The Tools of Your Trade

Since you’re reading this blog, I assume you’re probably pretty good at knowing your way around the computer. This is a very good thing! It’s vitally important that you’re comfortable with technology.

You should also know that the standard program used by publishers in working with manuscripts is Microsoft Word. I don’t want to hear complaints about how MS is an evil giant trying to take over the world – if you’re going to work with traditional publishers, it’s best that you’re comfortable with Word. If you’re using an alternate word processing program, make sure it interfaces seamlessly with Word.

These days, many agents and editors will edit your manuscript in your Word doc, and they’ll use two functions: Track Changes and Comments. (I’ve been editing this way for nearly ten years now.) I recommend you become familiar and proficient with these functions before you actually need them.

Create a practice document, turn on Track Changes, and see how it works. Then practice “showing” and “hiding” your changes. Most importantly, learn how to “accept” and “reject” changes. The most common mistake writers make is to “hide” their changes without accepting them. If you do this, then when you email the document to your agent or editor, all your tracked changes will be completely visible. You MUST “accept” the changes in order to make them permanently disappear. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, open up Word and start experimenting!

Track Changes can be set in different ways. I recommend you use the setting where all the changes appear in balloons off to the right, so that you can read your text more clearly.

Comments should also be set to appear in balloons. Practice not only using comments, but moving through a document comment-by-comment. This is very helpful if you have a 400-page doc and you just want to see the comments but you don’t want to scroll through the whole thing. You can set your “browse” button (bottom right-hand corner) to skip from comment to comment.

For most of you, this may seem really basic, but I’m repeatedly surprised by writers who have been using Word for years but have no idea of how powerful and helpful a program it really is.

Learn the tools of your trade!

Q4U: How proficient are you in Word? Do you use its advanced functions to make your life easier?

© 2010 Rachelle Gardner, Literary Agent

Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Gardner Literary. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!


  1. Anonymous on November 7, 2010 at 10:12 PM

    >I’m familiar with track changes but need to go play with it more to get some of the features you mentioned.What annoys me is to receive an MS Word document that uses tabs when one can so easily set indents without them.

  2. Hannah Hounshell on November 5, 2010 at 10:43 PM

    >Well that’s a relief. I think I’ll go look into getting the update, though. It sounds like it would really come in handy.Thanks a bunch! 😀

  3. Rachelle on November 4, 2010 at 8:09 PM

    >Hannah: Works is a stripped-down, basic word processor that lacks most of the advanced features of Word. Cheaper, yes, and as long as you're just writing for yourself and are not working with an editor or agent on revisions and such, it should be fine. Someday you may need to upgrade to Word if you begin working with a publisher.

    And don't worry, your changes are not being tracked at all, so there's no chance they'll show up when you send out your MS!

  4. Hannah Hounshell on November 4, 2010 at 11:28 AM

    >Ok, I'm running microsoft works word processor. Unless I'm mistaken, its the 2007 version. I cannot find the tracking changes option, and when I did a search for it, nothing came up. Does anyone else use this version? Could you help me out, please?

    I would be most grateful. The last thing I need is to send my chapters to an agent and have all the changes I made floating around where they can see them.

    Thanks 😀

  5. sloanwriter on November 4, 2010 at 6:43 AM

    >Once again enjoyed your post. My husband introduced me to Track changes to aid editing with my last book, without it trying to submit your book to Smashwords would have been impossible. The meatgrinder as it known to compile your word doc into multiple formats for easy download to Apple, Kindle, Sony, etc does not like standard formatting.
    My next book will go the same way. So MS word and the editing tools are essentail.

  6. Ishta Mercurio on November 3, 2010 at 9:36 PM

    >One of my crit groups has been using Track Changes for over a year now, but I didn't know what it was called until a couple of months ago. And I definitely need to experiment with it some more – your comments about making changes and accepting changes (as opposed to just copying the old text into a new Word doc, making changes to that based on the comments, and saving it as a new file) had me scratching my head.

    Thanks for the reminder!

  7. Charity Bradford on November 3, 2010 at 4:44 PM

    >OMGosh! I think I'm guilty of this. Those poor poor agents that I've queried.

    *runs off to accept changes before hiding in the corner*

  8. Sandy Cooper on November 3, 2010 at 11:19 AM

    >A few years ago I became extremely familiar with these editing functions when I took a freelance editing job, editing a book manuscript for a friend who was self-publishing. I am so thankful for that experience.


