Formatting Word Documents – The Easy Way

When I’m training clients on the basics of Microsoft’s Word program, there is an aspect of how it works that I try quite hard to get across

It has been consistent over many years and versions, but, if you don’t get a clear grasp of what’s going on, life with Microsoft Word can be a tad messy and frustrating.

Word 2013 LogoLet’s suppose that you wish to change the font size of a document you are working on. In Word 2010 this is achieved by clicking on the “Home” tab and then clicking on the arrow to the right of the current point size in the “font” group. Then click on the new font size. OK, so you have done that and what happens? Nothing. Nix. Nada. New and newish users make the assumption that changing the font size will change the current document AS ALREADY CREATED. That’s not the way it works. Changing the font size as above (or changing other attributes of the document in a similar way) takes effect with new content that you create AFTER changing the attribute. Text that already exists in the document is not changed.

Also, if you change an attribute (such as font or font size) and then try to insert some new text within the document that you have already created, then you might easily find that the font has reverted to the original. This is because you have to insert the new text after a space in the existing document. Text prior to the space is in the original format and new text added there will be in the original format.

The above – confusing – paragraph illustrates exactly why I always encourage users to adopt a different strategy.

Last Typewriter Made In Britain
Click on the image to see the last UK typewriter (Nov 2012)

Just type your document first and don’t bother about how it looks. Get all of the text written down first and don’t even look at how it is formatted. Then go back over it and change the existing format (eg fonts and font sizes) by selecting the parts of the text that you want to change and then clicking on the attribute you want the selected text to change to. To my mind, this is far less confusing as far as getting Word to behave is concerned.

Selecting the text is done in exactly the same way as selecting any text on a PC – left-click, keep the button down, and drag the cursor over the text to be selected. There are also shortcuts in Word for selecting specific chunks of text:

  • Control + A = select all the text in the document
  • Shift + Right Arrow = add to the selection by selecting one character to the right
  • Shift + Left Arrow = add to the selection by selecting one character to the left
  • Control + Shift + Right Arrow = add to the selection by selecting one character to the right
  • Control + Shift + Left Arrow = add to the selection by selecting one character to the left
  • Shift + Arrow Down = Add to the selection by moving one line down
  • Shift + Arrow Up = Add to the selection by moving one line up

There are gerzillions of such keyboard shortcuts listed at Shortcutworld (but it’s not exactly exciting reading!)

As far as I am concerned, this second strategy also works much better with my creative process (such as it is). I work much better with word processing if I divide the task into:

  • Getting what I want written down (probably even including re-drafting, initial proof-reading etc).
  • Making sure that I’ve got a saved version of the work up to that point.
  • Formatting it the way I want it.

For some reason, a lot of people seem to create documents the other way – breaking off every few seconds during the writing process to mess about with the format. You are, of course, free to do it any way you want but at least doing it my way massively reduces the anguished cries of “why’s it gone back to the old format” and “I’ve changed that 10 times and it’s still wrong!” Not only that, but constantly switching your attention between getting your ideas down and getting Word to format it correctly, is an exercise in mental agility that is just not necessary.

This blog was written with specific instructions for PC users, but I hope my (growing) band of Mac User readers will be able to apply the principles to their advantage.

(Last updated 06/12/2023)