Sat. Jun 22nd, 2024

When I trained as a document production specialist for legal firms, I realized that I had picked up bad Microsoft Word habits over the years. What I learned has since transformed my use of this powerful program. Here are the most important things you should avoid when getting started.

Pressing Enter to Create Gaps Between Paragraphs

When you finish a paragraph, press Enter to move to the next line and start the next paragraph. Sometimes, however, you might notice that there isn’t white space between your paragraphs, meaning it’s difficult to see where one ends and the next begins.

A Word document containing Lorem text in several paragraphs, and no spacing in between each paragraph.

You might be tempted to press Enter again to create that extra space, but this can lead to formatting issues. For example, if you do this at the end of a page, the first line of the next page might not be aligned to the edge of the upper margin as you would expect, meaning your text begins in different places on each page. Also, if you increase the font size across your whole document, this double-space you created might become too large and look untidy.

Microsoft Word has an easy-to-use setting to help you create that elusive white space between your paragraphs. First, though, you might find it useful to see why the paragraphs don’t do this automatically when you press Enter once. Select one of your paragraphs, and click the button in the bottom-right corner of the Paragraph group in the Home tab.

A Microsoft Word document with a paragraph selected, the Home tab opened, and the paragraph dialog button highlighted.

In the Paragraph dialog box that opens, review the Spacing section. If there are no spaces between your paragraphs, it’ll be because either the Before and After options are set to 0 pt, or the Don’t Add Space Between Paragraphs Of The Same Style option is checked.

Word's Paragraph dialog box with the Spacing section highlighted. The Before and After options are set to 0.

However, it’s important that you don’t amend those settings yet. If you do, the changes you make will only apply to the paragraph you have selected, and this is very much a short-term fix. Instead, click “Cancel” to close the Paragraph dialog box.

To fix all paragraphs at the same time, you need to modify the paragraph’s style. Single-click any of the paragraphs you have typed, and press Ctrl+Shift+S to open the Apply Styles box. Then, click “Modify.”

The Apply Styles box in Word, with the 'Modify' option selected.

You will then see the Modify Style dialog box appear. Click the “Format” drop-down box in the bottom-left corner of that dialog box, and choose “Paragraph.”

Word's Modify Style dialog box, with the Format drop-down option opened and the Paragraph option selected.

This will bring up the same Paragraph dialog box as earlier, but this time, you’re making changes to all paragraphs in this style.

I like to have the paragraph spacing match the font size I am using, as this looks the most professional. So, since I’m using size 12 pt font, I will change the Spacing After to 12 pt. Also, make sure the checkbox underneath is unchecked. Finally, click “OK” in both dialog boxes.

The Paragraph style dialog box with the Spacing After changed to 12 pt, the checkbox unchecked, and the OK button highlighted.

Providing all your paragraphs were assigned to the same style, you will now see that they are all nicely separated, and this will remain the case regardless of where they are in your document. Any additional paragraphs you add will also automatically follow the same structure.

A Word document containing paragraphs with Lorem text, and the paragraphs are separated with size 12 pt spacing.

If the remaining paragraphs do not change, first, make sure they’re all the same style in the Style group on the Home tab.

Manually Bolding Your Headings

Now that your paragraphs are nicely spaced, you might want to add a heading.

A Microsoft Word document containing an unformatted heading that reads Section 1.

You might be used to selecting the text and pressing Ctrl+B to turn the heading bold, but doing this can lead to nagging inconsistencies and formatting issues. Instead, you need to use the Styles group in the Home tab on the ribbon.

With your cursor placed anywhere in your heading, click a heading style that looks appropriate for your document. In my case, I’ll choose Heading 1.

A Word document with the cursor placed inside a heading and the Heading 1 style selected.

Doing this has several benefits:

  • Word’s heading styles automatically connect your heading to the text that follows, meaning your heading won’t ever separate from the first paragraph of that section. This is great because it means that you won’t end up with a heading at the end of one page and the corresponding text at the start of the next.
  • Providing you apply the style to all your headings, if you wanted to change the style, you’d simply need to right-click the appropriate heading in the Styles group and click “Modify.” This would then amend all headings linked to this style.
  • If you were to create a table of contents, you can set it up so that it picks up all the headings in your document, a quick and easy way to make sure you don’t miss any out.
  • If you format your headings individually, you might forget which settings you applied, meaning your headings might be inconsistent throughout your document.