  9. Anne Lang Bundy on November 3, 2010 at 9:31 AM

    >WordPerfect is perfect for incorporating graphic layouts in documents and making my words go where I want with micro precision. MS Word goes way overboard in trying to think for me and I don't appreciate that. But Word is the standard for trading documents electronically, so I've learned to get along nicely with this necessary evil.

  10. Edwina on November 3, 2010 at 8:44 AM

    >Hi Rachelle,

    I've used MS Word for ever. I am a proofreader for a number of people, including a publisher, and always use Track Changes. I insist on it – makes life much easier!

    Edwina Cowgill

  11. gwyncurbygodwin on November 2, 2010 at 11:10 PM

    >Thank you. I've worked with MS Word for years on my job at The University of South Florida and at home for my manuscripts and I absolutely never knew Track Changes and Comments were available. Thank you so much for blogging about this and teaching me something new.
    God Bless

  12. Deleyna on November 2, 2010 at 10:32 PM

    >just an fyi: I use Open Office and have used track changes notes made from a friend who uses Word. It was not immediately obvious and I can't remember how I got them to work, but they did. Perhaps it is a version difference with the commenter who said earlier that it did not translate.

    After having a software that used a proprietary format damage a manuscript, I do not use proprietary formats (like Word doc) for my writing. I can see the need for using it to communicate with editors, but I'll still have a copy saved in rtf.

    (For the "anonymous" person editing the document with hand-entered double-spacing, Liquid Story Binder has a formatting center that can delete those for you in a couple of clicks. Use the free trial and get rid of that mess!)

    I'm a little shocked that with all of the e-readers that do not read doc format the industry hasn't caught up and moved beyond Word.

  13. Renee Gold on November 2, 2010 at 9:25 PM

    >Thank you Rachelle for reminding me it's time to let go of fear, and start tracking those changes like a pro. If I can write a book using the computer, and maintain a blog, mastering Track Changes is next…

  14. dark_opus on November 2, 2010 at 9:18 PM

    >A tidbit of additional advice regarding Track Changes in Word…

    Different versions of Word (such as XP, 2003, 2007, 2010) won't necessarily be able to comprehend all Track Changes attributes in a shared document. That's even if you save the document file in a so-called 'compatible' format for older versions of Word. So if you want to use Track Changes in your critique group and your group members have different versions of Word, be sure to try a quick experiment to see what works best.

  15. Anonymous on November 2, 2010 at 6:42 PM

    >Finaly blog with valuable informations.
    Thank You

  16. Mystery Robin on November 2, 2010 at 6:11 PM

    >Yep, I've always used all of those special Word features for work for years. But, I find I write a lot better with Page Four – kind of like Scriver, but for Windows. When I'm done, I just export the document to Word and go from there.

    But I fully admit that Mail Merge always, always threw me. Fortunately, email seems to have made that mostly obsolete. 😉

  17. Lyla on November 2, 2010 at 6:01 PM

    >I love the comments feature… and confess to never using "track changes." Thanks for the tutorial!

  18. Anonymous on November 2, 2010 at 5:59 PM

    >I've been using these functions for years, and frequently receive critiques from my e-mail crit partners this way. However, I've had to help teach some of the local folks I know about them. Even so, some haven't figured out how to use them. :/

  19. Tim A Martin on November 2, 2010 at 3:26 PM

    >I became very familiar with tracking changes when my college professors kept editing my papers. 🙂

  20. IanBontems on November 2, 2010 at 3:06 PM

    >One way to see changes if Track Changes hasn't been used is Word's COMPARE feature (it's under the review tab in word 2007).

    Just choose the original doc, and then the amended version, and it'll show you all the differences between the two.

    You can also save this comparison with all the highlighted parts, strike-throughs and formatting comments.

  21. kathrynjankowski on November 2, 2010 at 2:45 PM

    >Hmm. I'm having problems with this, but now that I've gone back through the comments, I think I'll pick up a copy of THE MAC IS NOT A TYPEWRITER. Thanks for the heads-up, Ms. Hyde!

  22. Karen Lange on November 2, 2010 at 2:21 PM

    >I've used Word for a long time but have only scratched the surface of its capabilities. Appreciate this info!

  23. Beth Sorensen on November 2, 2010 at 2:00 PM

    >Thanks for the great article. For as many years as I've used MS Word I am always finding new tools or new ways to use them!

