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Digital Publishing: Basics for Professionals:
Using MS Word Like a Pro

There are uncounted millions of MS Word users. Most use Word very poorly, or at least without taking advantage of its many time-saving, document-improving features. Don't be one of those. Be a pro instead!

Word has the basic advantage of being very easy to use. Plop almost anyone—school child, stay-home mother, administrative assistant, boss—in front of it and they can do a passable job of getting words in a row, and then usually onto paper.

Unfortunately, while most users learn to modify fonts and spacing and create lists and the like, they tend to do so using the crudest, simplest method of “select some text, change it” and then “select some more text, change that”—what I sometimes call “fingerpainting.” It works well enough if all you have to do is pull together a reasonably organized report or memo or other simple document, and then more or less forget it as soon as you print it out.

But when you develop docs for publication, or keep revising a document, or need to create a consistent library of docs... you really can't—shouldn't!—do it with this one-sentence-at-a-time, hack-and-slash fingerpaint formatting. This is even more true if you plan to do anything “downstream” with a document other than print it out—export it to EPUB or Kindle, or import it into Adobe InDesign for more sophisticated preparation and export. And while it might seem contrary, using Word's format management tools can save loads of time on such documents. (I've lost count of the times I've heard someone say, “Oh, I don't have time for all that fancy stuff”—while spending hours and hours changing formatting one spot at a time, document after document. Pardon my grrrrrrr.)

So let's get rid of those sloppy habits that cost you time and efficiency, make Word documents prone to corruption and glitches, and in the end limit your professional results.

Published December 2022
Updated January 2023

Using MS Word Like a Pro
James Gifford


1 :: Use Styles. Use Styles. Use Styles!

Is that clear enough? You should always use Paragraph and Character Styles in Word. Never just “spot format” anything by selecting text and applying an override... especially not everything in the document.

This may be a tremendous hurdle for users who have created docs in Word for years, decades even, without more than incidental use of styles. It's not surprising; the app itself and many of its teachers/gurus/tutorials etc. deprecate styles as a useful feature, or even as necessary. (The newest web version of Word actually removes many basic style-management features as well.) But nothing—absolutely nothing—will expand your professional abilities, and results, and help you save time and frustration on publication development, like a basic mastery of document styles.

So, in a nutshell—learn to create, apply and manage both Paragraph Styles and Character Styles in Word. Every paragraph in a document should have a selected Paragraph Style applied; every variation of text within a paragraph should have a selected Character Style applied. No exceptions, and not one character anywhere should have an ad hoc, “select and format” override applied. If you need, say, a body paragraph to do something a little different (such as indent, or space in all around to set off a quote)... create a new, fully defined style to achieve that change.

If you really don't know where to begin with styles, search out some good tutorials on the web, or a guidebook that does not take the approach that styles are an unnecessary gloss. But here's some specific pointers that add on to that basic knowledge:

Paragraph vs. Character Styles

If you're new to the concept of styles in Word, you might not even realize that there are two types. The more common type is a Paragraph Style, which when applied will apply to the whole paragraph, from its first character to the paragraph-return character at the end. (Which will be invisible if you have hidden characters turned off, or a ‘pilcrow‘—¶—if they're on.) This is important because just that end mark by itself will retain, and then apply all style aspects to new text. This sometimes confuses users who start typing in a blank line, only to find it's retained unexpected styling. Easy enough to fix... just click the desired style in the list.

Even some advanced users don't realize that the Word style list contains a second kind of style, the Character Style. This is almost identical to a Paragraph Style in that it can define font, color, size and other characteristics... but not paragraph aspects such as spacing or alignment. It can also be applied to just part of a paragraph—from a sentence to a few words to one word to just one character. Character styles are applied using the otherwise verboten practice of selecting the desired text, then clicking the Character Style name in the list.

So why is one method of spot formatting okay and the other not? Simple. Selecting text and applying some characteristics makes a detached element in the document, one that cannot be changed or managed except by specifically repeating the selection and change. But selecting text and applying a Character Style “tags” that text, so that any changes made to the Character Style will be applied to all instances where it is used. (The same is true of Paragraph Styles, of course.)

Unfortunately, Word does not allow very sophisticated style-list management. Paragraph and Character Styles are combined in one list (with yet another type), more or less with the Para styles at top and Char styles at bottom. They can be distinguished by the symbol at the right: Paragraph Styles have a small pilcrow (¶, remember); Character styles have a small lowercase a.

Use Styles for Bold and Italics, too.

While Word's ability, shared with nearly ever other word processor and text editor around, to apply quick bold and italic spot formatting (along with underline, which is something that should almost never be used in modern documents) with Ctrl-B, -I and -U is convenient, it makes a mess of document structure and completely cuts the cord of control over these highlights.

The solution is to create distinct, manageable Character Styles for these common format overrides. It's easy enough to do, and you can then tweak those styles to suit your preferences (even more so, for export to EPUB or import to InDesign) and bypass Word's rather crude methods.

For one thing, Word will bold and italicize any font with its native functions... meaning you can bold a Bold font and (sometimes) italicize an italic/oblique one. It often does not use the technically correct method, of substituting, say, Minion Bold or Minion Italic for Minion Regular, but something of a hack, just bloating or tilting the text outlines. This is great for Word users who have one- or two-face fonts and still want bold and italic. But it's crap for export, and a mess to manage in InDesign.

So the professional way, as in InDesign, is to create bold, italic and bold-italic Character Styles, which can be managed with fine control. It's suggested that you give these styles distinctive names, so that they are easier to manage 'downstream' and don't conflict with inherent styles. I use 'Bolded,' 'Italix' and (forgive me) 'Unnaline.' No automated process is going to jump in and take control of those, as it might for default names, and there will be no confusion with default styles.

