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Understand how section breaks control formatting in Word

Learn how to use Word's section breaks to control a document's formatting.

Users can't work efficiently in a long document without using styles and section breaks, and the average user hates both features. These features aren't broke or buggy necessarily, but I do think they should be easier to understand and manipulate. In regards to section breaks, users don't always understand how they control formatting and are confused when what they expect isn't what they get.

Section break

First, let's quickly review what a section break does. A section break lets you control formatting as needs change. You might print part or all of a page in landscape in the middle of a portrait document. Or, you might want to change header text from one section to another. Both changes would be impossible without section breaks. You can think of sections as sub-documents or mini-documents. They are independent of one another.

The most misunderstand behavior is this: a section break controls the formatting of everything that precedes it, until Word encounters a new second break. For example, let's suppose you have a five-page document with section breaks at the top of pages two and five. The section break on page two controls the formatting on page one. The section break at the top of page five controls the formatting for pages two, three, and four.

To insert a section break, position the cursor and click the Page Layout tab. In the Page Setup group, click the Breaks option and choose an option. If you're still using 2003, choose Break from the Insert menu.

Word offers four types of section breaks:

  • Next Page starts the new section on the next page.
  • Continuous starts the new section on the same page, at the current position.
  • Even Page starts the new section on the next even-numbered page.
  • Odd Page starts the new section on the next odd-numbered page.

Knowing the position of each section break is important. To display a section break symbol, click Show/Hide in the Paragraph group on the Home tab. To delete a section break, click the symbol and press Delete. Doing so has repercussions, however, Word will apply the next section's formatting to the section preceding the section break. This behavior confuses users.

See it in action

Now, let's walk through a quick example, which you can download here; let's add a border to the table of contents page, as follows:

  1. Position the cursor on the table of contents page (page 2 of the demo document).
  2. Click the Page Layout tab. In the Page Background group, click Page Borders. In Word 2003, choose Borders and Shading from the Format menu and then click the Page Border tab.
  3. After selecting a style, color, line weight, and so on, click the Apply To dropdown to see the options. None of these options is quite right because there's no option for the current page. This Section is the appropriate choice; unfortunately, selecting it will apply a border to the entire section. Word sees the entire document as a single section, until you add more sections.
  4. If you want to see what happens, choose This Section and click OK.

Adding the section breaks after the fact won't help. If you applied the border to a sample document, press [Ctrl]+Z to quickly remove them. To add a page border to only the table of contents page, do the following:

  1. Position the cursor at the bottom of the page that precedes the table of contents page -that's the title page in the demo document.
  2. Click the Page Layout tab and choose Next Page.
  3. Position the cursor at the bottom of the table of contents page and insert a Continuous section break. Be sure to position the break before the page break. If you position the break after the page break, the section will impact the header on the next page and most likely, that's not what you'll want.
  4. Reposition the cursor somewhere on the table of contents page and repeat the steps above for adding a border. This time, Word displays a border around only the table of contents page.

If you delete the Continuous break following the table of contents, Word will delete the border. However, if you delete the Next Page break on the first page, Word will display a border around both the first and second pages.

Remember, the section break formats the entire section preceding it and that would include page one if you delete the Next Page break.

In this simple example, we're concerned only with the border on page two, the table of contents page. When inserting sections into your documents, you'll find that other formats matter - they matter a lot. For instance, this document has headers and the header on page two disappears in the process because the newly inserted section has no specified header. In this case, we don't want one anyway, but that won't always be the case.

The point is, adding the section changed something you might not have counted on. Understanding why is the key to working more efficiently with long documents that require sections.

To learn more about section breaks, read Troubleshoot page and section breaks in Microsoft Word, Accommodate different headers and footers in a Word document, and 10 steps to setting up page numbering in Word sections.

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.

4 comments
sh10453
sh10453

Thanks Susan, As always, good and useful article. Of course I'm biased ... I'm one of your big fans! :)

BobGeezer
BobGeezer

Thanks so much for your article about Section Breaks. I've been using them for years, in many and long documents and cursing every time I do. They control the section BEFORE the BREAK! Unbelievable, and never documented anywhere I can remember. Totally backward MS Word logic: (A) "Let's see, now that I've completed that chapter, I think I go backward and change it's footer, page number, etc. before I start the next Chapter, and, BTW, change everything back to the cover page if it's the first Section break" (B) "Ok, that's Chapter One; now I'm ready to start Chapter Two so I'll change the footer to say that, etc. . . " Which is the more logical? A or B?

bruce.ott
bruce.ott

One of the brain dead features of section breaks and footers is that due to arcane reasoning MS programmers make the default footer pagination restart at 1, whereas if the only reason for a section break is to change page orientation, the writer needs to change the page numbering to continuous. After all the iterations of Word for Windows one could have hoped that the page numbering default could be manually set to suite the user.