  24. Crazy Cat Lady on November 2, 2010 at 2:00 PM

    >I translate and edit for a living so I'd say I'm an advanced user of Word. I use TC almost daily when editing and proofing. I'm surprised there are so many who are not familiar with them! When we receive a particularly horrible text (usually the result of a company trying to do advanced DTP layouting in Word itself (nightmare!)), one of my colleagues sometimes cries:

    "So many people use Word professionally, yet there are so many unprofessional users of Word!"
    (free translation, English is not our first language)

    My best advice to anyone who feels their skills are lacking is to play around with the functions on a dummy text. That's how I learned to use computers to begin with. Just push the buttons and see what happens! 😀

  25. Tom Bradley Jr. on November 2, 2010 at 1:58 PM

    >I use track changes all the time when editing my coworkers' work. I also prefer others use it when editing mine. It may be the most useful tool on Word.

  26. Danielle La Paglia on November 2, 2010 at 1:57 PM

    >I love Track Changes and Comments. We use it in our online writing group to critique each others work. It's priceless.

  27. kathrynjankowski on November 2, 2010 at 1:53 PM

    >I've been meaning to try this. Your post was exactly the kick in the pants I needed. Thanks!

  28. Sue Harrison on November 2, 2010 at 1:52 PM

    >Oh-oh. Spent part of today learning.

  29. Cameron on November 2, 2010 at 1:47 PM

    >I do a ton of business writing in which documents get passed between five or ten people. Track Changes is a must. Comments are sometimes helpful, too. I'll be interested to (one day) see how it works in the publishing/fiction world.

  30. Amy Sorrells on November 2, 2010 at 1:38 PM

    >I need a track changes system for my life. Is there an app for that?

    Seriously, though, I use track changes all the time in my writing. Something freeing about seeing those awful sentences and errors floating off into little balloons.

    And hitting "accept all" feels like popping them.

    Like a little kid stomping on bubble wrap.

    It's awesome.

  31. jelindsay on November 2, 2010 at 1:33 PM

    >I use track changes regularly. It's especially helpful when multiple people are looking at a document, such as in a critique group. There are aspects to Word that drive me nuts, but I've yet to find another program that offers the tools it does.

  32. Katherine Hyde on November 2, 2010 at 1:25 PM

    >My URL came out wrong above–this is my real site.

  33. Katherine Hyde on November 2, 2010 at 1:23 PM

    >Thanks for encouraging people to get with the program, Rachelle. As an editor, I'm continually amazed/dismayed by how many people send me files in obscure programs, or have never used Track Changes, or treat the computer like a typewriter (i.e. don't understand basic formatting). I highly recommend the books "The Mac/PC Is Not a Typewriter" by Robin Williams (not THE Robin Williams) for basic word processing knowledge.

  34. Kathy on November 2, 2010 at 1:02 PM

    >I feel like I'm fairly proficient. I have used the comment feature from time to time to help me continue editing from my previous stopping point. I've also had a few other people use the comment feature, when editing pieces for me.

    I have seen the track changes feature, but I don't actually use it. I keep forgetting. I know I should use it, but I just don't remember to turn it on until I'm many pages in and it feels silly to turn it on. I do understand how it work despite not using it.

    I love the features on Word and despite having used the program for several years now, I'm still discovering new things about the program. It's fun finding all the new things you didn't previously know before and seeing how they can help you.

  35. Rachelle on November 2, 2010 at 12:30 PM

    >Hannah: You really need to get to know your Word program better! It has so many functions that are incredibly helpful for writers.

    I can't tell you where to find Track Changes because I don't know which version of Word you're running. Unfortunately the 2003, 2007 and 2010 versions are all slightly different in how to find it. I'm running 2010 and it's under the Review tab.

  36. Hannah Hounshell on November 2, 2010 at 11:52 AM

    >At the risk of asking a stupid question…how do I find these two functions? I just searched through my options and such, and I can't find them. Am I missing something?

  37. Joanne Sher on November 2, 2010 at 11:17 AM

    >I've used the comment boxes for several years, but it was just earlier this year that I was shown "track changes," and I absolutely, positively LOVE it! It is wonderful for when I proofread for friends, and for critiquing (both of which I do somewhat frequently). I'm currently using Open Office (as of the past couple months) for cost reasons, but it has the same features, and so far I've had NO problems with anyone with MS word having any problem with my files, as long as I save in the right format.

  38. Margo Kelly on November 2, 2010 at 11:04 AM

    >My critique partners and I use the comment balloons all the time, but I actually didn't know about the track changes – – so THANK YOU! 🙂

  39. Suzanne Wesley on November 2, 2010 at 10:58 AM

    >Another useful tool in Word to track changes (when the user doing the edits hasn't used the track changes feature) is the compare documents feature – which is also found under Track Changes in Word. This feature has saved me lots of headaches looking for what had been changed when someone didn't use the tracking! As much as I admit to being a Macintosh addict, I do appreciate all the great tools in MS Word, and see the importance of really knowing the most-used program to save time and work better with others in the industry.