Using More Than One Font (and the Wrong Font!)

Having worked for many years on professional Word documents for legal firms and schools, one thing I’ve learned is that having more than one font instantly reduces a document’s credibility. The key word throughout this article is consistency, and at no time is this more relevant than when you’re deciding on your font. Yes, you can use different typeface sizes for different headings, bold and italicize some important words, or change the font color, but this should all be done with the same base font.

There are five types of fonts that you have at your disposal:

Serif fonts are those traditional newspaper headline typefaces with little flicks at the ends of the lines in the letters, such as Times New Roman or Georgia. While these types of fonts look professional, charities suggest that some neurodiverse individuals might find that they present challenges, as they appear more crowded.

Serif fonts in Microsoft Word.

Sans serif fonts do not have these extensions at the ends of the letters and are generally considered more accessible. Examples include Aptos and Calibri.

Sans serif fonts in Mirosoft Word.

Script fonts—such as Brush Script MT and Lucida Handwriting—replicate handwriting and are best reserved for digital signatures or stylized documents like invitations.

Script fonts in Microsoft Word

Monospaced fonts—the default typeface for code editors—make all letters the same width and can be used to replicate traditional typewriter fonts. Here’s what Courier New and Lucida Sans Typewriter look like.

Monospaced fonts on Microsoft Word.

Finally, Display typefaces are used for text that should be used on large displays, and can be any of the above (depending on the typist’s preferences). If you’re aiming for a display typeface, though, you’re probably using the wrong Microsoft program—Publisher and PowerPoint are probably more useful for you!

Pressing Enter to Move to a New Page

This is a simple one—don’t repeatedly hit Enter to move to the next page of your document. This can be disastrous if you subsequently add more text to earlier pages, as the many spaces you add could end up being in the middle of a page between two paragraphs.

Click the Show/Hide icon (¶) in the Home tab to see where your paragraph and pagination markers are positioned.

A Word document with seven paragraph markers between two paragraphs.

Instead, in the Insert tab on the ribbon, click “Breaks” and choose the type of break you want.

The Breaks drop-down option in Word.

Using the Space Bar to Indent Paragraphs

If you want to indent the first line of each paragraph, don’t use your Space Bar, as this will undoubtedly result in inconsistent indentation.

Inconsistently indented first lines of paragraphs in Microsoft Word.

In fact, many professional style guides nowadays tend to insist you don’t intend your first lines at all—this layout is becoming more outdated.

If you do want to indent your first line, however, you’ll need to modify the paragraph style from the Styles group in the Home tab (right-click the style to do this).

After clicking “Paragraph” in the Format drop-down menu of the Modify Style window, head to the Special options of the Indentation section. There, change the Special drop-down choice to “First Line,” and type in your preferred indentation distance.

The Paragraph dialog box in Microsoft word with the first line indent set to 1 cm.

After clicking “OK,” you’ll see all paragraphs in that style have their first line consistently indented.

Adding WordArt and Low-Resolution Images

I’m surprised that Word offers WordArt (formerly ClipArt) as an option, since there are so many fonts to choose from, especially if you’re a Microsoft 365 subscriber. Using WordArt in your document instantly reduces the professionalism of your work, and could cause formatting issues due to how it might react to being surrounded by text. If you want a slick and tidy Word document, avoid using WordArt altogether, but if you must use it, do so sparingly.

The WordArt choices in Microsoft Word.

Similarly, if you need to add an image, make sure it’s at least 300 pixels per inch (ppi), as anything less than that might appear blurry and reduce the credibility of your work. You can also change the default resolution in Word’s options. Click File > Options > Advanced. In the Image Size And Quality section of this window, change the Default Resolution to “300 ppi” or “High Fidelity,” and click “OK.”

The Word Options window with the Default Resolution drop-down options displayed.

Choosing the highest quality means that pictures will not be compressed unless they exceed the document canvas size.

Changing the default image resolution to High Fidelity may cause your Word Document to process much more slowly when you add pictures—an issue that might significantly affect low-memory computers.

It’s easy to develop bad practices in any of the Microsoft apps, especially since they initially take a lot of getting used to. Microsoft PowerPoint is a perfect example of this, so make sure you check out my tips to avoid making similar mistakes in your slideshow presentations.

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By John P.

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