If you’ve worked with Microsoft Word much at all, you know how frustrating it can be getting formatting just the way you want it. While you can’t remove all of the frustration, you can eliminate a lot of it by learning how formatting works in Word and which tools are available to help you control it.
The instructions and details in this post are based on Word 2010, but they should work with both earlier and later versions of Word, except where otherwise noted.
Learn The Three Levels Of Word Formatting
The first trick to formatting a Word document successfully is learning how Word thinks about formatting. We humans might think of a document as being built of words that form sentences, sentences that form paragraphs, paragraphs that form pages, and so on. But 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.
And while Word sometimes makes it seem like you can apply formatting to an entire document or to specific pages in a document, you are always applying formatting to one of these three levels.
Show Word’s Hidden Characters
To better work with styles, it helps to be able 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 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 the flow of your document. All Word documents start with a single section. That changes when you do one of the following things:
- 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.
- Change page formatting on specific pages. Remember, Word doesn’t really see pages — only 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.
Sections can definitely be one of the more frustrating aspects of working with Word, especially since you have to click over to Draft view to see and work with them.
Unlock The Power Of The Paragraph
The paragraph is arguably the most important element in a Word document. Your success in formatting a document ultimately depends on understanding how it works. 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 (what’s outlined in red in the screenshot above).
So why such emphasis on the paragraph mark? Because in Word, the paragraph mark is a pretty 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.
Use Styles To Organise And Apply Formatting
A style is a collection of formatting information that you can apply all at once. Styles are easily the most powerful way of keeping your formatting consistent and easy to apply, 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.
Word offers two types of styles:
- Paragraph styles. Paragraph styles 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 colour). 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 stylised letter a.
Here’s an example. Let’s say you’ve created a paragraph style that you use for block quotes. It’s indented, single-spaced, and italicised. You have a character style you’ve created for book titles that is bold and not italicised. If you apply that character style to some words within your paragraph, the words will take on the character formatting (bold and not italicised).
You can modify the existing styles to suit your needs, but if you really want better control go ahead and create your own. I like to name mine with “a_” at the beginning so they all show up at the top of the list. As you can see, you have a lot of power when creating styles.
You can control:
- The style automatically used for the following paragraph. For regular body text, you’ll want to make the next paragraph use the same style. But, when you’re creating something like a heading or caption style, you may want a different style (like a regular body text style) to follow.
- You can apply all the character formatting you’d expect to a style.
- Whether the style shows up in the Quick Style list, which is the set of styles shown directly on the Home menu toolbar.
- Whether the style gets automatically updated when you apply formatting directly to a paragraph using that style. This setting is a little dangerous, since you can change your styles without even realise you’re doing it and it will affect any other paragraph using that style. For that reason, I usually leave it turned off.
- Whether the style is saved only for the current document or is saved as part of a template so you can use it with other documents.
- Paragraph formatting, which is hidden under the Format button at the bottom of the window. Use it to control things like indentation, tab stops, borders, how bulleted and numbered lists are formatted.
Prepare Your Document First
It’s going to sound counter-intuitive to most writers, but when it comes to Word, it really helps to take certain steps to prepare your document before you ever add a single word to it.
There’s nothing quite so frustrating as trying to fix section problems in Word or trying to fix an issue with styles after the fact. Do yourself a favour and get that stuff out of the way before creating (or bringing in) your text.
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.
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