can be great — certainly far better than I feel it gets credit for.

2 in which case, go for OpenOffice.  It’s free.  Or, heck, Notepad.
3 maybe it’s out there, but if you’re looking to be a better writer, software isn’t really the best place to start.  Tools are just tools.
4 really?  Why?
5 I have the Pro version, so that’s what’s in the screenshots; if you have Home, or something else, or some flavor of Word 2007, you may see a few differences, but probably nothing major for our purposes.

What follows is broken into two parts.  The first part (this one) is “for everybody,” or what I’d call the bare minimum — getting Word’s purportedly helpful pseudopods out of your way and making sure you’re using the useful basic features.  It takes a little work, but not too much.  We’ll pare down the interface so it’s not so bloated, then take care of Word’s annoying automatic behaviors, and finish up by talking about the best ways to save your work.

The second part will detail some steps and tools that are much more specific to the way I write and edit novels — these may or may not fit into your personal methods of working, but they’re worth checking out.  Even if you are a veteran Word user, I genuinely think you will find something new in there that will save you some time.

Part 1: the basic scrub

Clean up the interface

When you’re writing a novel, the majority of your time is spent typing words.  Thousands of words.  Mostly words that are the same size, font, indenture, and spacing.  You don’t need to reach for the toolbars too often.  Ever get the feeling you’re not what Word 2010 has in mind?


Distractionland!  Let’s start by pruning the interface.  Hard.  It won’t grow back.

 1. Hide the ruler.Word_Ruler

Click the button just above the scroll bar and it’ll disappear.  You almost never need it anyway, and that’s an extra line of your manuscript to look at, right there.

 2. Hide the ribbon.Word_RibbonHide

Click the up-arrow under the Close “X” and it’ll disappear, too.

Doesn’t that look better already?  Look at all that extra space for your writing!  Don’t worry about the commands you need that you can’t see now — we’ll put the ones you actually need in a better spot in just a second.

3. Hide the excess tabs full of commands you’ll never, ever need.

First, click File, Options, Customize Ribbon.  This gets you here: Word_Options1

The list of tabs on the right controls the contents of the various ribbons.  If you like the ribbons and want to keep using them, this is where you Word_Options2can customize the contents of each one (in particular, you can add things to the Home ribbon so that you don’t need to hunt through the other ribbons all the time).  You can Google up the way to do that easily enough, though.  Since I’m assuming you just want to write your novel, go ahead and uncheck everything but these five, which cover pretty much everything you are likely to ever need, whatever you happen to work on later:


If you think you might want to keep using the ribbons from time to time (since we don’t write novels all the time), but you wish they didn’t have so much stuff in them, you can also expand each tab in this list, click on the things you don’t want, and use the << Remove button to get rid of them:


Click OK, and now your top bar will look like this:



Better, right?

Okay!  Now that we’ve swept away all the junk, we’ll put in the few things that we actually need.

4. Populate the Quick Access Toolbar.

The ribbon is designed to put all of Word’s tools at your fingertips for easy access at any time, but since you only need a handful of them (and most of them are easier to use with keyboard shortcuts anyway), the rest are in your way all the time.  That’s why we hid the ribbon.  With the Quick Access Toolbar, we can set out the tools we actually need without sacrificing any screen space for the document.

Click File, Options, Quick Access Toolbar.  This gets you here: Word_QAToptions1

From here, you can add a button for (almost) any tool or command in Word.  Just find what you want in the list, click on it, and click Add >>, like so: Word_QAToptions2

Note that not everything is under “Popular Commands.”  You might have to hunt through other categories for some tools — for instance, the button for Italic font is under the Home Tab list: Word_QAToptions3

You start off with Save, Undo, and Redo.   As a minimum, I’d suggest you add Left-Align, Center-Align, and Italic font, but depending on what shortcuts you do and don’t use (I’m not sure why I still like to click the Italic button once in a while instead of using ctrl+I, for instance), you may need more or fewer buttons.

