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How to Stop Word Messing with Your Manuscript

It’s enough to make you want to tear your hair out. One moment you’re typing away happily and the next Word has interpreted your typing as some sort of command to launch a space probe to Pluto. Or something just as confusing.

Undoing AutoFormatting

One easy way to temporarily reverse what Word has done is to watch out for the lightning bolt sign that will appear next to the text that Word has AutoFormatted. If you click that icon you will see options to Undo the action just this time, or to stop Word doing the action altogether.

If you miss the lightning bolt icon (it disappears if you keep typing), hover your mouse pointer over the text that was changed and it might reappear (if Word is not on a tea break). If not, click Undo (or press Ctrl and z). This will undo Word’s “AutoFormat” step. If you click the down-arrow next to the Undo button you will see how often Word has been AutoFormatting behind the scenes.

How to Turn Off AutoFormat

The lightning bolt icon has an option to open the AutoCorrect Options dialog box and this is probably the easiest option to select the AutoFormat and AutoCorrect features you want to turn off.

If you can’t access that icon, open the AutoCorrect Options dialog box by going through:

Word 2003
  • Tools --- AutoCorrect Options --- AutoFormat Tab
Word 2007
  • Office Button --- Word Options --- Proofing --- AutoCorrect Options
Word 2010
  • File --- Word Options --- Proofing --- AutoCorrect Options
Once in the AutoCorrect Options dialog box, here are some of the individual AutoFormat features you might want to turn off:

To turn off curly quotes:
  • Under Replace, uncheck the box for Straight Quotes With Smart Quotes
To turn off the m-dash:
  • Under Replace, uncheck the box for Hyphens With Dash.
To turn off the horizontal line that is created if you press Enter after typing three hyphens, hashes, equal signs, or asterisks:
  • Under Replace, uncheck the box for Border Lines.
Look out for that lightning bolt icon next time you're writing and don't be afraid to click it and explore the options. Learning how to turn AutoFormat features on and off can help you to feel more in control of Word.
Elsa Neal
Is Word driving you crazy? Then Word 4 Writers is for you. Learn to tame the monster and save your time in front of the screen for writing not fighting. Elsa Neal has been strong-arming Word for 14 years and teaching others to do the same. She is based in Melbourne, Australia.

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  1. Elsa, sometimes the autoformatting is so frustrating!!! What bugs me is when I'm writing dialogue mixed with text, and Word insists on continuing to indent. Grr!

  2. I take off the auto formatting immediately, as it drives me nuts!

  3. Auto formatting is the pits! I did't know how to get rid a few other pests and followed you directions. Yeah,me!
    Thanks so much.

    Giggles and Guns

  4. Andrea,
    Have you tried clicking Undo when Word indents automatically? Otherwise, you could set up a Style to use in this case to force Word to align flush when you create a new paragraph.

    L. Diane,
    I know what you mean. Sometimes it feels better to be fully in control.

    I'm glad you were able to use these tips.

    Elsa Neal
    Blood-Red Pencil

  5. thank you thank you thank you. word drives me silly. I'm going to tag this post in my favorites right now. thank you. did I say that?

  6. Good tips. I always turn off 'smart quotes' - got started on that when using email to copy and paste for crit groups, and the smart quotes messed things up. But my publishers want them, so I end up changing them back when I send off the ms.

    What killed me was that apparently Office used the auto formatting across its formatting. I had a character named Schaeffer in one of my books, and since I kept forgetting how I spelled it (yeah, I'm bad), I set it up to auto-complete. Did it with a couple more tricky-to-type names I kept screwing up.

    Then, I was using my Access database at a conference, and someone's name was a different spelling variation of one of my Word names, and Access refused to let me override the auto-correct until I undid it globally. Pain!

  7. Thank you SO MUCH for this article. It's so frustrating in the late night hours having to go back over everything and get it to come out exactly how you want it. I deeply appreciate this.

  8. Elsa, this is really helpful information. I have different versions of Word on my laptop and my new desktop, so it can get pretty confusing as I move documents between the two. AutoFormatting can be pain in the rear.

  9. Golly. Just...get out of Word. It really is so worth the switch to a dedicated writing program. I used to think it was redundant, but once I made the change I never looked back. Ideal for me is the program Scrivener, since I'm on a Mac, and for forty-some bucks it's worth more than every penny. But cheaper still, and available for Windows, is PageFour which I used for years before Scrivener. Another great writing-specific program. Using something like that takes a lot of these formatting hassles completely out of the way so you can focus on process.

    Of course I do still have to export the thing into Word to send to my editor, since that's how she requires it; but at that point I'm worried only about formatting, not process. And I'm formatting the entire thing at once, so that for example issues like the curly quotes can be dealt with in one fell swoop by a simple search/replace.

