Use Word Styles for automation and efficiency

I must not press Return twice

I must not press Return twice

I must not press Return twice…

Perhaps also, Jacob Rees-Mogg permitting:

I must not press the spacebar twice

I must not press the spacebar twice

I must not press the spacebar twice…

I know this post comes from the Excel Community, but I think it says somewhere that we will also occasionally cover other relevant applications, so this is a rare foray into the world of Microsoft Word, inspired by a recent project and also by the rules of grammar as set out by the recently appointed Leader of the House of Commons.

Over the years, I have found that running Word courses can generate a lot more controversy than Excel courses. This might be due to my own inflexible view on a variety of Word techniques and methods, combined with how entrenched people become in the way that they use Word.

Unless your use of Word involves no formatting and only single-page documents, it is not possible to use Word efficiently without using Word Styles. The good news is that, since the introduction of the Ribbon interface in Office 2007, Styles are very visible and easy to use. If you can format text and paragraphs in Word without the use of Styles then you already have all the skills necessary to work with Styles, since Styles just encapsulate any of the font and paragraph formatting available elsewhere in Word.

Returning to our 'lines' topics, one of the formats that a Style can control is the amount of space to be left before or after a paragraph. If you want to leave a blank line between each paragraph and you currently do so by pressing return twice, then, in less than 30 seconds you can halve the number of times that you will need to press return for the rest of your life (at least while keyboards are still in general use). Here are the steps:

Right-click on the Normal Style in the Styles gallery in the Styles group of the Home Ribbon tab

  • Choose Modify
  • Turn on: New documents based on this template
  • Click on the Format button
  • Choose Paragraph
  • On the Indents and Spacing tab of the Paragraph dialog set the After: field in the Spacing section to 12pt (the body text of most documents uses a font size of around 10-12 points, so 12pt is equivalent to approximately one line of space)

From now on, each time you press a single Return at the end of a 'Normal' paragraph you will have a line of space after that paragraph. If you don't want a blank line after each line of your paragraph, for example if you are entering an inside address in a letter, you can use Shift+Return to generate a line feed without ending the paragraph.

Admittedly, it doesn't take that long to press Return twice as many times as you need to throughout your entire lifetime, but there are other significant advantages of eradicating unnecessary, empty paragraphs. Word can automate how your document is paginated. For example, if you use headings, you are unlikely to want your heading to be at the bottom of page 1 whilst the text that it refers to ends up on page 2, or for your heading itself to be split across two pages. The various paragraph format 'Line and Page Breaks' settings can be incorporated into your heading Style to make this automatic:

However, if you follow all of your headings with an empty paragraph to allow for spacing, then it is this empty paragraph that your heading will be kept with, and the actual body text that the heading paragraph refers to could still end up on a different page.

Where the redundant Return can sabotage your Word efficiency, many see the practice of following full stops within a paragraph with two spaces as just a harmless, but pointless, throwback to the days of the typewriter. With a possible exemption for the two spaces after a full stop, it's rarely a good idea to press the spacebar more than once. Trying to line up text or numbers in a proportional font by inserting spaces will almost certainly result in disappointment and frustration, particularly for someone else who tries to work with the document. Tables and tabs are invariably a better option.

Controversial as the above might be, the loudest exclamations of disbelief and disapproval are generally reserved for a suggestion that Word users should leave the display of the 'hidden formatting symbols' turned on. These symbols immediately highlight a variety of Word crimes, including empty paragraphs and multiple spaces. If you can't bring yourself to leave them displayed all of the time, at least make turning them on your first action when trying to troubleshoot a Word document that isn't behaving as you think it should:

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