Click OK.  If you took my suggestions, here’s what you get:




What more do you need, right?

Again, that’s up to you.  Anything you find yourself hunting through menus or ribbons for, put in your Quick Access Toolbar.  Anything you never click in your Quick Access Toolbar, pull out.  I mentioned that I made the switch to Word 2010 for novel-writing partly for the editing tools, so my Quick Access Toolbar wound up looking like this…


If you’re really worried about why, I’ll get into it in Part 2.


You can save all these customizations we’ve done so far by using the Import/Export button on the Customize Ribbon options screen to export a customization file.  Then, if Word ever forgets your customizations (which can happen), you can just import them again.  You can also reset all your changes with the Reset button on the same options screen if you back yourself into a corner and want to start over.  Note that this does NOT back up your macros or AutoCorrect customizations, which Word 2010 can also lose once in a while.  If you do use macros or a customized AutoCorrect list (both of which will come up in Part 2), I’d suggest making a backup copy of your Normal.dotm template, which is where those things are stored.  It’s a little buried, but you should be able to search it up.

5. Clean up the status bar.

To finish the interface cleanup, we now turn to the status bar at the bottom.  As with the ribbon, it can tell you all kinds of things that you don’t care about, but did you know you have complete control over what it displays?  Right-click on the bar…



I’d suggest that you check and uncheck your options to match this picture (that is, only check Page Number, Word Count, Spelling and Grammar Check, Track Changes, Caps Lock, Overtype, View Shortcuts, Zoom, and Zoom Slider).









Again, though, you can add or remove whatever you want according to your needs.  Here’s what you’ll get:Word_StatusBar


Off to a good start, right?  This looks a lot better already! Word_Clean

Unfortunately, the interface isn’t the only thing that can get in your way.  Word also tries to do a lot of things for you, which you’ve probably noticed, so…

Get Word to stop trying to help

My second big gripe with Word 2010, when I got started with it, was how accursedly helpful it tried to be.  Word really, really wants to do things for you.  From little things, like capitalizing words, fixing typos, or even turning off caps lock (the caps light will turn off on your keyboard and everything — try it sometime), to more intrusive behaviors like automatic list formatting and inventing styles, it can feel like Word is second-guessing your every move and screwing stuff up whether you like it or not.

If you’ve never noticed this, I guess I’m a little surprised you read this far (so thanks!), but you can skip this part if you want.  If you are absolutely happy with the ways Word automatically fixes things for you without asking, you can skip this part too.  Otherwise, your reaction to Word’s auto-crap (this is the technical term) probably ranges from mild irritation (most people, probably) to frequent verbal abuse (me, for one).  If you’re anywhere in that range, it means Word is distracting you.  Unacceptable.

As with the interface, though, you can customize all of that behavior if you know all of the places you need to look.  I’ll go through all of it here and offer you my suggestions, but feel free to pick and choose.  Some of these features really can be helpful depending on what you need, or you might find that it’s more distracting to have them turned off because you’re used to them.

Let’s get started.

1. Turn off the Mini Toolbar.Word_MiniBar

You might not even realize what this is or that it’s something you can turn off.  It’s this thing, which fades in when you select things:

The Mini Toolbar drives me nuts because it feels like it’s always in my way.  Let’s get started by going to File, Options.  This gets you here, where you can uncheck that first box on the General tab:


Bam!  It’s gone for good.  Next:

2. Set your proofing options.

Click the Proofing tab:


You can see my settings in this picture, but I’ll explain my reasoning for each of them so you can pick and choose, since this is a big personal preference area.  One very important caveat is that I don’t run spellcheck because my novels have lots of made-up words and ungrammatical dialog.  I do my final proofing by reading out loud, which I heartily recommend, but I realize it’s not for everyone.  Anyway:

