21 Hacks for Word for Writers

Many of us use the same medium to craft our documents – Microsoft Word. Few of us know how to tap into its full potential as a tool of the trade. Here are 21 essential hacks for any writer working in Word.

File –> Options –> Display

1) Show / hide white spaces between pages. When you’re editing a document or scrolling through a long document, the white spaces between pages can create a “jumpy” effect. You can hide these by going to this menu, or by double-clicking on the white space to close it up. If you see a black line between your pages, you can double click on that to open up the white space and manipulate headers and footers.

File –> Options –> Display

2) Show all formatting marks. When you’re preparing a document for publication, you need to see all the “software junk” that might cause it display, print, or convert in any way funky. You can also access this option by pressing Shift F1.

File –> Options –> Proofing

3) Custom dictionaries. Look at the file path to determine where your custom dictionary is located. Periodically, back up your dictionary to a secure location, such as your organization’s server, the cloud, or a jump drive.

4) Edit Word List. In case you accidentally add a word, you can always go here to remove it. You can also come here to paste lists, such as commonly used terms of art or client’s names. Sometimes it just feels good to see how much more expansive your vocabulary is than that of the average Silicon Valley employee.

5) Check spelling as you type. Mark grammar errors as you type. You can choose to keep these annoying red and blue squiggles on all the time; none of the time; or, under exceptions, you can turn them on and off for individual documents.

6) Check readability statistics. If you check this box, Word will use the Flesch-Kincaid reading scale to determine the number of characters, words, sentences, and paragraphs in your document. That information is then plugged into the reading scale algorithm to determine the document’s reading ease and grade level. NOTE: After you select this option, you must run a spelling and grammar check to access the readability statistics.

7) Writing Style – dropdown box. Select Grammar Only or Grammar & Style. Since the option is available, you may as well select Grammar & Style. Regardless, be sure to Check Settings.

8) Writing Style. Check Settings. Use your organization’s style guide or style sheet as well as your own personal preferences to select the settings that are right for you. Here’s how mine look (click on the picture to see a full-size image):

grammar and style settings 1grammar and style settings 2grammar and style settings 3 File –> Options –> Save

9) Save files in this format. Do you have colleagues that constantly ask you to save files in .doc instead of .docx? Here’s where you change that.

10) Auto recover. Word is set to save files for auto recovery every 10 minutes. I tend to hit Ctrl-S obsessively while I work, but I still appreciate a good recovery system. If you’re working on a long document or a document with lots of multi-media features, and you occasionally notice a lag time, it’s probably because Word is saving it for auto recovery.

11) Default file location. You don’t have to save your files where Word tells you to. Take control of your electronic filing system. Start by selecting a root folder.

File –> Options –> Customize Ribbon

12) You have complete control over the menu at the top of your screen. You can expand and collapse each of the tabs – Home, Insert, Design, etc. And within each tab, you can choose which menus and buttons work for you. This is especially  handy when Microsoft decides to play “hide and seek” in new versions or updates, or if your work requires that you regularly insert pictures, draw tables, or perform some other function that is not organically on the home ribbon.

Home –> Font

13) Set as Default. If you hate Calibri as much as I do, change it to whatever your heart desires, for good. This works for Home –> Paragraph as well.

Insert –> Header & Footer

14) You can use the arrows beneath the header and footer tools to insert a pre-formatted header or footer. I prefer to select the arrow beneath either header or footer and then select either “edit header” or “edit footer” from the bottom of the list to access the full menu of header and footer options.

Header & Footer Tools: Design

15) Different first page. Different odd and even pages. (NOTE: You can access this menu by following the instructions above or by double-clicking on an already existing header or footer.) If you have a title page, you may wish to select different first page. Different odd and even pages are useful for book or journal manuscripts that require a running head on one side and the author’s name on the other, for example.

Insert –> Header & Footer

16) Page Number. You can select a number of pre-formatted options for where to place the page number. More importantly, you can select “format page number.” This option allows you to restart numbering from a previous section, start numbering fresh, use Roman numerals, or include section numbers.

Page Layout –> Breaks

17) Section Breaks: Next Page. You can always start a new page in Word by pressing Ctrl-Enter. But when you start a new section, many of your options can be reset for that section alone. For example, you may have options that look like this:

  • Margins – widen the margins for a picture or example.
  • Orientation – reset to landscape for a chart or graph.
  • Header – no header for a title page, no header for a table of contents, different first page header for the first page of chapter one, running header for the second page and thereafter.
  • Footer – no header for title page, Roman numeral page number for table of contents, Arabic page number for first page of chapter one and each page thereafter.

Review–> Tracking –> Advanced Options

18) Customize the color for your insertions, deletions, and comments. I would recommend that you keep one consistent color for all of your changes, that you select a color unique to you, and that you select a color from the warm-neutral palette. Red is perceived as critical, while cool colors such as blue or olive are hard to see on the computer screen.

19) Uncheck the box for formatting. Rarely is it necessary for others to see when italics have been inserted or removed. This type of track changes creates a lot of confusion in a document and can safely be eliminated.

20) Keyboard shortcuts.

  • Ctrl-A – selects the entire document.
  • Ctrl-S – saves.
  • Ctrl-C – copies.
  • Ctrl-X – cuts.
  • Ctrl-V – pastes.
  • Ctrl-N – starts a new blank document.
  • Ctrl-O – opens a document.
  • Ctrl-P – prints.
  • Ctrl-F – finds a word, phrase, or character.
  • Ctrl-H – finds and replaces, a word, phrase, or character.

21) Find and replace characters. You can use this feature to replace all sorts of problematic formatting in your document without having to clear all formatting and start from scratch. Use the Replace Format or Replace Special dropdown menus and become familiar with the basic character set in Word and their keyboard equivalents:

  • Paragraph break ^p
  • Line break ^l
  • Tab ^t
  • Page break ^m
  • Section ^%

Ideally, all of your tools including Microsoft Word should be extensions of your craft, the same way that your brain and your pen are. Hopefully this article moves you a little closer to that goal. Be sure to let us know what tips, shortcuts, and hacks have worked for you. And thanks for reading.


  1. Pam Wingrove says:

    Thanks Michelle. Great tips!!

  2. Mary Henson says:

    Thanks Michelle. I work with Word everyday, but there’s always more to learn!

  3. Thank you for sharing these timely and timeless tips!


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  2. […] making baby steps. The first of those was a post from back in June of 2015, “21 Hacks for Word for Writers.” This is a collection of shortcuts I learned doing proofreading work. This blog post is another. […]

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