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Six Tips for Better Formatting in Microsoft Word

We are all familiar with Microsoft Word – it has been our go-to word processor for years. I’m sure all of you, at some point, have struggled with formatting a document in Microsoft Word. This post is for you.

These instructions and details are based on Word 2010 but they should work on older and newer versions as well.

Three Levels of Microsoft Word Formatting

The first trick is to begin to think like the enemy. The enemy in this case is Microsoft Word. We need to think about formatting the same way that the word processing program does. Humans might think of a document being built by letters that form words and words that form paragraphs and paragraphs that become larger documents. However, to Word, every document is comprised of three basic levels:

  • Sections. Every Word document has one or more sections.
  • Paragraphs. Every section has one or more paragraphs.
  • Characters. Every paragraph has one or more characters.

While Word sometimes makes it seem like you are adding formatting to an entire page, what you are actually doing is applying formatting to one of these three levels.

Show Word’s Hidden Characters

ms-word-screenshot

To work with styles, it helps to see your document the way Word sees it. On the Home toolbar, click the Show/Hide button (it looks like a paragraph mark: ¶) to turn on Word’s hidden characters.

You’ll see that a lot of extra things show up in your document. In Word, every non-navigational key you press inserts a character in the document. Tabs, returns, spaces, and paragraph marks are all just characters in Word (even though they contain some extra information) and Word treats them like characters. You can select, move, copy, and delete them just like any other character, which actually explains a lot of the formatting weirdness that goes on in Word.

It can be a little disconcerting at first having all those characters visible, but seeing what’s going on in your document is essential to controlling formatting. You can always turn it off when you’re writing if you find it distracting.

You can also control exactly what hidden characters are revealed by going to File > Options > Display and selecting items in the Always show these formatting marks on the screen section.

The one important formatting element that turning on hidden characters doesn’t show you is where section breaks occur in your document. For that, you’ll need to switch over to draft view (View menu > Draft).

Take Control of Sections

Sections control document flow. All Word documents begin with a single section. This changes when you do one of several things:

  1. Insert a section break. You can create a new section manually by inserting a section break (Page Layout menu > Breaks). There are two basic types of section breaks. A continuous break starts a new section without starting a new page. A next page break starts a new section on a new page. You’ll also see two other section breaks available: odd page and even page. Those are really just next page breaks that force the new page to start with that page numbering.
  2. Change page formatting on specific pages. Remember, Word only sees sections. When you change formatting on a particular page or range of pages, Word creates a new section for those pages by automatically inserting section breaks on either side of them. Any page-level formatting you apply is really applied to that section.

The Paragraph Is A Special Character

The paragraph is the most important element in a Word document. Whether you successfully format a document or not ultimately depends on whether you understand how paragraphs work in Word. In Word, a paragraph is a paragraph mark (¶) plus all of the characters preceding that mark up to, but not including, the previous paragraph mark.

So why such emphasis on the paragraph mark? Because in Word, the paragraph mark is a special character. That mark actually contains information about formatting applied to the paragraph. Ever wonder why sometimes you copy a paragraph, paste it somewhere else, and the formatting doesn’t come with it? It’s because you didn’t also select the paragraph mark when you copied. It happens all the time when you click and drag to select text instead of just triple-clicking to select the whole paragraph. That’s why it’s important to have those hidden characters visible—so you know what you’re working with.

Organize and Apply Formatting By Using Styles

word-stylesA style is just a collection of formatting information that you can apply all at once. Styles are used every day in web design because they are powerful ways of keeping your formatting consistent and easy to apply. The same goes for styles in Word, especially if you can convince other people working on the document to use your styles instead of applying formatting directly.

Word’s Home menu shows a simple style menu where you can choose from the built-in Word styles. To show the real thing, click the Change Styles button to the right of those built-in styles.

There are two types of styles in Word:

  • Paragraph Styles. These contain formatting that is applied to an entire paragraph. This includes formatting you might think of as belonging to a paragraph (like tabs, line spacing, borders, and indenting) as well as character formatting (like typeface, font size, and color). Paragraph styles are indicated by a paragraph mark.
  • Character Styles. Character styles contain formatting that is applied to selected characters within a paragraph. Character styles can only include character formatting and if you apply a character style to a group of characters that also have a paragraph style applied, the character formatting overrides the paragraph formatting. Character styles are indicated by a stylized letter a.

First Prepare Your Document

It might sound counter-intuitive to most writers, but when it comes to Word, it helps to format and prepare your document before you ever add a single word to it.

There’s nothing nothing quite so frustrating as trying to fix section problems in Word or trying to fix an issue with styles after the fact.

Now, the more realistic way to approach this is to go ahead and write and just not worry about formatting at all. When you are ready to format, create a new document, prepare it using the tips we outlined above, and then copy your text over to the new document. Just remember to copy text into its new home as unformatted text and then apply all your styles to it.

Conclusion

There are many free online tutorials if you’d like to take this one or two steps further. You can begin by looking at How to Geek School – a pretty cool how-to website.