January 2


Five Simple Microsoft Word Skills for the Indie Author 

By John Newell

January 2, 2018

#authorskills, #editing, #formatting, #Writing, Microsoft Word

Today there are all kinds of technical, software and app options to help you plan, research and write your manuscript. But don’t forget about Microsoft Word just because it’s been around so long. It’s far from an obsolete tool for writers. It can be downright miraculous when you master these five simple Microsoft Word skills for the indie author.

Managing a 250-page manuscript is very different from managing a two-page essay. Knowing a few basic things about organizing large documents means learning a little more about word processing software. Even a few new Microsoft Word skills will make your work soooooo much easier.

Isn’t Microsoft Word Passé?

Man yawningNope. Let’s face it, Microsoft Word is the most commonly used word processing software in the world. It has all the features you could possibly need to write and organize a book. I used it to create and format my own book, Let It Out.

There are some other great applications out there, but they’re all based on the concepts present in Word in some way. It’s about which one makes sense to you. Word makes sense to me, although I’ve been told I really need to try Scrivener. That’s next on my list. 🙂 There are other apps to help with formatting too, like Vellum and Jutoh.

There are those that swear by some of these newer tools for planning, researching, writing or formatting a book-length manuscript. Me? I’m happy with my Microsoft Word skills. If you don’t consider yourself an expert with the word processing program, there’s a lot more to it than you might think. All you need to do is learn a few shortcuts and you’ll be able to focus on the most important part… telling your story.

Tips to Build Your Microsoft Word Skills

Skill conceptThe last time I attended a training course for Microsoft Word was in 1995. (Yes, I was a baby.) That one course is responsible for almost all the Microsoft Word skills I have today – despite how much the program has changed in that time. Microsoft created a lot of functions, terminology and keyboard shortcuts in the ‘90s that have become standard across many software platforms and operating systems. I’ll show you a couple in a moment. 

A note about the following section: I’m inserting images from Microsoft Word for Mac version 15.41. Your version may look different, depending on whether you are using Microsoft Windows, another operating system, or if you have an older version of the software.  

1. Learn to Manage a Large Document

At the core of all Microsoft Word skills for indie authors is the biggie: you must learn how to manage large documents. Here are a few simple tips to get you started. 

Style pane 2

Styles Pane

Style pane 1

Use different heading levels for chapters and sub-headings. This is essential for organizing a document and for navigating quickly through it. You can find and then set your desired heading levels in the “styles pane” in the Word toolbar.

You’ll find a few standards already populated, but you can get as creative and unique as you’d like, choosing your font style, size, colour, line spacing, etcetera.

Outline View

You have two ways to find your outline view: the first is up Outline view 2near the top left under the “view” dropdown menu; you will find the second in the bottom pane below an open document.

It looks like a mini bulleted list (at least in my version). I find it invaluable for condensing a document down to headings and moving entire sections around in mere seconds.

Navigation Pane

Navigation view 1Navigation view 2You find the navigation pane again under the View dropdown menu. Select ‘Sidebar’, which will open up another dropdown menu, then select ‘Navigation’.

If you use headings (like for chapters), keep the navigation pane open on your screen. It shows you the document’s structure, based on headings. Click a heading and you’ll go straight to that section. This makes it super easy to view subject sections, based on your headings. Click on one and it will take you to that section in the manuscript.

What you can’t do at the navigation pane that Scrivener, for example, allows you to do, is move those pieces around. You can use the Outline view to do that.

Table of Contents

Table of Contents 1table of contents 2Table of Contents preferences and settings are under the “References” tab, at the top of your open Word document. Choose one of the templated versions of the TOC, or create a custom table of your own.

Insert contents based on the headings you use. Just be sure you come back and update the table every time you make further changes to your manuscript to that it remains up to date.

(For PC versions only, there is a very handy button for updating a table of contents and a citations list.)

Track Changes

track changesFind ‘track changes’ under the document’s ‘Review” tab. When somebody alters something in your document, the ‘Track Changes’ function lets you see exactly what they did and where.

You can jump directly to the changes, see what was done, compare the changes with the original text, etc. You can also accept changes or reject them.

This is a very organized way to have one or more persons working on a document – you and your editor, for example, and then you and your proofreader.

2. BEST TIP: Save All the Time

I learned this one the hard way. By making several mistakes. The most common mistake people make is to lose the changes they’ve made to their document when their laptop or tablet shuts down (like when the battery runs out).

I made myself get in the habit of saving every few minutes. <Ctrl> <S> is now almost a reflexive action for me after typing a sentence.

If you think you would like to keep a record of your manuscript versions, for example you want to keep your editor’s markups and comments, as you open the document to start working on it, save it with a new filename – I find it easy to add a simple V2, or V3, representing the version number – before you start work. THEN use the <Ctrl><S> after each change. Or at least after every few minutes. 

3. Formatting

sample layoutThis means the layout of your book. Eventually, your manuscript must look exactly the way it will appear on the printed page. To make this happen, you need to know precise book dimensions, margin sizes, page numbering, headers, footers, and more. There is much more to using Word for formatting than is possible to go through in this blog. However, know that there is a lot of nuance and flexibility when you use Word for your formatting. Practice – and maybe a course – will go a long way.

I learned much of this through trial and error, but my experience with Word helped a lot. Of course, I would have had a far easier time if I’d been able to rely on self-publishing support of the kind that’s offered by Ingenium Books. But I didn’t. I have the salt and pepper hair to prove it :-0.

If you self-publish through a website like CreateSpace, as I did in 2013, you must convert the Word file to pdf, which can work for both paperback and ebook (as long as your distributor of choice has the capacity to convert that pdf to the relevant epub file). (More on other tools to format your ebooks here.)

4. Keyboard Shortcuts 

Using a mouse to perform every function can be slow, believe it or not. While your hands are in typing position, there are many commands you can execute simply by using your keyboard. Just these ones alone will be big time savers:

  • <Crtl> <S> – Save. Hold down <Ctrl>, tap <S>, and save the latest version of your document.keyboard shortcuts
  • <Ctrl> <Home> – Takes you to the first page of a document.
  • <Ctrl> <End> – Takes you to the last page.
  • <Ctrl> <Z> – Undo the last thing you did.
  • <Ctrl> <C> – Copy.
  • <Ctrl> <X> – Cut.
  • <Ctrl> <A> – Select all. That means selecting everything in the document.
  • <Ctrl> <P> – Print.

5. The Most Important Thing Is…

Practise the Microsoft Word skills you learn. Repeatedly. That’s how they will stick in your brain. If you don’t use them, they will disappear from your consciousness and you’ll be frustrated looking up the ‘Help’ function all the time.

If all this sounds like too much, just take things one step at a time. Even MS Word’s help functions can teach you a lot. Word stands alone with how much help and support it has available. You can take courses in many locations, including online where there are plenty of free tutorials.

With new Microsoft Word skills under your belt, the things that your editor and formatter do to your manuscript won’t seem like confusing magic. You’ll have greater control over your work and more time to focus on the things that really matter.


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