Using the Computer to Improve Your Writing

Written by Margaret Procter, Writing Support

You already know that the computer lets you easily type in text, shift it around, and edit it. Word processing can also do much more for you if you make the most of its capacities and know its limitations. Here are some practical tips on using the computer as a writer’s tool. Use the Help key in your word-processing program to learn more about the functions mentioned here.


Though some writers benefit from the tactile experience of writing notes and drafts by hand, you may be surprised how much power you gain by doing nearly all your drafting on the computer.

  1. You don’t have to create clean or fully developed text for your first draft. Try jotting down your ideas as they come. To mark places where further work is needed, just insert repeated characters (////), leave blank space, or use the highlighter from the menu bar. This will help you create a partial or full draft quickly—then you can go back and strengthen it.
  2. Try doing brainstorming on screen. It’s encouraging to scroll through your results later and find worthwhile bits to develop. If you feel stuck, turn the monitor brightness to zero and type in whatever occurs to you. You’ll probably be surprised at how much sense these seemingly random jottings make.
  3. Outlining is made easy too. Even a simple list of points to cover gets you started. You can use Enter and Tab to set up an initial structure. If you like to work from a full outline, try the built-in outliner (under View) to put your initial ideas into a logical arrangement. With any type of outline, you can fill in as much as you want in each session of writing, and then revise your plans as your ideas develop.
  4. The computer can streamline the work of documenting your sources. With the choices in the References menu, footnotes or endnotes will take only a few keystrokes to set up. You will also create the Bibliography list as you go. Parenthetical references are easy to check and complete too, and you will have a choice of Works Cited, References, or Bibliography list.
  5. Save time by using short forms in your first draft. Then use the Find and Replace function (Ctrl-H in Word) to replace the short forms with the full wording. Type sov at first, for instance; then replace that with sovereignty-association later. (But confirm each replacement.)
  6. A simple idea: don’t double-space your text until you’re ready to print it out. You need to see as many lines as possible on screen to get a sense of the flow of your work.
  7. Keep all your drafts in case you want to go back to an earlier version. Use the Save As function from the File menu to rename the drafts in sequence, with numbers or dates in the filenames. Email drafts to yourself for backups.

Revising and Editing

Word processing comes into its own with the hardest work of good writing—cutting, arranging, rewriting. Get to know what your computer can and can’t do to support you.

  1. Don’t be deceived by the finished look of text on the screen. Try using the View menu to see more than one page at once. That lets you check whether some of your paragraphs are too long and whether the sections of your paper are balanced. Also print out your paper at least once and read it through critically, checking overall flow and logic. (A writing-centre appointment can help you achieve that perspective too.)
  2. This may make you want to restructure your essay completely. Luckily, the computer makes that easy with its cut-and-paste functions. If you’re uncertain about where a section should go, try copying rather than moving; then you can choose. You can combine versions easily too. The View menu lets you see a number of windows at once so you can copy from one file to another.
  3. It’s worthwhile—especially for group work—to use the Comment command from the Insert or Review. You can write notes to yourself or your co-writers that show up beside the text but don’t change its layout. The Track Changes function from the Review menu in Word is also worth learning. Once turned on, it automatically uses different-coloured fonts to show editing possibilities that you can accept or reject later.
  4. The Review menu offers a number of functions for proofreading and editing that can be helpful if used with care. However, be sure the AutoCorrect option is turned off, or you could end up with nonsense.
  5. The SpellCheck function can help mend typos as well as spelling errors. Set the language to Canadian English rather than US or UK English. Don’t accept all the suggested changes. If spellcheck flags a word as wrong when you are sure it isn’t (as happens with names and technical terms), then add that word to your built-in “dictionary” so the computer recognizes it the next time. Keep in mind, though, that the computer won’t tell you that you’ve mistyped form for from, much less that you’ve misused principle for principal.
  6. Only use the Thesaurus (also part of the Review menu) if you already have a good vocabulary and want to be reminded of possibilities when you are stuck for the right word. A thesaurus supplies words in the same general category as the word you’re wondering about, but gives no guidance on meaning or sense.
  7. So don’t ignore your print or online dictionary as a resource. You will have to look up the words that spell checkers don’t recognize, and also cross-check thesaurus suggestions for exact meanings and usage. Use it instead of a thesaurus when you wonder if a particular word is the right one.
  8. The grammar checkers built into word processors (again under the Review menu, usually grouped with spellcheck and thesaurus) are seldom useful. About half of grammar-check flags are wrong, and the explanations are not clear. It’s best to leave the box blank for the offer to “check grammar.” For usable advice on sentence structure and grammar, see the files in the Revising section of this website.
  9. The basic Find function (Ctrl-F) can help you do your own style-checking. For instance, if you know you tend to overuse or misuse a word or phrase, let Find call up each instance so you can see if another wording would be better. Even looking at each use of and, but, or however can help you improve and vary your sentence structures.
  10. If you hit a tough sentence to revise, go back to your drafting techniques. Give yourself lots of screen space to try out new versions. Do a hard-page return (Ctrl-Enter) and use the rest of the screen to play around with your ideas. It can sometimes help to make a list or other visual structure—use Enter and Tab as much as you like until you see the essential shape of your ideas. Revise, then reformat your text.