Self-edit like a pro: Get to know your tools

In this series of blog posts, I look at how you can approach editing your own work in a similar way to how professional editors approach their clients’ work.

Whether you write in Word, Pages, Scrivener, or another piece of software, chances are there is at least one feature of it that you’ve never discovered that will make your life a little easier. Maybe a lot easier. Most of us aren’t taught how to properly exploit the capabilities of everyday software like Word, but if you’re a writer, that’s your tool, so you need to train yourself to use it without causing death or injury to yourself and those around you (a little easier said than done, sometimes, if only because of Word-induced rage).

Most of the professional editors I know are always eager to learn ways of using our software to edit more efficiently – I recently gave a talk about this very subject at a conference for fiction editors. That’s because the quicker we can edit, the more work we can take on, therefore increasing our earning potential. But getting to know your tools and using them more effectively has other benefits besides speed. The more time you spend puzzling over how to do something, or going through several laborious steps to make a change, the less focused you can be on the actual text.

I’m not really going to give out technical tips here – I don’t know which software you’re working with or which version of Word you have, if you have that (I have Word for Office 365, which means I get all the latest features, whether I want them or not. I’m looking at you, “Editor” function). I don’t know what you already know, or what particular things would help you to speed up and smooth out your self-editing process.

But I do want to encourage you to find that out for yourself. Luckily we live in the age of the internet, which means there are tons of resources available at your fingertips. The easiest one to find is Microsoft Word’s own Help – considering how frustrating Word can sometimes be, the Help is actually quite comprehensive and straightforward. If you can’t find what you’re looking for there, though, there are many great blogs out there that talk about what Word can do, and a good place to start is WordRibbon.Tips.Net. You can also check out YouTube for tutorials if you’re a video kind of person.

But I think one of the best ways to explore your software is to open up a fresh document and click on everything you see. Explore all the menus and drop-downs and see what they all do, and make a note of anything you think you might be able to use. (Do pay attention, though, if you’re doing anything that looks like it might change a setting – you want to be able to go back and unchange it if you need to!)

Although the purpose of this post isn’t, as I mentioned, to give out technical tips, here are a few things that might be worth exploring in Microsoft Word – things that I and many professional editors use every day:

  • Keyboard shortcuts – they’re usually quicker and much easier on the wrists than clicking. Cut, copy and paste are the most useful and probably the best known, and where would we be without Ctrl+Z (Undo), but using the keyboard rather than the mouse to navigate around and select text can be really helpful too.
  • Headings – format your headings using Word Styles to make your manuscript easier to navigate.
  • Track Changes – learn how to use this if you don’t already, so you can see what you’ve changed and undo it if you change your mind, and use the comments function to leave notes for yourself. If you do end up getting your work edited for publication, the editor will use Track Changes, so you might as well familiarise yourself with it from the beginning 😊.
  • Customising your Autocorrect – Autocorrect has a list of words it corrects automatically, but you can add to that, so if you know there’s something you mis-type a lot, add it to the list (in File>Options>Proofing>Autocorrect Options. I wish I’d known this before I did a degree in “Thetare” Studies and “Musci”.). You can also use Autocorrect to assign a kind of shortcut to a word or phrase, because all it does is recognise strings of characters and then change them into other strings of characters. So if you have a character called DCI Blitherington-Smythe, you could pair that with something like “DCBLI” – when you type that, Word will change it to the full name. (Just make sure your shortcut code is not something you’d type in another word. You don’t want a Hugh Jackilometresan situation)

That’s obviously just scratching the surface of Word’s useful features, and other programs have their own things to discover. Go forth and explore!

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