Whether we put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard, writing is an essential skill we must all learn to develop. Here are 5 simple ways you can use Microsoft Word to become a better writer and editor.
1. BUILD YOUR VOCABULARY
Let’s start with an easy one. Synonyms. We all know that right-clicking any word will show you a list of synonyms. But did you know Microsoft Word has a built-in thesaurus?
Right click on any word, hover over Synonyms, and then click Thesaurus. Alternatively, just click a word and press Shift + F7. The thesaurus instantly slides on to your screen. You get a long list of synonyms for almost every item you saw on the right-click menu.
While you’re perusing the thesaurus, download a free dictionary from Word’s online catalogue. I recommend getting the Merriam-Webster dictionary. It’ll give you a simple definition in the thesaurus pane. You can click See more… to open up the Merriam-Webster website and get an in-depth explanation. You can also make the dictionary read any word aloud, in case you’re not sure of the pronunciation.
Not only is this built-in feature a great way for you to spruce up your writing, it’s also a fantastic way to build your vocabulary.
2. ENABLE READABILITY STATISTICS
Few people are aware of this hidden gem. Microsoft Word uses the Flesh Reading Ease and Flesch-Kincaid Grade tests to tell you how easy to read your document is. You can read more about the two tests here.
The Flesch Reading Ease test uses sentence, word, and syllable counts to calculate a score out of 100. The higher the score, the easier your document is to read. According to Microsoft, most documents score in the 60 – 70 range. The Flesh-Kincaid Grade Level test judges the complexity of your writing. It tells you what school grade level a text is written for. According to Microsoft, most documents score in the 7.0 – 8.0 range.
Pretty useful, right? Unfortunately, in Word 2013 and later versions, the feature has been disabled by default. You can enable it again by following the steps below.
- Click File, then Options.
- On the left side, click Proofing.
- Under the When correcting spelling grammar in Word heading, make sure the Enable readability statistics box is checked.
- Click OK
Whenever you check your spelling and grammar using Word’s built in Spell-Check option (which you should do regularly), it’ll show you your readability statistics at the bottom.
For reference, the scores I got for this blog post are shown below.
3. READING OUT LOUD
This is by far the most important and helpful tip of them all. To become a better writer (and editor!), you need to read things aloud. When you read in your mind, you tend to skim. Your brain ignores typos, because it’s reading what it expects to read. You don’t notice awkward sentences because your tongue isn’t tripping over the words. You have no sense of rhythm or structure, because you never need to pause for breath.
Reading out loud corrects these problems. As a writer, when you read things out loud, your brain subconsciously starts asking questions. Does this flow well? How easy is it to understand? Do I need to emphasise this word? Does this word even need to be here? Is there a better way to phrase this? You will instantly notice things like awkward phrasing, misspelled words, or unnecessarily complex sentences.
Better yet, get a friend to read your work to you. You’re biased. You’re too attached to your work. You’ve spent hours on your writing, so you know exactly how it should be read. You know where to pause, what tone to use, and which words to emphasise.
Your friend probably won’t. And that’s a good thing.
When they read it out loud, you’ll get a fresh perspective on how your writing sounds to other people. Since you’re hearing it in someone else’s voice, you’ll also be less emotionally attached to it and it will be easier for you to critique.
Of course, if you’re in a public setting, it can be awkward to read out loud or get someone to read to you. That’s where Microsoft Word – and a decent pair of headphones – come in. Word has a built-in text-to-speech feature which will read aloud any highlighted piece of text. Like the Readability Statistics, this feature is hidden behind a bevy of menus. I recommend adding this tool to your Quick Access Toolbar because you’ll be using it a lot.
Here’s how to do it:
- Click on the Quick Access Toolbar’s drop down menu then select More Commands...
- Under the Choose commands from drop down menu, click Commands Not in the Ribbon
- Scroll down until you find Speak and then click on it
- Click Add >>
- Click OK
Now you can highlight any piece of text and have it read out loud. Although the default voice is robotic, the fact that someone else is reading your work out loud is still enough of a perspective shift for you to immediately catch mistakes in your writing.
The disembodied voice does fairly well, but its monotonous tone means it won’t emphasise any words or have any inflection whatsoever. Also, it has minor pronunciation problems. For example, copy and paste the following sentence in Microsoft Word and have it read out loud.
When I read “read”, the past tense of “read”, I know it rhymes with “lead” and “led”, not “lead” and “read”.
This text-to-speech method isn’t fool-proof, but it’s an unbelievably useful tool to improve your writing.
4. DITCH THE DISTRACTIONS
Word’s default UI can be noisy. When you’re writing, you need a distraction-free environment. But you don’t want all your editing tools to disappear either. Auto-hiding the ribbon creates a wonderfully empty interface but it gets rid of everything. Every time you want to do anything, you have to click at the top, wait for the ribbon to show up, then select what you need. It’s too long.
The best thing to do is to supercharge your Quick Access Toolbar. Of course, if you jam-pack it with everything, you’re defeating the purpose of a distraction-free workplace. Add only the things you need. I’m an editor, so I’ve got proofreading tools on mine.
This includes the default add-ons (Save, Undo, Redo) and add-ons like:
- Screen clipping
- Text-to-speech (obviously)
- Spell Check
- Save As
- Track changes
- Show comments
You can spend a good hour or so combing through all the Quick Access Toolbar add-ons and figuring out which ones you need. To add stuff to your Quick Access Toolbar, just follow the same steps as you did when you added the text-to-speech add-on. You can rearrange the add-ons in the order you want.
When you’re happy with everything, press Control + F1 on your keyboard and watch the top ribbon partially disappear. You get a distraction-free environment and all your important tools are but a click away.
5. EASE YOUR LATE-NIGHT WRITING WOES
Pulling an all-nighter to start finish that essay due tomorrow is an experience every student will experience once multiple times a year month. We all know how horrible it is to read text on a bright white screen in a dimly lit room. It’s not good for the eyes. It causes unnecessary strain. It hurts your brain. And worst of all, the blue light your monitor gives off will wreak havoc with your sleep cycle. So what do you do?
I’d recommend downloading f.lux. It’s a wonderful (and free) app which adjusts your screen’s temperature based on the time of day. At sunset, it gives your screen a warmer glow, which is much easier on the eyes. If you can’t get the app or just don’t want to, worry not.
An easy alternative is available right in Microsoft Word. It’s not exactly the same feature, per se, but it’s a decent solution. You simply change the page colour to a light orange.
- Click the Design tab in your ribbon
- Click Page Color on the far right side
- Pick a light colour*
*I personally prefer the lightest orange, but I’ve heard that light green is good as well
When you’re finished writing/editing your work, or the sun has come back up again, simply change the page colour back to white. Remember to do this before you submit your essay!
Did you find any of these tips useful? What tricks do you use to improve your writing? Let me know in the comments below!