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10 tips for working with Word columns

One of the simplest ways to make a page more attractive and easy to read is to place the text in columns.

Arranging text and graphics into columns is an effective way to make your document more readable and to fit more content on a single page. These 10 tips will help you generate columns quickly and easily and maintain them with little to no effort.

To enable columns, click the Page Layout tab, choose the number of columns from the Columns drop-down in the Page Setup section, and start typing. In Word 2003, click the Columns tool on the Standard toolbar and choose up to four columns or choose Columns from the Format menu. To return to just one column -- the default -- repeat the process and choose one column. If your columns suddenly disappear, check your view property. Columns are visible only in Print Layout view.

1: Use the right tool for the job

Once you enable columns, you must stick with the columnar flow. Text will flow down the left-most column and into the top of the next column in what's known as newspaper style. This means that you can't just click inside any column and start typing. When you need to align text across the page from column to column (in parallel format) use tabs or a table.

2: Add columns to existing text

When you enable columns, Word will automatically guide your text into columnar format. If the text already exists, the technique is the same. However, you must select the text first as shown in Figure A. Then, using the instructions given in the introduction, select the number of columns you want. Figure B shows the results of dividing the existing single column of text into two columns.

Figure A

Select existing text to change the column property for only that text.

Figure B

These two columns began as one column.

3: Adjust spacing

Columns usually make content more readable because of the shorter lines. You can also use a smaller font than you might ordinarily use. That means you can fit more content on a page using columns. The type of document will determine the number of columns and whether columns are equal in width. However, the general run allows between 40 to 60 characters per line. Any more or less makes the document less readable.

The spacing between columns is the gutter. If it's too narrow, readers will wander across the gutter to the next column instead of wrapping around to the next line in the column. To adjust the gutter, choose More Columns from the Columns drop-down (on the Page Layout tab), as shown in Figure C. In Word 2003, choose Columns from the Format menu.

Figure C

Adjust the spacing between the columns.

Because you're working with short lines, you'll need to rethink paragraph indents. I recommend that you use small indents or don't indent paragraphs at all.

4: Display text boundaries

The document shown in Figure D is displaying text boundaries. Enabling this feature will help you visualize your document's limitations as you work. Enabling text boundaries is simple:

  1. Click the File menu and choose Options (under Help). In Office 2007, click the Office button and then click Word Options. In Word 2003, choose Options from the Tools menu, and skip to step 3.
  2. Select Advanced in the left pane.
  3. In the Show Document Content section, check the Show Text Boundaries option.
  4. Click OK.

Figure D

Displaying text boundaries can facilitate column maintenance.

5: Quickly access options

Many options are available via the Columns dialog (shown in Figure C). To access it, click inside a multi-column section and double-click the gutter space in the horizontal ruler (displayed at the top of the page) shown in Figure E.

Figure E

Quickly access column properties by double-clicking the horizontal ruler.

6: Equalize the columns

To create columns of equal width and gutter space check the Equal Column Width option in the Columns dialog (at the bottom of the Width And Spacing section). Doing so will dim all but the first column's measurements. Use the first column's settings to adjust all of the columns. Word will adjust the other settings accordingly. Remember, you can use [Ctrl]+Z to undo changes.

7: Add a column break

When needed, you can force a column break by pressing [Ctrl]+[Shift]+[Enter]. Doing so will position the cursor at the top of the next column, leaving the remainder of the current column blank, as shown in Figure F. A column break positions a hard break at the inserted location and pushes remaining text to the top of the next column. If you insert a column break in the last column on a page, the break also acts as a page break. If you don't want a page break there, you'll have to delete the column break.

Figure F

Insert a column break to force text to the top of the next column.

To insert a column break, click the Page Layout tab and choose the Column Break from the Breaks drop-down in the Page Setup section. In Word 2003, choose Break from the Insert menu. Column breaks are similar to page breaks in that they inherit formatting from the following paragraph, which can be confusing. There's nothing special you have to do --  knowledge is the simple remedy.

8: Balance the columns

Depending on the amount of text you enter and the length of the columns, you might end up with a long and a short column. You can often insert a column break and balance the text yourself. However, the break remains if you return to a single column. When a forced break isn't the right choice, insert a continuous section break. Doing so creates a new section and Word distributes the text across the columns. To add a continuous section break, do the following:

  1. Position the cursor at the end of the last column.
  2. On the Page Layout tab, click Breaks on the Page Layout tab. In Word 2003, choose Break from the Insert menu.
  3. Select Continuous in the Section Breaks section.

As before, you can adjust the balance between the two columns if you like by pushing text into the next column or pulling text back into the previous column. Unlike the column break method, there's no column break to leave behind if you return to a single column format. However, the section break remains and you'll probably want to remove it. To do so, click Show/Hide on the Standard toolbar to display formatting marks then just delete the section break marker.

9: Create a title that spans columns

Entering a title before you generate the columns is simple. You just enter the title and format it as you normally would. Then, set your column properties and start typing your columnar text. If, on the other hand, you enter the title after generating the columns, you might find yourself scratching your head. The good news is, it's just as easy to add the title after you generate the columns as before:

  1. Position the cursor at the beginning of the first column, right where you want the title to appear.
  2. Enter the title text.
  3. Press [Enter] to push the column text to the next line, leaving the title text in a line of its own, as shown in Figure G.
  4. Select the title text.
  5. Click the Page Layout tab and click the Columns drop-down in the Page Setup group, then choose One, as shown in Figure H. In Word 2003, click the Columns tool on the Standard toolbar and choose one column.
  6. With the title still selected, click the Center alignment tool in the Paragraph group (on the Home tab). Figure I shows the centered title in a single column that spans all the columns. In Word 2003, Center is on the Formatting toolbar.

Figure G

Get the title on a line of its own.

Figure H

Generate a single column for the title text.

Figure I

This centered title spans the columns.

You're not stuck with a one-column span. You can span the title across two, three, or as many columns as you like, regardless of the number of columns in the section. Just select the text and choose the appropriate number of columns.

In step 5, you might have noticed that Word interested a continuous section break. That's how Word splits the multi-column section from the title section.

10: Add a picture

You can insert a picture in a columnar section the same way you would in a normal document (one column). Click the Insert tab and click Picture or Clip Art in the Illustrations group, locate your picture, and continue. Then, right-click the newly inserted graphic and choose Square or Tight from the Wrap Text drop-down in the Arrange group on the contextual Format tab. In Word 2003, right-click the image, choose Format Picture, and click the Layout tab.

Figure J shows a picture positioned in the gutter between columns. To accomplish this, repeat the process above and then drag the graphic over the break between the columns. When you drop the graphic, Word will scroll the text around the graphic if you specified the right wrap property.

Figure J

Position graphics between two columns.

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About

Susan Sales Harkins is an IT consultant, specializing in desktop solutions. Previously, she was editor in chief for The Cobb Group, the world's largest publisher of technical journals.

3 comments
anitaholl
anitaholl

how to make column go page length

AnaBB
AnaBB

Hello. Very useful the information above, thank you so much!!!

However, I would like to ask you if there is any possibility to fill only a column (odd or even)? For example, I have to translate a text having 100 pages, and I would like to have the text only in a column  (odd ), IN EVERY PAGE, because I would like to write the translation in parallel (even column). 

How can I format the page so I can have this distribution of the text, without insert page break or column break every page?

The translated text must be continuous, because I will present it in a normal, one column page. I use this 2 columns distribution because it's an easy way of work!


Thank you so much!

Ana

ed.horst
ed.horst

I can use this info, especially the column hard break.