  • From the checkboxes under “When correcting spelling in Microsoft Office programs,” the only one I care about unchecking is “Flag repeated words,” because it’s not a mistake I make very often, and I prefer not having Word call out legitimate repeats like “had had.”
  • From the checkboxes under “When correcting spelling and grammar in Word,” I uncheck everything except “Check spelling as you type.”  I like having Word give me a red underline when I misspell something, but I find it really distracting when Word underlines stuff that’s fine or not worth changing (because when I’m drafting, I don’t find it worthwhile to go back and fix everything, since there’s a good chance I’ll re-write or throw out any given line later anyway).  Specifically:
  • I uncheck “Use contextual spelling” because it basically just scolds you for trying to use the word “it’s,” correctly or otherwise.
  • I uncheck “Mark grammar errors as you type” because Word’s grammar checker is useless (seriously, don’t believe anything it says), and I find it very distracting to have green underlines everywhere.
  • I uncheck “Check grammar with spelling,” but since this only applies if you run the spellcheck, I don’t actually need to uncheck it.  You probably run the spellcheck, so see the next point.
  • I set “Writing Style” to “Grammar Only,” because the other option is “Grammar & Style,” which is an even bigger joke than the grammar checker — at least, with the stock options.  (Note that this only matters if you use the “Check grammar with spelling” option.)  The Settings… button will let you customize what the Grammar / Grammar & Style checker looks for, and there are some options in there that could be very useful to a novelist (if taken with a grain of salt), including checks for Clichés, passive voice use, etc.  I haven’t experimented with these much yet, but I plan to next time I’m editing a manuscript; I did a few trials to see if I could get rid of the bothersome options (the ones that are usually and obviously wrong) and leave some useful ones, but I’m not sure the former are actually optional.  Let’s call this an exercise for the reader.
  • Finally, I uncheck “Hide spelling errors in this document.”   This is a useful thing to toggle sometimes, though.

3. Fix your AutoCorrect options.

AutoCorrect is the source of most of the really irritating automatic behavior, and it’s sneaky in that some things need to be turned off in multiple places.

Click AutoCorrect Options… on the Options Proofing tab to get here: Word_AutoCorrect1

Most of the stuff on the AutoCorrect tab under the AutoCorrect options is okay, actually.  You probably don’t want “Automatically use suggestions from the spelling checker” to be checked; also, you might want to check the Replacement list to see if it has an entry for replacing three periods with an ellipsis, and delete that (I’ll discuss why you may not want it when I talk about dashes below).   Otherwise, the big culprits here are the AutoFormat and AutoFormat As You Type tabs.

Starting with AutoFormat:

Word_AutoCorrect4These are my settings.  You can see that I uncheck pretty much everything except for the Smart Quotes checkbox (which is pure personal preference).  Much of the rest of it, though, is actually pretty important to turn off if you’re a novelist.  Here’s why: unless you don’t care about getting published, you’re going to have to share your manuscript files eventually.  That means that compatibility is pretty important — you really don’t want your manuscript to look crazy if an agent or editor opens it with some other program.  Since odd characters (including dashes and ellipses!) sometimes fail to translate correctly, and styles are a cross-platform crapshoot, you don’t want Word applying them automatically.  If your text is all nice and simple, it’s much easier to be in control of how it will look to everybody else.  If you want to learn more about how to format a manuscript properly, Anne Mini’s blog is a good place to start.

Now, surprise!  Unchecking everything here won’t even slow Word down.  You need to go to the AutoFormat As You Type tab and do it all again:

Word_AutoCorrect2There are a few differences between these tabs (and the behavior they control), but for practical purposes you won’t see any difference unless you uncheck the boxes on both of them.  The only special note for this tab is that you should avoid the “Automatically as you type” options like a weasel with the plague.

Before you go, visit the Actions tab and uncheck “Enable additional actions in the right-click menu.”


Click OK.  NOW who’s the boss, Word?

