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 necessarily broken or buggy, but I do think they should be easier to use. 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.

In this article, I’ll explain what section breaks are and how to work with them efficiently and confidentially. In addition, I’ll show you how to change a section type without losing the section’s formatting.

I’m using the desktop edition of Word in Microsoft 365 on a Windows 11 system. Everything should work similarly in older versions. And while Word for the web supports existing section breaks as far as viewing, you can’t use Word for the web to add or delete a section break.

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What is a section break in Word?

A section break is a Word tool that lets you control formatting as needs change. You can think of sections as subdocuments that are independent of one another within the same document. You might have a document in portrait orientation but includes a short section that requires landscape orientation to accommodate wider content, such as a table. Or you might want to change the header text from one section to another. Both changes would be impossible without section breaks.

Section breaks affect only a few formats, known as section-level formats:

  • Page orientation.
  • Header or footer.
  • Page numbering.
  • Columns.
  • Page borders.

SEE: Here are four ways to delete a page in a Word document.

A section break controls the formatting of everything that precedes it. 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 at the top of 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. The document’s default formatting controls the formatting for page five.

Types of section breaks

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.

How to insert a section break

To insert a section break, position the cursor where you want to insert the break, and then, click the Page Layout tab. In the Page Setup group, click the Breaks option, and choose one of the options shown in Figure A in the Section Breaks section. The first few options are page breaks, so ignore those.

Figure A

Choose a section break to add to the Word document.
Choose a section break to add to the Word document. Image: Microsoft

How to view a section break

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, or press Shift + Ctrl + 8. Figure B shows the symbol for a section break.

Figure B

Use Show/Hide to find section breaks.
Use Show/Hide to find section breaks. Image: Microsoft

As you can see, the symbol identifies the break as a Next Page break. Any content inserted before that section break will be formatted by that break. Content following the section break will begin on the next page, as you might expect.

How to remove a section break

To delete a section break, use Show/Hide to display the symbol, click the symbol and then press Delete. Doing so has repercussions, however. Word will apply the next section’s formatting to the section preceding the section break. This behavior often confuses users.

See a section break in action

In this quick example, we’re going to walk through how to add a border to the table of contents page in the demonstration document. When inserting and deleting sections, you’ll find that other formats matter a lot. So, adding or deleting a section can change something you might not have counted on. Understanding why is the key to working more efficiently with long documents that require sections.

Adding a page border without a section break

You may run into trouble if you try to add a page border to a page or group of pages without a section break in place. Without a section break, Word will add a border to every page in the document. To see what I mean:

1. Position the cursor on the table of contents page at the end of the content.

2. Click the Design tab. In the Page Background group, click Page Borders.

3. After selecting a style, color, line weight and so on, click the Apply To dropdown to see the options (Figure C).

Figure C

There's no current page option.
There’s no current page option. Image: Microsoft

None of these options are quite right because there’s no option for the current page. This Section is the appropriate choice, but because the entire document is the section, doing so will apply a border to the entire document. 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 either because the page border format is already in place. If you applied the border to a sample document, press Ctrl + Z to quickly remove that format before continuing.

Adding a page border with a section break

Now, let’s add a section break following the table of contents and then add a page border to only the table of contents page.

SEE: Learn how to change formats using Replace or by modifying a style in Word.

Where you position the section break matters. If there’s a page break where you want to position the section break, you might want to delete it first. Then, position the cursor where you want to insert the section break and continue as follows:

1. Click the Page Layout tab, and choose Next Page from the Breaks dropdown in the Page Setup Group.

As you can see in Figure D, I didn’t delete the page break, and Word inserted the break on the previous page after the page break. In this case, the extra page break does no harm, but the potential is always there, so consider deleting it.

Figure D

Insert a Next Page section break.
Insert a Next Page section break. Image: Microsoft

2. Reposition the cursor somewhere on the table of contents page, and repeat the steps for adding a border. Be sure to choose the This Section option from the Apply To dropdown. This time, Word displays a border around only the table of contents page (Figure E).

Figure E

The section break allows you to display a page border on only the table of contents page.
The section break allows you to display a page border on only the table of contents page. Image: Microsoft

Note: Not every document will have an existing page break in the same spot where you want to insert a section break. And if, in this example, the document included a title page before the table of contents page, this configuration would display a border on the title page as well. If you delete the section break, Word will delete the border. Therefore, it’s important to be mindful of where you place your section and page breaks for formatting purposes.

Common problems with section breaks

The most common issues with section breaks involve misunderstanding how breaks work and not using the right one for the job. Applying the right break will stop troublesome breaks before they occur and allow users to adjust breaks correctly, as needed.

Misunderstanding Continuous and Next Page breaks

Probably the most common problem where section breaks are concerned is a misunderstanding of the Next Page and Continuous breaks: Next Page will add a page break. If you don’t want that page break, use Continuous.

This decision can be further thwarted by where the cursor is when you insert the break. When needing a Next Page break, make sure there isn’t a page break between the two pages before adding the section break.

SEE: Explore different methods for securing your Microsoft Word documents.

Changing a section break type

Another problem is changing your mind about the break type. If you try to replace one type of section break with another by inserting the new break and deleting the old one, you will lose that section’s unique formatting. You simply can’t replace one section break with another using the Breaks dropdown options. Instead, the way to change a break type is through the Page Setup dialog, which isn’t intuitive, unfortunately.

For example, let’s change a Continuous break to a Next Page break:

1. Position the cursor below the section break you’re wanting to adjust.

2. Click the Layout tab.

3. Click the Dialog Launcher in the Page Setup group.

4. Click the Layout tab in the resulting dialog.

5. From the Section Start dropdown, choose New Page (Figure I).

Figure I

Choose a new break type.
Choose a new break type. Image: Microsoft

Word will adjust the original break configuration to accommodate the new option chosen via the Page Setup dialog and retain the section’s formatting. Unfortunately, most users simply won’t know to look for this option. They will think a break type can’t be changed and go through the laborious task of resetting section-level formats.

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