  40. T. Anne on November 2, 2010 at 10:56 AM

    >I'm more than familiar, however I'm unsure of what you mean by hiding rather than accepting changes so I'm going to toy with that. I'll have to resend the document to myself to see what appears on the other users end. Thanks for the tips!

  41. Escribladora on November 2, 2010 at 10:36 AM

    >I actually knew how to do something already! Yay!

  42. Anonymous on November 2, 2010 at 9:45 AM

    >Have you tried Google docs? I switched over about a year ago. For collaborating around a document, I haven't found anything better.

    Word, as A3WRITER said above, is clunky and gets in the way of writing. I'd rather write my documents in VIM than in Word. However, I do use Word for its merge feature and better formatting options.

  43. Melody on November 2, 2010 at 9:34 AM

    >Thank you so much, Rachelle!! I've been hearing about track changes but wasn't sure what they were or how they were used. Now I know! 🙂 Thanks a million!

  44. April on November 2, 2010 at 8:56 AM


    I use OpenOffice, too, since I can't afford to buy MS Word right now. But just FYI, the tracking changes don't transfer between the programs.

    If they're done in Word, I can't see them in OO. Done in OO, the person with Word can't see them.

    It stinks! 🙁

  45. Erin MacPherson on November 2, 2010 at 8:53 AM

    >I'm TERRIBLE with track changes/hide comments– but I'm working on it. You're right, MS word is the ONLY way my editor sends edits to me.

  46. April on November 2, 2010 at 8:51 AM


    Did you know you can turn that automatic "helpful" stuff off? All of it, or just parts of it—either way.

  47. Anonymous on November 2, 2010 at 8:49 AM

    >This is old hat for me.

    But recently a friend sent me the first 10,000 words of her first novel to give it a macro-edit/suggestion… and I realized her lack of understanding in the realm of tracking changes/comments was the least of my problems.

    To make it double-spaced, she manually pressed return twice after each line. For the whole manuscript.

    I think I'll need more chocolate before I can handle this…

  48. Rebecca Burgener on November 2, 2010 at 8:26 AM

    >This is an awesome tool that I didn't know about, and I'm glad to read from Kiolia that Open Office has this feature as well.

  49. A3Writer on November 2, 2010 at 8:14 AM


    I've got to say it. Part of me knows I shouldn't, but I've got to say it. Word is not evil, but it is certainly annoying. Not because MS is a world-dominating corporation, but because Word has the annoying habit of trying to help me in its way instead of how I tell it to. Sometimes getting a stupid header and page number to work right is an exercise in futility, and not an iteration of the program goes by where they don't decide to change the location of commands in some annoying fashion.

    That said, Track Changes and comments is one of the cooler features that works as it should. As a teacher I find it still a little clunky to be grading 50+ essays on every couple of weeks (the pen is faster than the Word), but readily acknowledge that a lengthy manuscript must have an electronic method for the sake of time and ability to comment.

    I'd say my Word skills are far below that of my native WP or Excel, but I am a nerd at heart and able to wrap such programs around my finger with macros that autoformat and the like.

    Writers definitely should take Word for a spin, but then I'm also the guy that says take the computer itself for a spin to make sure what it's capable of, and how it can help a writer beyond just the word processor. There are many programs and utilities out there that can ease a writer's job, and reduce the level of anxiety.

  50. Noelle Pierce on November 2, 2010 at 7:45 AM

    >I've been using MS Word since it came out. Formatting my MS (even if I was self-publishing!) is *nothing* compared to the hoops I have to jump through to format my dissertation. Section breaks, different numbering systems, table of contents, oh, my! I'm also a college professor, so track changes has been my friend for a while.

    Other people have mentioned programs specifically for fiction writers, but I'm so comfortable with Word that it's almost not worth trying the other programs. *grin*

  51. Cheryl Barker on November 2, 2010 at 7:39 AM

    >Thanks for this, Rachelle. I'm still learning the ins and outs of computers, Word, etc., and this is really helpful. Thank you!

  52. chicleeblair on November 2, 2010 at 7:35 AM

    >This year I've experienced professors using track changes in my papers for the first time. They never did so in undergrad, but my grad school seems much more technologically proficient.

