Become a better writer with MS Word's writing tools

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Microsoft Word helps writers in more ways than just spell checking. There are other not widely known tools in Microsoft Word designed to help the writer. For example, there is the thesaurus that will suggest a substitute for a word you enter that may more precisely convey your intent. You can also set word hyphenation to break your longer words at the end of a line. (The tendency of Word to hyphenate excessively can be distracting, which is why most writers prefer not to activate automatic hyphenation.) Microsoft Word also has a word count capability (in its Tools menu) that is obviously handy, if word count is important to you.

Then there is the grammar and style checker that will help you out as you write. In Microsoft Word, a green underline shows the "offending" text with alternate suggestions. For example, if the program detects a sentence fragment or disagreement between subject and verb the magic green line will appear. The problem with the grammar checker is that it is somewhat cranky and often wrong. Most accomplished writers do not rely extensively on this sometimes-annoying tool, but you should leave it activated because it does detect things like passive voice writing and added spacing.

♦ For those larger, more ambitious projects, Word has advanced features.

For those preparing larger documents with many sections requiring a table of contents and an index, Microsoft Word has some rather slick and instantaneous large document management tools. You can automatically generate a table of contents, but you must first know how to activate the somewhat complicated "styles" tools. The advanced user can insert special fields to generate the table, but it is almost more trouble than it is worth. Indexes require some additional learning, but they are definitely worth the trouble.

♦ Use Microsoft Word's readability stats.

Finally, there are two not widely known writing tools that show so-called "readability statistics." You must check "Show readability statistics" in the Spelling and Grammar dialog box (under Tools) to activate this. After you activate this feature, do a complete spell check after you complete the document. A dialog box appears with word count and paragraph length averages.

The readability statistics display in the same dialog box and show the number of passive sentences in the document (passive sentences are normally considered not so clear as active ones; e.g., "I threw the ball" is active; "The ball was thrown by me," is passive.) Also appearing is the "Reading Ease" rate (the higher the number up to 100, the better) and the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level formula. That's school grade. Experts recommend targeting your writing to around the 8th grade level. (This article has a reading ease of 52.5 with a Flesch-Kincaid grade level of 10.0.)

♦ Microsoft Word's tools are just technical aids.

Albert Joseph, whose how-to guide "Put It In Writing!" (p. 104), summarizes computer-writing tools by posing this question:

"Will computers ever write for us? If writing is one's thinking put on paper, a better way of asking that question might be: Will computers ever think for us? Would we want them to?"

So it's clear: You have to do the thinking and organization that goes into the creative process of writing. Microsoft Word's great writing tools allow you to poke and prod to find flaws and oversights that every writer misses.

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