#380 What You Need to Know to Really Master Microsoft Word

Even if you know nothing else about working in Microsoft Word, you’ll be ahead of 90% of all Word users if you know what I’m about to tell you.  Seriously.  I’ve seen many people struggle with Word doing very weird things when they try to edit their own documents. And if it’s somebody elses? Well that makes it even worse!

The most important thing to know about Word is where the different types of formatting are stored. Once you know that you’re well on your way to becoming a document guru. Feel free to spread the word and save the world, or at least the world’s sanity, one document at a time.

Here is the secret to formatting Word documents and still maintaining your sanity…or what’s left of it.

Word documents have three levels of formatting:

  • Characters. Every paragraph has one or more characters.
  • Paragraphs. Every section has one or more paragraphs.
  • Sections. Every Word document has one or more sections.

No matter what you’ve seen or heard, anytime you make formatting changes you are always working with one of these three levels.

Turn on Non-Printing Characters

If you want to have a much better view of what is happening in your documents turn on the non-printing characters. At least when you are editing.  Just click on the button from the Home tab that looks like a paragraph mark. When you do you’ll see all those funny little symbols sprinkled through your document. (Don’t worry they don’t print.)

Beyond the Basics: Six Tips for Better Formatting in Microsoft Wordi

Character Formatting

All character formatting including the font type, size, color, bold, italics, underline, etc are stored in the actual character itself. This is the easy one and it is hard to mess this one up. 😎

Paragraph Formatting

All the formatting for a paragraph including line spacing, indentation, space before and after, etc is stored in the paragraph mark at the end of the paragraph. (Which you can’t see unless you turn on those non-printing characters.) If you copy or cut a paragraph without including that ending mark, you are leaving all the formatting behind. Include it and your formatting will come along for the trip to where ever you paste it.  This one is a little tougher but not too bad if you know how it works.

Section Formatting

Working with sections can be one of the most challenging tasks you’ll ever do in Word. If you’re lucky, you might be able to get away without ever needing to deal with them. Otherwise, it pays to know how they work. Every Word document starts out with only one section. You can get more sections when any type of section break is added to your document. Beware that Word can add them automatically without you necessarily knowing about it.

Beyond the Basics: Six Tips for Better Formatting in Microsoft Word

Section formatting includes all commands accessible through the Page Setup dialog box on the File menu (margins, page orientation, paper size, etc.), as well as headers and footers, text columns (i.e., the Columns command, Format menu), page borders, the numbering of footers and end notes, and some document protection options.

This is what they look like in your document.



If you ever need to copy or move an entire section and keep it’s formatting the same, make sure your selection includes the section break symbol at the end. Otherwise all the original section formatting will be left behind.

The other thing that I have found helpful after way too many wrestling matches with section breaks is that it is easier to work from the end of your document and work back towards the beginning. Especially if you’re trying to fix misbehaving headers, footers and page numbers. Word has a bad habit of turning on the “Same as Previous” setting for headers and footers which causes changes in one section to also be applied to other sections. Beware of that setting! It can give you nightmares!

Alright, if you can remember these 3 simple concepts and how the 3 different levels of formatting work in your Word Documents you’ll be ahead of 99% of the rest of the world. Not to mention saving yourself a lot of wasted time and frustration.


4 thoughts on “#380 What You Need to Know to Really Master Microsoft Word

  1. I find sections to be manageable, but what is not is page headers. Not only forgetting to disable Link To Previous, but in my doc, switching from text mode to header mode jumps many pages away. (?) And the line breaks change in the two modes.


    • Section breaks impact headers and footers too. For example, if you’re in the middle of a section when you switch to the header it may be jumping to the front of that section.


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