Microsoft Word: What You See Is NOT Always What You Get


Striving for Predictability in a (Usually) Unpredictable Environment


Did you ever spend an hour or more carefully formatting a document in Word, only to find that when you finally saved the document and printed it, your carefully crafted and beautifully aligned paragraphs, signature blocks, columns, or illustrations had moved all over the page? 

It has been my observation, over many years of using the Microsoft Office suite of products that most people go about the task of creating documents in exactly the reverse order of the software designers’ intentions.  This practice leads to some drastically unpredictable outcomes, a great deal of frustration, and a LOT of wasted time. 

Even those of us who make our living installing, configuring, and supporting these software products don’t always go about things the smart and easy way, and we sometimes have to “unlearn” some really bad habits before we begin to realize the sort of productivity of which these great products are capable. 

Here are some tips on using Microsoft Word, and word processing in general, which could save you lots of time and effort if properly applied: 

Type your text, freestyle, and then worry about formatting everything after the data entry task is done.

What?  Just type the words, don’t worry about formatting?  It just goes against the grain, somehow, but yes, that’s the way to work in Word.  If you just type, without using the “Enter” or “Return” key, Word will wrap each line to the existing margins of your page.  If you later wish to narrow or widen those margins, it’s very easy to do, and Word will wrap your text to the newly selected measurements in a trice.  But why in the world would you teach yourself to STOP using the “Enter” key at the end of a sentence, to wrap your text to the beginning of the new line?  Well, quite simply, the “Enter” or “Return” key, in Word, means, “Start a new paragraph”.  Each time you press return, a paragraph mark that you can’t see (in some views) is entered in the body of your text.  If you later set paragraph formatting for what you think is an entire paragraph, that formatting will only apply until one of the paragraph marks is encountered.  If you’ve ended every sentence with a “Return”, you’re going to spend your afternoon redundantly applying the same formatting to each sentence, since Word now thinks that each sentence is a separate and distinct paragraph.  NOTE:  If you want to force a sentence break in a specific way, use “Shift”-“Return”.  This inserts a “soft” return that does NOT start a new paragraph.  This is great for preserving a person’s first and last name on the same line, or to maintain a business name as a continuous string of text, or just to break a line at an eye-pleasing juncture.


Turn on those formatting marks while setting the format of your document!

 In the previous section, I referred to paragraph marks that you often cannot see.  There are also marks for tabs, spaces, “soft” returns, and many other formatting commands.  Select “Tools”, then “Options” from the Word menu, and then look at the “View” tab in the resulting dialogue.  About halfway down, you’ll see an entry called “Formatting Marks”.  It’s the second grouping on the “View” tab.  Offered here are “Tab characters”, “Spaces”, “Paragraph Marks”, “Hidden Text”, “Optional Hyphens”, or “All”.  If you click in the “All” selection, your normal editing view in Word will now display all the formatting marks on the page, as you edit.  The first reaction I hear from most users is, “Oh, I can’t stand all those goofy symbols on the screen!”.  Well, this is a bit like saying, “I can’t stand all those roadside instructions at every intersection… I’d rather just figure out what’s happening on my own, and take my chances!”  The formatting marks do take some getting used to, and they’re annoying to the eye, at first, but they’re the only clue to what’s really happening with document formatting tasks, and they’re the only way to avoid unpleasant surprises when you finally print your document.  Which leads to the next topic…


Everything lined up perfectly when I edited this page, but when I print it, everything’s moved around on the page, and it looks nothing like what I intended! 

Yep, things definitely moved around, and it’s all your fault.  Nobody likes to hear this, but it’s nonetheless true.  If you’re working without formatting marks on your screen, and you’re using the wrong functions to align or place characters, graphics, titles, and bullets on the page, things are going to get very unpredictable at print time, indeed.  The hard pill to swallow is the fact that your PC is doing exactly what you’re telling it to do… so let’s explore some new ways to control that unruly monster.

One of the reasons for unpredictable reformatting at print time is our modern font and printer technology.  Back in the days of the typewriter, and early dot matrix or daisywheel printers, every character on a page had a set amount of space allotted to it.  If you typed a “W”, the wheel on your printer or the ball on your IBM typewriter would spin around and whack a “W” character onto the page, then skip the hard-wired amount of space to get ready to whack the next character in line.  Now, however, printing technology can allow for “proportional spacing”, and can adjust the space allotted to each character dynamically.  This means that the amount of white space occupied by the letter “i” is very different from that allotted to the letter “m”, and by manipulating the spacing of each character on the page, a very pleasing and readable flow results.  No more funny space breaks in the middle of sentences or beside certain characters, due to the immutable construction of the daisywheel or typewriter ball.  Now, letters and white space on each line of a document can be adjusted to produce exactly the type of margination and spacing desired. 

