How to Use Custom Dictionaries in Microsoft Word

Dictionary page
Joshua Hoehne/Unsplash

Although a spell-checker is no substitute for proper editing, it’s a helpful tool for any freelancer. Running the spell-checker on a manuscript as a final step after you’ve finished an editing or proofreading pass can catch things that have slipped through the cracks.

The spell-checking process can be tedious, however, especially if you’re working on a manuscript filled with names or specialized terms. Technical manuals and science fiction novels will be overflowing with such words, potentially causing the spell-checker to stop in confusion a few times in every sentence. This can be avoided by the careful use of custom dictionaries.

As a copyeditor, I’m responsible for creating a list of names and terms used in a manuscript. From this style sheet, I create a custom dictionary for the project; that way when I run the spell-checker on the manuscript itself, all its unique words already have accepted spellings within the program. The spell-checker program then runs much faster and often catches transposed letters in unusual words that can be easy to miss while copyediting. Here’s how to create and use a custom dictionary in Microsoft Word.

Instructions for Mac

1. From the Word menu, select Preferences.

2. Within the Preferences window, click Spelling & Grammar.

The Word Preferences window

3. The Spelling & Grammar window displays the dictionary you’re currently using in the middle of the window. To the right of the custom dictionary drop-down box, click the Dictionaries button.

The Spelling & Grammar window

4. In the Custom Dictionaries window, click New.

Custom dictionary selection window

5. In the Save window, name your dictionary and save it to Word’s default folder or navigate through your files to save it in the folder containing the project. (If you ever need to reuse a custom dictionary you’ve saved in a project folder, open Custom Dictionaries as shown up and click Add. From there you’ll be able to navigate through your files to select the needed dictionary.)

Dictionary save window

6. After you’ve saved your new custom dictionary, you will be back at the Custom Dictionaries window from Step 4. Make sure your new dictionary is checked and then click OK.

7. You’ll now be back at the Spelling & Grammar window from Step 3. Select your new dictionary from the drop-down menu. Close the window.

8. Run the spell-checker on your style guide and add all unrecognized terms to your custom dictionary. Your dictionary is now ready to use on the full manuscript.

Instructions for PC

1. Select the File tab from the ribbon, then click Options at the bottom of the lefthand menu.

2. In the Options window, select Proofing, then click Custom Dictionaries.

3. In the Custom Dictionaries window, click New.

4. In the Create Custom Dictionary window, name your dictionary and save it to Word’s default folder or navigate through your files to save it in the folder containing the project. (As noted in the Mac instructions, if you ever need to reuse a custom dictionary you’ve saved in a project folder, open Custom Dictionaries and click Add. From there you’ll be able to navigate through your files to select the needed dictionary.)

5. After you’ve saved your new custom dictionary, you will be back at the Custom Dictionaries window. Make sure your new dictionary is checked and then click OK.

6. Make sure your new dictionary is selected in the list. Close the window.

7. Run the spell-checker on your style guide and add all unrecognized terms to your custom dictionary. Your dictionary is now ready to use on the full manuscript.

Final Tips

It’s generally better to create individual custom dictionaries for each manuscript, rather than simply adding words from all your style guides to one universal custom dictionary. That way you can distinguish between specialized spellings from manuscript to manuscript. For example, while you might make a stylistic spelling exception in a novel, you wouldn’t want to use that dictionary to spell-check a technical manual that requires a strictly conventional approach.

If you find yourself working on a series of books that have a lot of shared terminology, however, you might want to create a single dictionary for the series. You can see in the images above that I have a custom Star Trek dictionary; I copyedit a lot of Star Trek novels, and I don’t want to have to teach my dictionary how to spell “tricorder” and “phaser” over and over again!

Scott Pearson is a writer and editor. He’s been freelance editing since 2001, was also an in-house editor for ten years, and went full-time freelance in 2015. He specializes in copyediting science fiction and fantasy novels for both indie authors and traditional publishers, such as his work on the Star Trek fiction line from Simon & Schuster.

This article originally appeared in Networking News, the Professional Editors Network’s members-only newsletter. Join PEN today to get the newsletter in your inbox every month—plus access to our archive of past issues.