    (Note: I don't work for the Scrivener folks or the PageFour folks; I'm just a geek who loves a good piece of software that makes the job easier!)

  10. Thanks for the great tips. I know that much of the formatting that Word does in the background is not compatible with many Online sites and not with most e-publishing programs. Clueless me did not know how to change the auto formatting, but now I do. :-)

    My daughter introduced me to the Control Z trick and I use it all the time when I make a mistake. It will "undo" in most programs.

  11. I have an easier solution to this problem: I don't use Word!

    Unfortunately, OpenOffice does the same things a lot of the time. Which is why I always turn off AutoCorrect the first time I use a word processing program. ^_^

  12. Personally I love Word autocorrect and autoformat. I use it as a way to write in shorthand without having to retranslate it later. Rather than typing out "President of the United States" every fraking time, you could just set your autocorrect so you type potus and it expands it automatically. Or, if you have a bad habit, like me, of forgetting to use "its/it's" appropriately autoformat fixes that for you as well.

    The first thing I do when I start writing is add my words to the Word dictionary so it autocorrects/autoformats to my terminology. It's really handy if you use it right.

  13. Jan,
    You're welcome. Glad it was helpful.

    Isn't it just the case that technology kicks up the most fuss when you're in a hurry or using it in public? Murphy's law.

    I'm glad it helped you.

    Using different versions can really throw you for a loop sometimes.

    Personally I wouldn't go buying even more software (which you have to learn to use anyway) just to get around a few of Word's quirks, which can be mastered with a bit of knowledge. You said it yourself: you still have to use Word to send your ms out, so why not just learn to use the software you've already paid for?

    You're right. Word inserts code behind the scenes that gets copied across and can come out in some quite strange ways. It's worth pasting into a text editor (like Notepad) first to get rid of the code.

    As you said, Open Office has a very similar set up. It is a very powerful package, however the drawback for ordinary folks is that it is designed for and by people who really know the ins and outs of the software. It allows them to do exactly what they want at a deeper coding level. Just try and insert a Table of Contents and you see how complicated it really is.

    That's exactly what they are for. I like using AutoCorrect for long character names too. And once you understand how to configure it, turn it on and off, and undo the occasional change it becomes a handy tool.

    But it is one of the features that seems to drive many people crazy and I get a lot of questions about getting rid of it. And for many people it can just appear to be that "something's messed up"; they don't know where to start looking for a solution.

    Elsa Neal
    Word 4 Writers on HearWriteNow
    Blood-Red Pencil

  14. I hate Word, and all it's unpredictable features. It's the worst crap software ever made. I either use Powerpoint (which is very nice, I think), or the brilliant markup language LaTeX, if I'm gonna write a real manuscript >:)

    Cold As Heaven

  15. Sometimes I appreciate the auto formatting. Sometimes I don't. But I'm always glad I can change things back if Word automatically formats what I didn't want formatted that way.

  16. Cold As Heaven,
    I hear you. Even when you do everything right Word still has its days where it throws its toys. I only use it because I've learnt how to use it well.

    I used to work for a guy who wrote everything in PowerPoint too. Your comment brings back some memories of converting his annual report submissions from PowerPoint to Word. :-/

    Me too. Sometimes I forget I've set it up to AutoCorrect something and it catches me in the wrong place.

    Elsa Neal
    Word 4 Writers on HearWriteNow
    Blood-Red Pencil

  17. And for independent editors... we have to know it all, because there's no telling how a writer's manuscript is formatted. I have OO.o on my computer as well as various versions of Word, and I have plenty of headaches with them all, but much of what I need to know and use is entirely dependent upon the manuscript I get from an author. So that's the other side of that coin.


  18. Dani,
    For straightforward text documents, saving as Rich Text Format (.rtf) works quite well for sharing between various word processing programs. Not if there's a lot of formatting involved, though.

    I haven't had much success installing different versions of Word, and/or OO on one machine; it seems to conflict too much. But that's what I have three computers for ;-)

    Word 4 Writers on HearWriteNow
    Blood-Red Pencil

  19. I'm with Andrea...! Grrr... that drives me nuts!

    When we're writing we just want to WRITE!

    Thanks for the info :0)

  20. I type my book manuscript into Word 2010, save, then close. Then I open it to discover the font and spacings have changed in various places. So I fix it, save and close.
    Next day, same problem spacings and fonts have changed in several places.
    I don't want it in PDF. The Publisher wants it in Word.
    How do I get Word to stay put. What's the glue fix?

  21. Anon:

    Try right-clicking on some of the text that has changed font on you. Then select "Styles" and then "Select text with similar formatting". Now click "Normal" on your Quick Styles section of your Office Ribbon. If it's still not quite right, make the necessary changes to a paragraph, then right-click "Normal" and select "Update Normal to match selection".

    Word 4 Writers on HearWriteNow
    Blood-Red Pencil


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