Why document setup in Microsoft Word matters to an editor

Microsoft Word is the default word processing software for editors of all types of publications. Even if your graphic designer insists on producing the final document in InDesign or some other desktop publishing software, Word is still the default writing tool across the industry. Therefore, editors must be able to work quickly and efficiently in Word.

Ninety per cent of my work is writing, editing, proofing and producing major documents for construction and engineering companies. For the last seven years, I have recommended to clients that documents are started with a Microsoft Word template that has been well set up.

Some reasons why a well set up Word template is important to an editor are:

  • Document structure – One of the first editing steps is to check the document structure. Applying styles to headings allows an editor to easily and quickly see the document structure by producing a table of contents or using the navigation pane in Word.
  • Navigating around the document – Clicking the appropriate heading in the navigation pane or table of contents will take you to the right place in the document. If you have a large document, this can save a lot of time scrolling looking for the right section, particularly if the document needs restructuring.
  • Dynamic references – Using the built-in formatting styles allows dynamic references to headings, figures and tables. If a new heading, figure or table is inserted, all the references can be easily and quickly updated.
  • Proofing – Setting the correct language helps content providers and subject matter experts get their spelling right – before it gets to the editor.
  • Special characteristics – Word applies special characteristics to some built-in styles that an editor may want to use. Many of these special characteristics can be manually applied to custom styles, but this usually requires more advanced knowledge of Word than simply using the in-built styles.
  • Speed – An editor can work faster and more accurately in a well-formatted document.

For the person doing the document formatting (which can also be a by-product of the editing process), a well set up Word document also assists with:

  • Applying formatting – Applying formatting styles is easy and fast when you are selecting from 15 styles, not hundreds. Shortcut keys can often be used to apply formatting with only a couple of keystrokes.
  • Consistent formatting – Applying styles consistently throughout a document reduces the chance of formatting errors.
  • Modifying formatting – When styles have been applied consistently, it is easy to modify fonts throughout a document by changing the underlying style rather than manually changing the format for every paragraph or heading.
  • Tables – Setting up table styles allows consistent formatting of tables throughout a document.
  • Reduces the chance of corruption – Correctly set up and applied styles reduce the chance of a document generating formatting errors (usually just before you are about to print on a tight deadline!). If a document does corrupt, then it is also easier and faster to fix.
  • Importing and exporting styles – Word can import styles from other documents allowing consistent formatting across multiple documents. (Word also has a terrible habit of importing styles from text copied from other documents – there are ways to mitigate this in a well set up document).

Setting up Word documents properly is fast and efficient when compared to the alternatives. Taking a little time to do this can provide a massive time saving for the editor and other people working with the document. Would you prefer your editor to be endlessly scrolling through a document looking for sections or styles, or focussing on the task of editing the content?

So what makes a well set up Microsoft Word document? On the surface, it is quite simple:

  • Clean styles palette – Microsoft Word has a bad habit of collecting all the styles from text copied and pasted into the document. With files that have been reused many times, this can result in hundreds of unused styles in a document! Delete all the unused styles.
  • Basic styles palette – Set up just the styles that you need for your document and use the built-in styles where possible.
  • Bullet points – Set up bullet point styles so that they are stable (Word is notorious for moving the bullet point indents if the styles are set up incorrectly).
  • Language – Apply the correct dictionary language to the Normal style (which, if set up correctly, will also apply to the other styles).
  • Table styles – If using tables, set up table styles to suit your document.

The above is not difficult, but setting up documents well does require some knowledge of Word. I have a Microsoft Word document with a clean styles palette, hierarchy of headings and basic formatting that I can provide free of charge to clients as a starting point for developing document templates. I am happy to give it to clients because it provides many benefits in the sometimes stressful environment of meeting a submission deadline.