When you’re under the gun with a brief or something else that’s due ASAP, the last thing you need is Microsoft Word creating some formatting snafu that defies logic. Particularly if you’re a solo attorney working sans assistant, you need to fix that formatting fast and get back to the business of legal writing. Here are some quick tricks to try.

Unless otherwise noted below, all instructions and screenshots are for Microsoft Office 2010 for Windows.


The first step in solving any problem is diagnosing it. The most useful tools Microsoft Word has for figuring out what’s going on with your text are the Status Bar, Show/Hide, and Reveal Formatting.

Pimp Out Your Status Bar

The Status Bar (that long gray bar across the bottom of your Microsoft Word window) can give you a lot more diagnostic information than most users realize. To maximize its usefulness, right-click anywhere along the blank spaces of the gray bar to get this contextual menu:

I always suggest checking as many options as possible. For example, knowing that you’re in Section 3 of your document can help with diagnosing problems with headers and footers, particularly when you’ve imported text from WordPerfect (which can be very sneaky about embedding unwanted section breaks).

Turn On Your Codes

To me, it’s always useful to be able to see visual representations of things like hard paragraph breaks and tabs. Fortunately, this is easily done. Just click the paragraph symbol (called Show/Hide) in the Paragraph section of the Home tab in versions 2007 or 2010 (or if you’re in version 2003 or earlier, click the Show/Hide button in the Standard toolbar). Show/Hide is particularly useful for diagnosing spacing or justification problems.

If you find all those codes distracting, leave it on just long enough to diagnose your problem and turn it off when you’re finished.

Reveal Formatting, a.k.a. Word’s Reveal Codes Replacement

You can get a lot more information, though, from Microsoft Word’s Reveal Formatting feature. Just click SHIFT-F1, and the Reveal Formatting pane will appear on the right-hand side. Wherever you place your cursor, Reveal Formatting will not only show you how that text is formatted, it will give you hyperlinks to take you straight to the correct menu to fix it.

And if you want to know why one paragraph doesn’t look like another, simply place your cursor in the first paragraph, check the “Compare to another selection” check box, then click your cursor into the paragraph you want to compare to. Reveal Formatting will show you the differences.

Fixing What’s Wrong

If using any of the above tools doesn’t make it obvious how to fix something, or you’re just in that much of a hurry, you’re not stuck. There are a couple of different ways to simply force your formatting to behave.

Format Painter

If you see some other text in the document that looks like what you wish your misbehaving text looked like, the fastest way to make it conform is to use the Format Painter. Go to the Home tab (or, in versions 2003 or earlier, go to the Standard toolbar), place your cursor inside the text you want your misbehaving paragraph to emulate, click the paintbrush icon, then click or select the text you want to fix.

If you want to fix several pieces of text without having to repeat this entire sequence, double-click the paintbrush icon to make it persistent (in other words, to allow you to repeat the “fix” step several times), then click the paintbrush icon again when you’re finished.


Frankly, there are days when you don’t care why your formatting’s wrong, you just want it fixed. Now.

For those moments, let me suggest these three shortcut keys:

CTRL+SPACE – This removes all character-level formatting—funky fonts, underlining, boldface, italics, etc. Just select the text you want to fix and hit this key combination (hold down your Control key and press the space bar).

CTRL+Q – This removes all paragraph-level formatting—weird indents, line spacing, extra spacing before and after the paragraphs, etc. Again, select the text, hold down your Control key and press the letter Q.

CTRL+SHIFT+N – This returns the selected text to Normal formatting (however Normal is defined in that particular document’s Styles). You’ll need a bit more manual dexterity here: select your text, then hold down the Control and Shift keys together and press the letter N.

Any of these shortcut key combinations will return the text to something you can work with without you having to wander through the menus looking for a fix. And when you’re in a hurry, isn’t that what you really want?

Featured image: “fix” from Shutterstock.