John Muir said, "When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe." As a naturalist, Muir was talking about our natural world, but it occurred to me that Word is similar. Everything we do in Word seems connected, and sometimes those connections create problems that are hard to anticipate or troubleshoot. This article suggests 10 things you should avoid doing in Word. Some of them are harmless if you're working on a short one-time document. But long documents with repurposed content get the worst end of these bad habits. Retrain yourself and break these habits before they create aggravations and wreak havoc.
I'm using Word 2016 (desktop) on a Word 10 64-bit system, but most of the article applies to older versions and to the browser edition. There's no downloadable demo file—you won't need one.
Note: This article is also available in the free PDF 30 things you should never do in Microsoft Office.
1: Modify Normal.dotm
Every document starts with the template Normal.dotm—even if users don't realize it. This template includes default styles and behaviors that determine the basic look of each new document. You might modify this template to avoid resetting things every time you create a document. But if Normal.dotm is damaged or moved, Word will create a new version the next time you launch Word, and it won't include your customizations. The same thing might happen when you upgrade to the next version of Office.
If you work alone, making a few changes to Normal.dotm is harmless—but be sure to save a copy someplace so you can reclaim it if the worst happens.
SEE: Build your Excel skills with these 10 power tips (TechRepublic PDF)
2: Use spaces or tabs to indent
When typing a simple document, some of you might insert a tab or a few spaces to indent the first line of each paragraph. The practice is harmless until you modify the document in some way. You could end up with an out-of-place space or tab. More likely, you'll end up with lots of displaced text. It's not a big deal in a short document, but in a long document that requires a lot of editing, those tabs and spaces in the wrong places can drive you nuts. Instead, set a default indent as follows:
- Click the Home tab.
- Click the Dialog launcher for the Paragraph group.
- From the Special dropdown in the Indention section, choose First Line.
- Enter an indent measurement in the By control (Figure A).
- Click OK.
Set the paragraph indent for your entire document.
3: Let Word decide
Word is full of defaults that are adequate in most circumstances. However, those defaults can be annoying if you're constantly having to reset options. Fortunately, Word lets you take the wheel if you want to. Change those defaults and eliminate those tedious steps you take every time you start a new document. For more on changing Word defaults, read 10 Word defaults you can customize to work the way YOU want.
4: Live with distractions
Word tries its best to help you as you're working. For instance, as you type, Word highlights typos, grammatical errors, and formatting inconsistencies. Some users find interactive features annoying. If you like to type without all that screen noise, disable these features:
- Click the File tab and choose Options.
- Select Proofing in the left pane.
- In the When Correcting Grammar And Spelling In Word section, uncheck the first four options (Figure B).
- Check Advanced in the left pane.
- In the Editing Options section, uncheck the Mark Formatting Inconsistencies option for the Keep Track Of Formatting option (Figure C).
- Click OK.
Turn off error checking for spelling and grammar.
Disable Word's format checking.
Just bear in mind that disabling these features can make you more vulnerable to mistakes; it's an all or nothing choice.
SEE: Microsoft Office Certification Training Bundle (TechRepublic Academy)
5: Use Format Painter as a replacement for styles
If you find yourself using Format Painter a lot, stop. Instead, create a custom style or modify one of Word's built-in styles accordingly. Formats applied directly (manually) have a way of causing problems because they take precedence over styles. Later, when applying a style doesn't have the desired effect, you might not know why.
Format Painter isn't the only culprit though—any direct formatting has the potential to cause problems. Always use a style when possible.
6: Use two returns to end a paragraph
When using block style for content, users often hit Enter twice at the end of the paragraph to add a bit of white space between the paragraphs. But this creates havoc when you reorganize things. Instead, press Enter at the end of the paragraph only once and change the paragraph spacing or modify the style to add the desired space. Word handles this for you automatically in newer versions, so this habit isn't as problematic as it once was.
While we're on the subject of hard returns, I recommend that you change the top margin rather than using Enter to space down to allow for fixed content such as letterhead and logos. The returns are less menacing in this spot, but in general, using Enter to add empty space is a bad idea.
7: Use Enter to force content to the next page
I thought users had stopped doing this until I reviewed a document from a reader; sure enough, it was full of forced lines at the bottom of several pages. When others opened her document, things weren't where she put them! For better or worse, a user's default printer has some control over a Word document. If another system must rework fonts or spacing on the fly, it might look different. Although frustrating, this is one of the easiest problems to fix.
The simplest fix is to insert a page break. Better yet, apply a style. Even better, attach the break to the last or first paragraph. To learn how to do this, read Force a page break before a specific paragraph.
SEE: Google Apps vs. Office 365: A side-by-side analysis (Tech Pro Research)
8: Use multiple tabs or spaces to align tabular data
The easiest way to align tabular data into neat columns is to use a table. If you don't want to print the borders, you can disable them. You can generate the table beforehand or you can convert existing text. When doing the latter, enter only one tab between each item—it won't look right, but once you convert the content into a table, everything will align perfectly.
9: Use tabs and spaces to right-align text
Right-aligning text is easy: Select the text and click Align Right in the Paragraph group (on the Home tab). It's not so easy if the text you're aligning isn't the only text on that line because Word will right-align the entire line—not just the selected text. As a workaround, many users use tabs and spaces to nudge the text to the right margin. Unfortunately, if you try to add more text, everything becomes a jumbled mess.
The correct way to work with different alignments in the same line is to use alignment tabs as follows:
- Enter the left-aligned text as you normally would.
- When you're ready to add the right-aligned text, click the Tab Selector (in the top-left corner just below the Clipboard group) until the Right Tab appears.
- Click as close to the right margin on the horizontal ruler as you can to add a right tab in that position (Figure D).
- Press Tab. The cursor skips right to the right margin.
- Enter the right-aligned text and watch it align automatically as you type (Figure E).
Access a right tab.
Enter the right-aligned text at the right tab.
10: Use Word as a spreadsheet
Word supports a few simple mathematical operators, and if you're not a whiz at Excel, using Word as a spreadsheet sounds like a great idea. Unfortunately, it seldom works to your benefit. Take the time to learn how to use the right tools to get the job done. If you need to add data from an Excel file to a Word document, embed it! But don't rely on Word for data analysis—it simply isn't robust enough in that area to do your data justice.
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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.