Word processing is a pretty broad activity, so settings that make sense for someone writing complex structured documents won't be the same as if you just use Word to dash out the occasional letter. Having the ability to change those elements is one of the features that distinguishes Word from its online competitors (including even the Web-based version of Word, which has far fewer options).
With that said, a few of the default settings in Word don't make much sense in terms of actually exposing useful features of the product, or ensuring that you can share your work with others. Here's a few to check before you get going. (These settings are based on Word 2010, but in many cases will work in Word 2007 as well. Older Word versions have different defaults and interfaces, so we haven't covered them here.)
Enable draft view as default
If you're mostly using Word to write text and are less concerned with final layout and formatting, then using Word's Draft view is often preferable, giving you more screen space and less clutter. To set it as the default view is possible, but well-buried. Click on File, select Options and choose Advanced. Scroll down until you find 'Allow opening a document in Draft view' and make sure it is ticked. Despite that odd phrasing, this setting will actually ensure you default to Draft view in all new documents. (Original post)
Make the Developer ribbon visible
We mentioned this in our general useful tips for Word users, but it's worth reiterating. The Ribbon itself can seem confusing and adding more segments to it might seem counter-productive. However, the Developer tab ensures you can gain access to recording macros, which is ideal for automating common tasks or creating your own keyboard shortcuts. To enable it, click on File then Options, choose 'Customize Ribbon', make sure that the Developer tab is ticked in the right-hand column, then click OK.
Change the default language to avoid US spellings
The official Microsoft version of how to change your default language for spell checking: click on File, select Options, and select Languages. Add English (Australia) or whatever other language from the drop-down list, and set as your Default. Click OK. (You may not need to do this if Office has picked up your regional Windows settings correctly.)
My personal experience? This rarely succeeds in maintaining the default language setting for any length of time. To make that happen slightly more consistently, you need to change the language in the normal.dotm template used as a master for new documents. To do this, use the search feature on the Windows to locate the normal.dotm file and then open it. Click on the Review tab, click on Language and select 'Set Proofing Language'. Make sure English (Australia) is selected and click on 'Set As Default'. You'll be asked to confirm your choice. Click OK, save the file, and then quit and reload Word for good measure.
Even after this, sometimes Word will choose to mark Australian spelling (such as '-ise' endings) as an error even when the document has Australian English specified as a default. I wish Microsoft would put a bit more effort into making this feature work and spend a bit less time messing around with Ribbon layout, but I've slowly learned to accept that Microsoft developers have never really cared about English language variants and this will never happen.
Set the default Save format
The default .docx format used in Word is more open than previous Word formats and less liable to corruption. But against that, it's difficult to open on many older machines, or for anyone who don't use more recent Word releases. While you can point them in the direction of Google for conversions, if you're regularly exchanging files with others and don't use really complex layout features then a different format may be more useful as your default.
To change your default Save format, click on File then Options then Save, and choose your preferred format under 'Save files in this format'. I recommend using the RTF option, which most systems can read. If you choose 'Word 97-2003', your file will actually be saved in RTF form anyway, albeit with a '.doc' extension. You can also choose even simpler formats such as text files, but Word will constantly nag you about loss of formatting every time you save the file if you choose that route.
Check out useful tips for Word users for some additional word processing tricks, and tell us your own most helpful Word tweaks in the comments.
Lifehacker 101 is a weekly feature covering fundamental techniques that Lifehacker constantly refers to, explaining them step-by-step. Hey, we were all newbies once, right?