4. Check over a few miscellaneous settings.

We’ve already taken care of most of the annoying automatic behavior, but for reference, the rest of it is mainly hiding under the advanced options:


You can see my settings here.  If you have any gripes with how Word selects things, you can tailor how text selection works under the “Editing options” portion of this list.  I do a lot of partial-word selection (e.g., to italicize the name of a ship when it’s possessive), so I have to turn off all the “automatic” and “smart” options lest I go mad.  Other things of note here are the option to use overtype mode (if you like that for some reason) as well as “Enable click and type,” which you should make sure is off.

Important: before you leave this tab, scroll down to the Save area and check the box for “Prompt before saving Normal template.”


If you don’t have this checked, Word can (and sometimes will) update or overwrite your Normal template without asking.  Since the Normal template stores most of your customizations, you don’t want that to happen.  After you check it, if Word ever asks you if changes to the Normal template should be saved (usually when you’re closing down everything for the day), just click NO — unless you know you did make changes that are saved in the Normal template, like recording macros or setting keybinds.  Otherwise Word might end up messing up your Normal template, which could in turn mess up all your documents.  If this happens, by the way, just find your Normal template and rename it (if you need to hold on to anything that’s saved in it) or delete it (if you don’t) and Word will make a fresh, clean one all by itself.

Macros: If you want to use macros (or think you might, later), by the way, Word 2010 doesn’t really like that.  You can enable macros by accessing the (rather deeply buried) menu under File, Options, Trust Center, Trust Center Settings…, Macro Settings, “Enable all macros”. Word_TrustCenterMacros

While it’s true that there are viruses that can hitchhike on Word macros, this is mainly a concern if you deal with lots of documents from other people (if you’re an agent, editor, or HR person, for example), and not so much if you are writing your own documents and sending them off.  As long as you’re not one of the ones putting viruses in your macros, of course.

When you’re all set, click OK.  Great!  You’re basically set at this point.  Word 2010 is now a nice, slick word processor that shouldn’t be doing less OR more than you want it to — and now you know where to look if you need to change anything else.  However, since we novelists are also concerned with making sure we don’t lose our work, let’s talk about file formats real quick.

Use the right save settings

I mentioned at the beginning of this that .docx format was the start of my rocky relationship with the new Word.  It is true that .doc format is going to be readable to more people out there than .docx is.  Here’s the thing, though: .doc is not a very good file format.  Every .doc file is doomed to eventual corruption, and if a .doc file is corrupted even slightly, you stand to lose everything.  It’s also not a very efficient file format, so .doc files can get pretty large, which is annoying when you want to email them.

The .docx format can be a compatibility headache (and this isn’t so much a problem any more, although it was when it came out) if you’re sharing files, but on other fronts, it’s a huge improvement over .doc.  There are technical reasons for this that I won’t get into, but it’s an improvement in two big ways that are very important to writers: .docx files take up less memory (because they’re already compressed — so it’s not much use to zip them, by the way), and .docx files are very robust (that is, they don’t get corrupted easily, and if they do get corrupted, they are much easier to recover).

Long story short, make sure you use .docx format when you save your work and back it up.  Word might complain that there will be compatibility issues, but for our purposes, those are nothing to worry about.  When you need to send off your work, you can always make .doc copies (or whatever other format they want).

You can set this as your default by going to File, Options, Save, and configuring your settings to match this:


The AutoRecover option is a good one, too, just to cover your bases.  I set my interval to 15 minutes because the little delay while Word saves the AutoRecover info is a good reminder to step away from the computer and stretch for a sec.


If your major gripes with Word 2010 have been dealt with by this point, or if you’ve gotten as in-depth with computer stuff as you really want to for a while, feel free to call it a day.  If you want to dig a little deeper, if everything we’ve hit so far is old news to you, or if you’re looking for new ways to save a little more time, I’ve got a trick or two for you in the next part.

Part 2 is coming … sometime (I was going to write it and then post this, but that was a long time ago, so I figured I’d just dust this part off and plop it down where you could look at it).  I have a lot of stuff on my plate that is much more important, but if you’re just going to die if you don’t find out what happens, leave a comment to grump at me and maybe it’ll hurry me along.  <3

Questions, comments, corrections?  Let me know in the comments!

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