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Microsoft Word vs. Alternative Software for Fiction Editing

It’s common these days to write using an alternative word processor instead of Microsoft Word for fiction editing. Maybe you use a fiction-oriented tool like Scrivener or Ulysses, designed to help making writing a novel easier. Or maybe you use Google Docs or Apple Pages because they are free or included in your operating system. Or maybe your process requires something else entirely to organize your thoughts and get your story onto the page.

While alternative tools can help make a writer’s life easier, they are often a hindrance or challenge for a copy editor or proofreader. Ultimately, an editing pass focused on sentence-level issues (such as line editing, copy editing, or proofreading) is going to involve hundreds or even thousands of tiny changes. An editor wants those changes to make it back to you in a clear and easy-to-apply way, and to make their way into your manuscript accurately.

Let’s take a look at how your editor edits, and how you should apply those changes in the least error-prone way possible.

What Is My Editor’s Word Processor of Choice?

Editor’s still primarily edit fiction in Microsoft Word because it has decades of evolution and change focused on making it easy and efficient to manipulate text. It had a robust set of features for tracking changes, accepting or rejecting changes, leaving comment trails, annotating text, and keeping a version history. Simply put, it’s quite possibly the best tool for the job when it comes to making or offering changes in a clear, readable way, and allowing an author to consider and apply those changes. Additionally, Word allows for integrations with macros, PerfectIt, Grammarly, and other text-checking tools that editors often use before or after they finish manually editing your manuscript.

Chances are, when an editor asks for your manuscript, they’ll want to receive it as a Word document or in a Word-compatible file. And when they give it back to you, it will more often than not be a Word document with tons of tracked changes.

Why Should I Work in Word-Compatible Software for Fiction Editing?

Getting a Word document back from an editor might be a problem for some authors. You may not have a way to open the file if you don’t have Word. Or you may not be familiar with Word’s tools or way of presenting changes. Or you might be wondering how you’ll take that file and get it into whatever writing software you use.

Faced with all that difficulty, you might be tempted to commit a cardinal sin in the editing community: reviewing your editor’s changes in the Word document and manually applying them in your own, separate document.

If you’ve ever considered it or are currently considering it, stop! Here are a few reasons why this method is a bad idea.

It’s Error-Prone

When an editor gives you back a proofread or copy edit, there will likely be hundreds or thousands of changes in the document. Sometimes even tens of thousands of changes! And many of them will be small and/or subtle. It’s not unlikely at all that you’ll miss some added punctuation, mistake a comma for a period, change the ordering of a heavily edited sentence, miss a word, or do one of the many other things that can introduce an error into the text. After all, you’re only human!

Accepting or rejecting the change directly in Microsoft Word means you’re accepting the exact change the editor intended to make, reducing the likelihood of additional typos. If you work primarily in non-Word software, the best thing you could do would be to accept/reject all changes and address all comments inside Word, then you can reimport the edited manuscript to your preferred software.

It’s Slow

As mentioned, some manuscripts can have thousands of changes. Transferring each change manually from one document to another takes a lot of time, especially if you’re double checking or rereading the sentences to ensure accuracy. It’s much quicker to simply use the Accept/Reject buttons in Word and quickly move through the document from one change to the next.

It Lacks Change History

Many alternative writing software options don’t have a good version history built into them. That means that if you make changes, you can’t go back later to see prior versions of the text to figure out when changes were introduced. If you were to, for example, discover a typo in your manuscript later, it would take a lot more time to figure out where it originated from, as you might have to check multiple documents for versions or changes.

It Unsyncs You With Your Editor’s File

Your editor will usually keep a copy of the edited file they send you, at least for a certain amount of time, in case you have questions about the edits. If you end up needing to reach out to them about their changes, it’s much easier to be able to give them an exact page number, sentence, or screenshot of the document they sent you. Giving them a reference from another writing software might introduce confusion into the exchange.

What to Do If You Don’t Have Microsoft Word

Given the reasons above, you definitely want to work directly in the file your editor gave you for the fastest and most accurate editing experience. After all, you paid for a professional editor, so you don’t want to miss any of their changes. And trust me, they don’t want you to miss their changes or mistakenly introduce errors either!

But what if you don’t have access to Microsoft Word? Here are a few options and alternatives you can consider so that you can view and accept/reject your editor’s changes:

  • Free Microsoft Word in Browser. Microsoft offers a free version of Word that’s entirely online in the browser. You need to sign up for a Microsoft account in order to use it, but it has a limited set of Word features, including track changes, commenting, text highlighting, font changes, and other things that an editor will likely use to edit your manuscript.

  • Free Trial of Microsoft 365. If you need or want more robust Word features, Microsoft offers a free 1-month trial of Microsoft 365, and you can take advantage of the full version of Word for the duration of the trial.

  • Google Docs. Google Docs is the free tool that I’ve found to be the most compatible with Microsoft Word. If you import your document into Google Docs, it should preserve and show all tracked changes and comments. You can then use Google Docs tools to accept changes, reject changes, or address comments.

  • Microsoft Word Deals. If you think you’ll be working with editors frequently and want to buy Microsoft Word, check out deal sites such as Slickdeals (especially around the holidays) to take advantage of any discounts or offers that might be available.

  • Ask Your Editor for a Clean Copy. If you don’t have access to Word or any of the alternatives offered above, something you could do is ask your editor to accept all changes on your behalf and send you what we call a “clean copy” of the manuscript. You can then read that side-by-side with your working copy to see changes/variations. This is a pretty extremely solution, as it requires you to trust your editor’s changes for the most part, but if you have no other option, it might be worth considering to make sure you have an accurately edited copy of the work.

When in Doubt, Talk to Your Editor

Your editor wants you to succeed. They want you to take their changes and produce an error-free book. They want to help you be a better author. If you don’t have Microsoft Word, be upfront with them about it. They might be willing to work in another word-processing software that tracks changes, like Google Docs. Or they might be able to propose a different solution entirely. They would rather you talk to them first about your process than find out later that it’s different enough from theirs to cause problems.

You’ll save yourself and your editor a lot of headaches later if you are both open and upfront about how you work, and how you could best work together toward a positive outcome.


Angela Traficante

Angela is a fiction editor, author, and owner of Lambda Editing. She specializes in providing editing for self-published authors and traditional publishing houses.

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