Has a Word document ever done the opposite of what you told it to do? Picture it. You’re on a deadline, typing away at an important report. Things seem to be going smoothly. Words are flowing like a chocolate fountain at a wedding reception.

And then, suddenly, it’s as if somebody dropped a strawberry into the pump. Everything comes to a screeching halt.

“Why aren’t my tabs lining up?”

“How do I make lines so that somebody can sign and date the page?”

“This could really use some graphics. Will a low-res image work?”

As a Microsoft Office user for the last 20 years, I’ve received all the merit badges. I’d like to share some tips and shortcuts that will make your experience with Word much easier. As a graphic designer, I’d also like to help you finesse your typography to add a little design polish to your otherwise drab docs.


1. Paragraph Spacing

I assume most people know the basics of paragraph alignment and indents. But there are a few advanced tricks to master if you’d like to become a Word power user.

When you want extra space after each paragraph (similar to the formatting in this article) don’t hit the Return key twice — that just creates an unnecessary extra paragraph. Instead, use a single paragraph break and increase the spacing after each paragraph to give yourself an extra gap. This automates spacing as you type. It also allows you to uniformly adjust the spacing throughout your entire document at once. Just choose “Paragraph…” from the Format menu to set up your spacing.

You can also click the Paragraph button to see all your document’s invisible spaces, tabs, and line breaks.

Click this button on the toolbar to see all your invisible spaces, tabs, and line breaks.

2. Bullets

Once you’ve set up an automatic space after each paragraph, you may want to start a new line without starting a new paragraph. You can do this with a “soft return,” as illustrated in the example below.

This will come in handy when you want to create a numbered or bulleted list. Hitting the Return key will create a new number or bullet with an extra gap after the previous line. Instead, hold down the Shift key before hitting Return or Enter to move the cursor to the next line without starting a new bullet. This is a soft return.

To-Do List

  • Get groceries 
    fruit, veggies
    light bulbs and trash bags
  • Pay bills

I used a soft return to start a new line under “Get groceries.” It keeps the text vertically aligned without starting a new bullet. Try this trick with non-bulleted text, too. If your paragraphs are set to indent, the soft return will move the cursor to the next line without indenting the text or adding space above it.

Protip: This trick works when typing on Medium!
This second line was started by adding a soft return.

3. Sentence Spacing

In addition to using too many spaces after paragraphs, you may also be inserting too many spaces after each sentence. If you were taught to hit the space bar twice after a period, it’s time to break that habit. The double-space rule died out with the manual typewriter (open any book or magazine if you’d like a second opinion). Double spacing can create distracting vertical rivers of white space through a block of text. It looks clunky and outdated — because it is.

All contemporary typesetting is done with one space after a sentence, not two, and you should follow suit. I learned to type the old way and had to unlearn that bad habit in the ’90s. It’s never too late to retrain your thumb.

4. Fonts

If you’re using just one font in a document, add some variety. And if you’re just using the default font, like Calibri or Times New Roman, please branch out. Two is a good number of fonts to use. Think about contrast. Pick one great serif font and one great sans serif font. Experiment. Try setting your headlines in one font, and the rest of your body text in the other. But be careful not to use too many fonts. Three is pushing it. Any more than that and you’ll make a mess.

And please, for the love of Johannes Gutenberg, never use Comic Sans. It only exists to be mocked.

But choosing fonts is just the beginning. Word gives you three quick font attributes to apply with a click: bold, italics, and underline. Use the first two sparingly; use the third one never. The underline attribute is another leftover from the days of manual type. Ignore that button. It is not your friend. If you want to emphasize something, use the bold attribute. Or use italics. Or both.

Underlined text can also be confused for a hypertext link. Many web addresses and email addresses will be automatically underlined to indicate that they’re active links. If your text is not clickable, it should not be underlined. Don’t confuse your readers.

Another problem with the underline style? The line’s size and position cannot be adjusted. Sometimes, what you need is a dividing line rather than an underscore. You can get this by using the “Borders and Shading…” feature (found in the Format menu). When creating a border, you can control the line’s thickness, appearance, and distance from the text.

For example, you may want to use a border as a separator below a document’s headline or title. Or, you may want to use it to delineate sections within a document. To add a border, click on the paragraph that contains your headline, choose “Borders and Shading…” from the Format menu, and then click the side(s) you’d like your border to appear on: above, below, left, right, etc.

Only add borders after you’ve finished writing. If you try to apply the border as you’re still typing or editing, the lines may not end up where you expect it to.

5. Graphics

Most of us remember Clip Art — but there’s a lot more you can do with your visuals in Word. I wrote another piece on how to choose great stock photography that you should check out but, here are a few quick tips.

Be sure you’re always using high-quality, properly licensed graphics. Low-resolution web images do not print well. Find a large, high-res image that will look good in print. If it’s too big, scale it down by dragging from a corner handle. (Don’t distort it by stretching it from a middle edge handle.) Do not place a photo or logo too close to the text in your doc. Leave clear white space around the sides.

6. Tabs

Most people make the same mistake when using tabs. When they want to move the cursor over, they hit the tab key two, three, or more times until the cursor jumps to where they want to start typing.

Instead, hit the tab key just once. Then, click on the ruler to set a tab at your new starting point. By default, you’ll get a left-aligned tab. Drag the tab marker on the ruler to adjust the position. Drag the marker down off the ruler to delete it. Remember: If you want your changes to apply to more than one paragraph, be sure to highlight all those lines before making adjustments.

If you want to make a row of blank lines that someone can write on when you print your doc out, follow these steps:

  1. Type a label for your line, such as “Signature:”
  2. Hit the tab key once.
  3. Click on the ruler where you want your line to end.
  4. Double-click that tab marker, or choose “Tabs…” from the Format menu.
  5. Choose the underscore option in the “Leader:” section.

And there you go: Instant lines! Never type the underscore keystroke to make lines. It will take too long, and your formatting could easily be messed up if you change fonts and font sizes.

I hope you’ll try these tips and let me know if they helped. Now, back to work.