You owe it to yourself to make better Word docs

Andrew Macrae
Feb 2 · 5 min read

We love to hate on Microsoft Word.

It’s a bloated, messy beast of an application that tries to be all things to all people and ends up pleasing no one — it is neither a pure word processor, nor a typesetting system, nor a page layout program.

But it does come with an intuitive graphic interface that allows you to create printed documents that look like they do on the screen, and this (plus its historic links with the market-dominant Windows OS) has helped it become widely used in the workplace.

It’s also industry standard software for the publishing industry. So even if you work mainly in Scrivener or another writing application, nearly every professional document you produce will spend at least some of its time in .docx format.

Like it or not, you need to make friends with Word.

And here’s the thesis that prompted me to write this article: Despite Word’s ubiquity and the hate heaped on it, many people don’t know how to use it effectively.

Here are six simple things to improve your experience of Word that I’ve picked up over the past 15 years as a professional .docx wrangler.

Photo by David Carboni on Unsplash

1. Understand character formatting vs paragraph formatting

There are two ways to format text in Word: at the character level and at the paragraph level.

It’s likely you know how to do character formatting via the graphic interface: you select the text you want to format and you change its parameters using the toolbars.

But this is not the only — nor the best — way to format the bulk of your text.

The more powerful method is to use paragraph formatting: you click the insertion point within the paragraph you want to format, and apply a style to it using the style pane. The text in that paragraph will then inherit the formatting of the style you chose.

To sum up

Character formatting is great for formatting minor elements within a paragraph, like italics and bold.

Paragraph formatting via the style pane is the best way to format everything else.

2. Set styles globally

Once you’ve applied paragraph formatting with the style pane, you can make global changes to your document by changing the characteristics of the style using (Format > Style).

One thing to note about this: applying a style to a paragraph does not override any character formatting that already exists.

And this is why paragraph formatting and styles are so powerful.

For example, you can use (Format > Style) to change the font size and line spacing of your body text, while retaining character-level formatting, like all those italics you painstakingly applied throughout your manuscript.

This characteristic of paragraph formatting is another reason not to use character formatting for everything.

If you’ve applied character formatting to large chunks of text, for example by selecting all text and changing the font, you’ll be limited in your ability to make global changes via styles.

It’s much cleaner to use styles instead.

Bonus tip

At the bottom of the styles pane, there are two check boxes, ‘Show style guides’ and ‘Show direct formatting guides’ (direct formatting = character formatting).

These options provide a colour-coded guide on the left hand side of the screen so you can see your paragraph and character formatting at at glance.

3. Use the style organiser to import styles from other documents

You can import styles from another document using the style organiser (Format > Style > Organiser).

This saves you from re-inventing the wheel and manually setting styles each time you create a new document.

You can also use this feature to make global changes to an existing document.

If you’ve used the default styles in the existing document (normal, list paragraph, headings etc.), these will be overwritten when you import the new styles from your template document. Your formatting will be updated automatically throughout the document to reflect the new styles you’ve imported.

4. Use styles to set a consistent heading hierarchy

Set headings and subheadings consistently using the style pane.

Creating and applying a consistent heading hierarchy will help you keep your document — and your thoughts — organised.

Use the default heading styles.

If you need to change the formatting of a heading, you can update the style so your changes will flow through your document globally.

Bonus tip

If your text will end up in a web content management system (CMS) like Wordpress, another reason to use the default styles is that this formatting will often copy and paste straight across into the CMS, which saves you from reformatting text when you publish to the web.

5. Use the navigation sidebar to navigate your document

Once you’ve set headings, you can easily navigate your document using the navigation sidebar (View > Sidebar > Navigation).

You can collapse sections in the navigation sidebar to see only the higher level headings, and click on a heading in the navigation sidebar to go to that location in the document.

This provides a Scrivener- or Ulysses-like experience when drafting big documents in Word, where you can build a large document by focusing on small sections.

Granted, you can’t move sections around using the navigation sidebar like you can in those applications, but it’s still a very useful way to keep an overview of the structure of a big document.

6. Use line and page breaks to control pagination

People often use paragraph breaks to control pagination. They insert a series of empty paragraph breaks at the end of a section, so that the next section lines up with the top of a new page.

This is bad practice, because any editing you do down the track will cause that page to break in the wrong place.

Using paragraph formatting is a better way to achieve the same end via the (Format > Paragraph > Line and page breaks > Pagination menu).

For example, if you’ve got a heading that’s widowed at the bottom of a page, you might be tempted to put in a couple of paragraph breaks above it to move it onto the next page with the orphaned first paragraph.

Instead, select the heading and the paragraph belonging to it, and check the ‘Keep with next box’ in the pagination menu, so that no matter what else happens in your document, those two paragraphs will stay together.

You can also use ‘Page break before’ to get a heading to start at the top of a new page. This is a better method than inserting a hard page break, which can also cause flow-on issues.

Bonus tip

Using empty characters to control page layout, like inserting empty spaces to create an indent or inserting empty paragraph breaks to create a page break, is also bad for accessibility.

While these characters are invisible to sighted people looking at a screen, they are perfectly visible — and confusing — to the screen-reading software that vision-impaired people use to read Word docs.

Further reading

Word tips and tricks

10 cool tricks with Microsoft Word

16 Microsoft Word tips you need to learn now

Andrew Macrae

Written by

Writer type: Dowser of harmonic distortion: Text mechanic at Magic Typewriter:

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