    I've definitely learned how useful it is. And I just bought a new computer and so had to purchase Word 2011. I'm in for the long haul

  53. Erika Marks on November 2, 2010 at 7:28 AM

    >I'm one of those NOT-in-the-know authors, Rachelle. My husband–who is a teacher–uses track changes in correcting student papers but I never considered it would be applicable to my writing. Fast forward to that wonderful day I got the edits back from my editor in Track Changes and realized it was more than applicable–it was required!

    The learning curve has been smooth and I have learned to love the function, but I couldn't agree more with your sentiment that the time is now to learn the software. Your future editor and the entire editorial staff will thank you!

  54. Scott on November 2, 2010 at 7:16 AM

    >I love Word. Word is my friend. Okay, it was my enemy when I couldn't figure out how to get the changes I made from showing up. Yes, a bit slow on the uptake some days, but I finally figured out the "accept changes" thing. Geesh.

    I didn't realize the balloon comments. I'm going go study up on Word today and get a bit more efficient. Hopefully, for Christmas, the newest version of Word will appear under the Christmas tree! ; )

    Great post. Thanks.


  55. Rosemary Gemmell on November 2, 2010 at 6:57 AM

    >This is a great feature which I've only used a couple of times. It's a timely post about it, thanks, as I'm going through my very first edits from a publisher's editor using this!

  56. Cathy on November 2, 2010 at 6:34 AM

    >Wow, I feel like I'm very proficient in word and yet I've never even seen this feature! After reading your post, I immediately went and tried it out – it's very, very awesome! Thanks for sharing! This is my first stop by your blog – I think I'll be stopping by more often. THANKS!

  57. Catherine West on November 2, 2010 at 6:00 AM

    >Uh, yeah. Sometimes I see red balloon filled pages in my sleep. You're absolutely right though, at first glance it's all a bit overwhelming, best to get familiar with it from the get go. If you aren't using Track Changes with your critique partner or group, go ahead and start!

  58. Dan Holloway on November 2, 2010 at 5:56 AM

    >One of the greta things about track changes and comments in Word is that it identifies who's said what. So in your beta stage you can send the ms to several people and let them converse in the comments, and you can then identify whose comments and edits are whose, so if one person has a particular thing about a particular character you can weigh accordingly ay – and just seeing the comments on the page together can be a great way of balancing them that reading a couple of e-mails wouldn't give you.

    Of course, you need to let people know you're doing this so they don't say anything they wouldn't want shared with your other readers!

  59. Kiolia on November 2, 2010 at 5:43 AM

    >I use Open Office, which also has Track Changes. After spending more than a year in revisions on a 500-page ms, I'm not sure how I would have gotten it done without track changes. It's worth noting, though, that on an ms that big, as the changes pile up, certain things become more work for the computer to chew on. Hitting Enter with show changes on, or deleting something with show changes off, were both taking 45 seconds+ per keystroke on my 1.8 ghz writing laptop near the end of my biggest revision draft. It got to the point where I'd hit enter out of habit, facepalm, and go get a drink.

  60. Jessica Nelson on November 2, 2010 at 5:30 AM

    >I LOVE track changes.

    I have you to thank for my buying Word. You told me I should and it was the impetus I needed to spend the money on it. 🙂 It's the best writing investment I've ever made. So thank you! 😉

  61. Em-Musing on November 2, 2010 at 4:57 AM

    >Ah! You got me! The truth hurts and you're so right. I use Word all the time but don't know all the features.
    I do and will learn. Thanks for the nudge.

  62. Steve Pritchett on November 2, 2010 at 4:23 AM

    >Yes, ma'am, Word is powerful. The Track Changes feature is one of the most helpful and awesome elements of this program. When I'm writing, I turn off the spell check/spell suggest that underlines in squiggly red and green. That bit drives me nuts.

  63. thenakedlistener on November 2, 2010 at 1:32 AM

    >Tracking is otherwise known as "blacklining" in my line of business (financial/security printing).

    You are absolutely right. Ninety-nine percent of people (and hopefully that includes writers!) never use tracking, which is why so many others on the receiving end of their manuscripts (editors, publishers, laywers, regulators, etc) go ballistic.

    Oh, yes, BTW, I've been writing and editing with blacklining every since I started – that 32 years ago. It wasn't Word in the beginning, of course, but with dedicated front-end systems like the Linotronic, etc, etc. I do blacklining for my own personal stuff, so your advice is for real.

  64. Michelle on November 2, 2010 at 1:18 AM

    >I just discovered how to use something that I knew was there … but never really knew what to do with it..
    Thank you so much.