MS Word’s Hidden Helpers

Microsoft Word is a powerful application. And if all I had was one application to work with, Word would probably be it. Adobe InDesign would probably be second, and RoboHelp (or any other help authoring tool) would be third. But Word comes first because not only can you create documents of any length and in most any format, but you can also use Macros and program VBScript to make it do all kinds of very customized things, beyond documents and templates.

So here are a few tips on how I have Word set up before I start writing anything. No matter what editor you work in, most of them come equipped with similar features that help Authors edit and format their documents. For instance, in the “Pages” application on Mac, the “Show/Hide” feature I discuss below is called “Show Invisibles.”

Note that I’m using Word 2016 for this tutorial. Microsoft enjoys moving things around, so you may have to hunt down where these items are in your version. But bear with me, it’s worth knowing where they are.

First, I would say that 90% of the time I’m working in the Print Layout view, and I have my Rulers turned on. So go to the “View” tab, select Print Layout and check Ruler. Now, what you see in Word is what you’re going to get when the document is printed out (or exported to PDF, or elsewhere).

The reason I turn Rulers on is so that it becomes easier to create indents and tab stops. For example, I can place my cursor anywhere in a paragraph and slide the ruler’s indent (the box below both arrow markers) to the right, to adjust the entire paragraph, as shown below left. Note that you can also slide the top arrow marker independently from the bottom arrow marker to adjust your “First Line” indentation, shown below right. Both arrows can be independently adjusted. Using the square box below moves them both in tandem. It can be easier to do these tasks visually, rather than numerically in the “Paragraph > Indents and Spacing” dialog.

Second, you’re most likely going to need to be able to view what’s hidden. These are things like paragraph markers and spaces between words. How else are you going to see if there’s an extra space between two sentences (gasp!) or how frustrated will you be trying to see how many breaks you have between your paragraphs. This also allows you to easily correct the dreaded “entering paragraphs all the way down the page to force Word to get you to the next page” routine that many novices perform (Hint: Go to the “Layout” tab and click the Page Breaks drop-down and select one. Or simply use Ctrl+Enter at the end of the last paragraph you want on the page. This forces a clean break to the next page). Using blank paragraphs in this way will do more to confound, confuse, and frustrate you, especially if you can’t actually see the mistake you’re making. So turn on your “hidden text.” Go to the “View” menu and select the Show/Hide option. Most people call this icon a paragraph marker, but it’s technically a pilcrow.

Now, whenever you type, you’ll see all the spaces between words as a small dot (representing a single spacer between words), and you’ll see paragraph markers at the end point of every paragraph.

Third, you may want to show ALL the hidden features (that’s right, Microsoft doesn’t turn them all on by default). Go to “File > Options > Display” and turn on all the features under “Always show these formatting marks on the screen.” It’s not absolutely necessary, but you may find it useful. Once you get accustomed to viewing these marks, you can turn them on or off to suit your work style.

Finally, Word used to have this great option for showing you the margin boundaries on the page. For whatever reason, they removed this feature. If you want to see the boundaries, you can “kind of” get this functionality by turning on the “Show text boundaries” option. Go to “File > Options > Advanced” and scroll down to the “Show document content” section. There’s some other useful features in here, which you can explore. But for now, check the Show text boundaries and Show crop marks options. The crop marks will show right angles at the four corners of the document’s text margin boundary. The “text boundaries” put dotted lines around all paragraph areas.

Why is this useful? Well, for one thing, this will help you see the paragraph spacing (both before and after the paragraph). I don’t know about other writers out there, but I am tweaking these spacings all the time to correct the formatting. Both these features also help indicate where your margins are set, because you can see the space from the edge of the page to the text. This helps to visualize the margins. Lastly, it helps when you place non-inline images in the document. You can ensure they don’t exceed your margins (an alternate trick is to scroll down the page, and line the image up with the margin’s ending arrow marker on the ruler).

I hope this setup advice is useful for your next MS Word project. Let me know if you have any questions or thoughts in the comments below. I’ll be happy to try and address them.

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