Basics of writingFormattingWriting software

Setting intelligent MS word defaults for writers

From Rick:

MS Word comes set with some really stupid defaults, at least for writers. While thy may seem good for the average person and for business, many of these defaults are counterproductive for writers, especially if you’re planning on self-publishing.

When you open a new Word document, Word uses a file called, Normal.dotm, Normal.dotx as a template for your document. I’m not going to go into the differences. You can use Google to look them up if you are so inclined.

The changes I’m going to give you will set your Normal Template to more reasonable settings as well as change other defaults in Word, that are not part of the template settings, to better ones.

One piece of advice here: If you want to keep your OR Normal.dotm template as it was for other uses besides your writing, you can save the altered template under a new name by following the instructions in the link below. Or you can save these changes in the Normal template and use the link’s instructions to create other templates for other uses.


I’m using Word 2010, so all my references are to that version. The setting locations may be a little different for earlier versions, but they should be the same or close for later versions.

Even if you keep these changes in the Normal template, you can change the settings for individual documents without affecting other new ones based on the template, and you can always change things back in the Normal Template using the processes described below.

One of Word’s big annoyances for me is that if a change gets made that affects the Normal Template (accidentally on your part or by some other means you’re not aware of), Word by default will automatically save those changes without telling you. Have you ever created a new document only to discover that the font is different from what you used before?

Therefore, first we’re going to turn on the notification that Word is about to save changes to a template and give you the option to say yes or no to that.

Go to FILE and OPTIONS. Click ADVANCED and scroll down to the “Save” heading. Put a check mark at “Prompt before saving Normal template.”

With this checked, anytime a change is made that affects the Normal template, you’ll get an option box when you close Word. Say “yes” if you know you’ve made changes that you want to save. Click “no” otherwise.

Now let’s make the changes to the template.

Close Word and open it to a new blank document. You’ll be making changes to this blank document only for these next steps.

Word’s default font is Calibri (or Arial in older versions of Word), and those are generally poor fonts for writers to use because errors don’t show up as readily (the letter ell and number one look the same, for example). Better to use Times New Roman or Courier New, which are standard choices when you sent a document anywhere. (You can always change these later).

Before we do this, I will assume that your command ribbon is visible at the top of the page (below the command line that has the FILE, HOME, etc. If the ribbon is not visible, go to VIEW and you will see it appear. To fix it in place, click the tiny pin in the lower right corner of the ribbon. After you do that, you’ll see an up-pointing arrow, which, if clicked, will make the ribbon disappear again (if you feel it gets in your way).

In the Font area on the ribbon at the top, click the tiny arrow in the lower right corner. Pick your font as Times New Roman (or your preferred font), then select 12 for the size (or whatever size you prefer for your main text), and be sure “regular” is the choice for font style. While you’re there, be sure the font color is “automatic” and that nothing else is checked.

In the lower left of that window, click “Set as default” then select the button next to “All documents based on the Normal template” and click OK. Click OK again.

Go to the Paragraph area in the ribbon. Click that little arrow there. Select the Indents and Spacing tab if it’s not already there and make any changes needed to give the following settings (trust me on this; I’ll explain in a moment).

Alignment: left

Outline level: Body text

Indent: Left=0, Right=0, Special=(none)

Spacing: Before=0 pt, After= 0 pt

Line spacing: single

Click “set as default” and “all documents…” then OK and OK.

You may object that you want double spacing and first line indent. While you may use those for MANUSCRIPTS, do you want it for ALL your documents? If you do, then make the settings you prefer. However, be SURE that the spacing before and after is always set to 0! You can always change settings for individual documents. And you can also create custom templates for other purposes.

We’re ready to save our changes to the template. Close that document (without saving). You’ll now get that prompt asking you about saving changes to the global template. Say “yes.”

If you’ve done everything right and all has gone well, the next time you open Word, all of these settings should be in place.

But we’re not done. While we’ve set the template defaults, we haven’t fixed the other stupid defaults that Word uses. These are not part of the template, however, but are just settings in Word.

Go to FILE and OPTIONS and PROOFING. Click “Autocorrect options”

In the various tabs, do as follows:

AUTOCORRECT: uncheck everything

MATH AUTOCORRECT: uncheck everything

AUTOFORMAT AS YOU TYPE: uncheck everything EXCEPT “straight quotes with smart quotes.” However, if you prefer straight quotes as your default, then uncheck this box as well. You can always change to smart quotes later if you want.) Just keep in mind that Word can mess up some smart quotes. As long as you remember to fix those in editing, you’ll be fine.

AUTOFORMAT: as above uncheck everything except “straight quotes…” unless you don’t want smart quotes.

ACTIONS: uncheck “enable additional…”

If you want to know why I had you turn off the autocorrect features is that too often these will change things that should not be changed. For example, if you type 1st or 2nd or 3rd, you’ll see the number in normal font and the letters raised and tiny. In reality these are special characters, and may cause problems in e-books or manuscripts. In any case, you should not have them appear as defaults.

Also, with some of autocorrect features, you’ll get things like a copyright symbol when you type (c) in what’s supposed to be an outline. I’ve also seen emojis (emoticons) pop up unexpectedly. On tops of these, Word may make unwanted spelling changes to some made-up names in your novel in the same way that your cell phone spell checker can change words in your text messages. The changes I had you make are really about you maintaining control of your words instead of letting someone else make decisions about spelling corrections. Let Word’s spell checker will flag possible errors and give you the choice of whether they need to be fixed.


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