However, this is exactly what causes problems when we use the wrong methods to construct a document.  Say, for example, we wish to line up rows of figures or letters in a columnar format.  The “column” or “table” functions of our software are deeply mysterious, unpredictable, and difficult to learn, so we’ve never bothered.  Heck, I’m supposed to be a “computer guru”, and I never learned the value of tables until a couple of years ago, when I started playing with web pages.  So, we simply type the first group of characters, then hold down the space bar until we reach the next desired entry point on the line, type some more, then hold the space bar down again to move to the next entry point, and so on.  As long as we use the same starting and stopping points on each successive line, everything will look very neat and tabular, right?  WRONG!  At print time, our very smart little printer will look at the white space in each individual line, and (especially if we’ve chosen “justified” formatting, which means evenly aligned margins at both sides of the page), our text will wander all over the place, and our neat little table will look horrible.  The spacing adjustments, which lead to an overall eye-pleasing appearance of text on the page, have just created a nightmare for us!  We don’t want eye-pleasing adjustments, dang it, we just want each grouping of characters to start at the same point on a horizontal axis.  Why won’t it just work?

 The problem is the fact that we used spaces instead of tabs.  Word allows the setting of “tab stops”, (an old typewriter function), so that the left-most, right-most, or decimal point in a column of figures or words will line up perfectly on each successive line of the page.  Learn to use tabs instead of the space bar to anchor items in the horizontal axis, and you’re going to spare yourself a whole lot of grief.


The Little-Understood, Seldom-Used “Format Paint” Function, Work-Saver Extraordinaire!

 Now for something wondrous and incredibly handy… the Format Painter.  On your Word toolbar, (depending how your toolbars are set up), there’s a little item that almost everyone seems to ignore.  It’s a little button with an icon of a paintbrush.  This is probably the biggest work saving function on the whole toolbar, when used to our advantage.  Here’s the 4-1-1:

After typing in all the text, then inserting hard “Return” characters at each desired paragraph break in the document, it’s time to format the overall look of the page.  Usually, one would start with the “File”, then “Page Setup” choices on the menu, to set margins, header/footer spacing, and other characteristics that apply to the overall look of the page.  Then, one would format the first paragraph to the desired font, character size and spacing, line spacing, indents, etc.  The task seems daunting when you realize you’re going to have to repeat all the formatting commands for each paragraph, individually, since Word treats paragraph-formatting choices as applicable only to the current paragraph.  Current means the paragraph in which the cursor is resting at the time the formatting is applied, or to the paragraph that’s been “selected” by swiping the mouse cursor over it.

This is a VERY important concept… virtually all of the Microsoft Office suite of products apply their commands and formatting functions to ONLY what is selected at the time.  If you’re sure that the formatting you’re about to invoke applies to the entire document, then you can choose “Edit”, then “Select All” from the menu, and your formatting commands will apply to every bit of text on the page.  How often, however, is this the case?  Usually, we want to format a given paragraph in a certain way, but leave our headings, bulleted lists, or other document elements in a different format.  Here’s where that little “Format Painter” comes in handy.

Simply format a single paragraph the way you want it, then select that paragraph by swiping the mouse over it.  (HINT: If you hover your mouse cursor near the left-most end of the first sentence in the paragraph, it will change into an angled arrow, pointing slightly toward the text.  Then, simply hold down the left mouse button and drag the cursor down the left edge of the paragraph, until the whole thing’s selected.  Alternatively, if you’ve got your paragraph marks showing on the page, simply hold down the left mouse button and swipe your cursor over the paragraph mark at the end of the paragraph… the same result is accomplished.)  Then, click on the little paintbrush button on your toolbar, move your cursor to an unformatted paragraph, select it, and presto!  The paragraph you just selected is now instantly formatted to match the one you chose before clicking the “Format Painter” button.  If you need to format multiple paragraphs identically, down through the document, then double-click the little paintbrush.  It will remain “on” until you click it again, and you can select multiple sections of your document to receive the formatting commands taken from the original paragraph.  This little gem can save hours of work, and can allow you to quickly recover from formatting mistakes or misapplied commands.  Try it… it’s more fun than just about any dental procedure.

 In Summary…

These few little tips are just that… tips of the major functional icebergs on your voyage to mastery of the art of word processing.  There are numerous timesaving shortcuts, keyboard alternatives to those long and complicated mouse menus, and built-in automation to help us accomplish repetitive tasks.  The trick is to read, read, read the many pages hiding under your “Help” button.  Often, help with a certain topic escapes us, because we don’t know what Microsoft chose to call things.  Nomenclature is important when searching for answers, so if you use the “Search” function to look for help on a certain topic, try a number of different descriptions of what you’re looking for.  We should never have allowed computer programmers to name things, but it’s too late now.  Figure out and memorize the goofy terms used to manage all these features, and things will get a whole lot less mysterious.  Yes, it’s a pain, but you had to learn all those real estate acronyms, once upon a time, and the scars are healing nicely, yes?