Becoming friends with Microsoft Word

Love it, hate it, the fact is that everybody has to deal with Microsoft Word at some point. And the reason for that is that everybody needs to write documents at some point and Word is the program of choice to do it in for many people out there.

Why is there so much hate about Word? I think it is because managing the layout of a document is actually quite tricky. It is an art. If you are frustrated with Word, it is likely you are underestimating the task you are wishing to perform.This underestimation is not your fault. Our first teachers either didn’t know the first thing about layout or didn’t want to burden us with the knowledge. “Just click the ‘b’¬†button to make your text bold, and move on.” I’m writing this to give you an understanding about document layout and how Word (and in fact nearly every application on the planet) is going about it, so that you might more readily understand some of the seemingly unexpected things it is doing.

Layout is a two step process

The most important thing here is that the layout of a document is a two-step process:

  1. You specify what things are. “This is a paragraph. This is the title. This is a subheading. This is a list.” Etc. This is called markup.
  2. You specify how you want things to look. “Paragraphs should be separated with some whitespace. The title should be centered. The list should be indented a bit to the right.” Etc. This is called layout.

Here is where many go wrong: they immediately jump to telling Word how they want things to look, without telling it what the things are supposed to be (the markup)! I know you know that the big, centered, bold thing at the top of the text is the title, but Word is stupid. Word don’t know squat. A lot of frustration stems from Word trying to be clever and figuring out what things are supposed to be by itself. Don’t let it. Tell it.

The markup process

Here, you’ll find a link to a little Word document containing the text of this tutorial without any markup at all. We will use that as a starting point and make a simple, readable layout for it, without Word jumping up and giving us attitude. So, open the document. Not very readable is it? Let fix that!

You notice that my paragraphs have no whitespace between them at all. Now you might be used to separate your paragraphs with two enter strokes, producing what some call a white-line. Terminology stemming from the age of the typewriter I’m sure. By using white-lines, you are telling Word that you want some white space right here and now please. But it’s much better to just tell Word what a paragraph is and that you would like to have some whitespace between your paragraphs. Tell Word this once, and it will do it dutifully for you, and consistently, every time.

You tell Word what things are by applying a ‘style’ to the text. Right now, all the text has the style ‘normal’, which means that Word has no clue whatsoever. Select all the text and apply the style ‘body text’ to it. Whitespace appears! The ‘body text’ style treats the text up to the first line-break (sometimes called ‘enter’) as a single paragraph, and will leave some whitespace before beginning a new one. Most styles have some layout defaults. Lets continue telling Word more about the text.

Select the title “Becoming friends with Microsoft Word”, which Word is at the moment considering to be a very short paragraph. Apply the style ‘heading 1’ to it, telling Word that this is the main heading of the text, what we usually call the title. Subheadings are indicated as ‘heading 2’, sub-subheading as ‘heading 3’, etc. You notice that Word is making our title blue, changes the font and applies some whitespace. We will override these defaults later. Lets first complete our markup.

Apply the style ‘heading 2’ to the subheadings ‘Layout is a two step process’, ‘The markup process’ and ‘The layout process’. Apply the style ‘quote’ to the quotes in the text, such as “Just click the ‘b’ button to make your text bold, and move on.”. Wait, nothing happened with our quote! This is because the default formatting for quotes is the same as for the rest of the paragraph. Still, we want Word to know it is a quote. The more Word knows, the easier life will be for us. Lets also inform Word about the list right beneath the “Layout is a two step process” subheading. We can do this by applying the style ‘list’, but actually it is easier here to select the text and press the numbered list’ button, so Word also knows that we would like it to be numbered. Finally, there are some words where I use a bold font to place emphasis (you and know for example). Find them in the text in word and apply the style ’emphasis’ (which turns them italic by default, we’ll fix that later).

The layout process

Now that Word knows about the markup of the text, we can play with the layout. Let’s begin by polishing up the subheadings. I would like them to be in the same font and size as the rest of the text, only bold. Maybe your first attempt at this is to just select one of the subheadings and select a new font. Go ahead, try it. Obviously the font changed, but only for the one subheading you have selected. What you actually told Word is that this one subheading you have selected is to be treated special. You are telling Word it’s the one subheading in the entire text that is so special it deserves it’s own special font. Word even created a new style for it ‘subheading 2 + your-font-selection’. That’s how special your subheading now is! This is not what we wanted of course, so let’s undo the font changing and go at it differently.

Lets tell Word that we would like to see all the subheadings, the existing ones and also the ones we might add in the future, to be formatted in the same font as the paragraphs. Find the ‘heading 2’ style and press ‘modify style’. A dialog pops up where we have full control of the formatting of the ‘heading 2’ style. Now select the same font as the body text (should be Cambria), give it a font size of 12 and leave the bold button on. In the ‘Paragraph’ section of the dialog, indicate we wish 6pt of whitespace after the hading. Close the dialog and see the result: all the subheadings have changed to reflect the new layout.

Lets format the title of our document as centered text. Click anywhere in the title and notice that Word indicates that ‘heading 1’ is now the current style. This allows you to quickly find styles. Modify the ‘heading 1’ style and indicate you want the text to be centered.

Click somewhere in the numbered list. We see that Word indicates the current style is ‘list’. Modify the style and in the ‘Paragraph’ section indicate you wish to have some whitespace (say 6pt) after the list.

Basically, that’s it! You can now go through all the styles you have applied to the text and change the way everything looks. Now Word is working with you instead of against you and I’m sure the two of you will become very good friends.