2 :: One (1) White Space at a Time

After the systemic error of not using styles, or not using them well, the single most general mistake most Word users make is to stack up white spaces... spaces, tabs, soft returns, paragraph returns etc. This flawed approach goes hand in hand with non-use of styles, since without using styles to apply consistent spacing, there seems to be no other way to push text over, down, etc.

The ideal practice is to never use more than one white-space character at a time, anywhere, ever. This means no double spaces, no multiple paragraph returns, no multiple tabs, and no combination of any of those. One white-space character per instance.

In a properly constructed document, all spacing, horizontal and vertical, should be done with spacing values applied to each style and by setting tab stops for use of a single tab per location.

Yes, This Means One (1) Space After Periods

Period. This debate is over. If you're a two-spacer, stop it. If you've argued that two spaces after periods is “correct,” full-stop it. (That's a joke; a period is called a “full stop” in some contexts.)

But no joke, two spaces after periods is beyond obsolete—it's an old typewriting method intended to open up monospaced text and is no longer needed or recommended for many reasons. What's funny is that these days, most of those who argue for two spaces have never actually used a typewriter. (At least one word processor I've used actually had a setting that prevented entry of multiple spaces. They all should.)

One space after periods. (And no space at the end of a paragraph!) Debate over.

Use Soft Returns as If They Cost $100 Each

Once you stop using multiple spaces and returns to position things, there's one more step: stop using soft returns (aka line breaks, aka Shift-Return) except in the most selective, considered way.

While breaking lines in paragraphs to get a desired vertical stacking or more pleasing right margin or the like might seem “normal,” it's actually a bad practice that can compound formatting problems and cause both confusion and unexpected results.

Use styles, in pairs or sets if necessary, to avoid breaking and separating content with soft returns. Unless you really, really need to 'spend that $100' to achieve a specific result.

The Special Case of Multiple Tabs

The one case where multiple whitespaces might be tolerated is when tabs are used to align material across the page, in a table-like layout. Really, a table should be used for such things but sometimes a small amount of material can be tabbed into alignment. Use a style to define the tab settings, skip deleting the extra tabs during cleanup, and use a better solution if you can.

Clean Up When You're Done

Even the most meticulous typist/writer/designer will tend to put in extra space elements, either through old habits or slightly sloppy editing. And since the spaces are "white"—invisible, for the most part—it can be hard to spot them without turning on hidden characters, and sometimes not easily even then.

So, when you're done creating a document or doing major edits on it, and always when the document was created by someone else, spend a minute cleaning up the space mess. It's a good practice even for docs that will never leave Word, and essential for export to EPUB or for import into InDesign.

Use Search & Replace or any combination of macros you like to perform the following steps.

Note that an underscore (_) is used to indicate a single, regular space in the search strings.

Each step should be repeated until it comes up with zero occurrences:

  1. Replace all [TAB][SPACE] with [TAB] (^t_ with ^t).
  2. Replace all [SPACE][TAB] with [TAB] (_^t with ^t).
  3. Replace all [SPACE][PARAGRAPH] with [PARAGRAPH] (_^p with ^p).
  4. Replace all [PARAGRAPH][SPACE] with [PARAGRAPH] (^p_ with ^p).
  5. Replace all double spaces with a single space (__ with _).
  6. Replace all [TAB][TAB] with [TAB] (^t^t with ^t). (But see above.)
  7. Replace all double paragraph returns with a single return (^p^p with ^p).
  8. And, strongly recommended, perhaps on a case-by-case basis, replace all soft returns with a paragraph (^n with ^p).

It's good practice to repeat this whole sequence on longer and more complex documents, so that new unwanted combinations created by, say the deletion of a space, are cleaned up.

If this cleanup was not for export to EPUB or import to InDesign, you will probably want to go through the document and correct/reapply styles to preserve the document format. Fix the styles, don't justreplace the extra characters!  

3 :: Use Macros

One of the more advanced techniques you can use to smooth and speed your use of Word is macros, along with selective key remapping. It can be handy for tasks such as the above stripping of excess white spaces.

This is too big of a topic to more than glance at, but learning basic macro recording and even a little macro editing is a skill that will go a long, long way when you have repeated tasks, either document by document or doing some complex change to a large document.

Set Up Display

One of Word's quirks is that it cannot be made to open certain useful menus and panes on startup, even if that's how you closed it. One is the very useful Styles panel, and that it's so difficult to get to stay open is part of the reason most users bypass styles altogether.

This macro will open the Navigation panel, the Styles panel and set your document to a precise zoom factor. I usually scale the Word window to a comfortable overall size for the work I am doing, then run this macro (bound to Alt-Z) to set up my work session.

With a little practice, you'll figure out what overall app window size works for you. And then, using the zoom slider at bottom right, set the document zoom to just fill the doc window, with small top and bottom margins. Note the exact zoom value (112 happened to work for me), and under View | Macros | View Macros, edit the value in this macro to your optimal value.

Sub FullOpenDoc()
'
' Open doc with Nav and Styles panels, to selected Zoom
'

ActiveWindow.DocumentMap = True

With Application
.TaskPanes(wdTaskPaneFormatting).Visible = True
.CommandBars("Styles").Position = msoBarRight
.CommandBars("Styles").Width = 350
End With

' Set zoom value to that from your adjusted zoom slider

ActiveWindow.ActivePane.View.Zoom.Percentage = 112

End Sub

(You can cut and paste the above code into the Macro editing list of any document, then assign it to a working keys such as Alt-Z.)

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