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.

27 responses to “Fix Formatting Fast: Five Microsoft Word Tricks”

  1. jQning says:

    This is good stuff. The keyboard shortcuts are keepers for sure.

  2. Inga Stevens says:

    I think I love you!!!!!!!!! I have had issues in the past that I just could not for the life of me figure out how to fix. I appreciate the concrete help!

  3. Yeah, I keep those on a post-it on my wall next to my monitor. Always nice to be able to “clear the slate” in a hurry!

  4. Frederick Northrop says:

    Please provide versioning information with your suggestions. For example, the status bar in Word for Macintosh 2011 is not customizable.

  5. All of this begs the question: the reason this article is even necessary is because Word has major formatting problems that defy logic at times and drive you out of your mind. I’ve have been using Word Perfect for 25 years. Word Perfect lets you fix formatting problems easily. Ask someone who uses Word Perfect about “reveal codes,” which is what method of disclosing the formatting codes hidden in the document is called. On the rare occasion when the formatting has gone awry, a simple push on F3 lets you see all the hidden codes instantly. You then can select and delete the errant formatting. Word has no such ability Word Perfect works so much better than Word, it’s not even funny.

    I saw a comparison recently about Word Perfect and Word, and the person correctly noted that what happened with Word and Word Perfect was similar to what happened with VHS video and Betamax. The inferior, but better marketed product (VHS), ran the superior product (Betamax) out of business. That person closed his post with the comment, “you can have my Word Perfect when you pry it out of my cold, dead hands.”

    Word Perfect users are a committed bunch.

  6. R Berman says:

    I HAVE TO AGREE with C. Paige in that WordPerfect is the most superior software. I HAD to convert to Microsoft products because of my employer(s) and I really don’t like it. WordPerfect is so much better and I miss it terribly. The reveal codes is the best thing since sliced bread and is so easy to understand. Microsoft can learn a thing or two (more like thousand) from WordPerfect.

    • J. Schubert says:

      I absolutely agree with R. Berman. I had to switch for the same reason over 10 years ago and I still HATE Word. Why Microsoft has not developed a Word tool similar to WP’s reveal codes is beyond me – unless they’re just a bunch of sadists and enjoy causing users aggravation.

  7. Bob Walker says:

    Thank you! I use WP as my choice of word processors because of reveal codes. But I sometimes have to use Word and just hate it because of the formatting issues discussed by all the folks previously. This is the simpest, best article I have ever seen in explaining how to manage Word.

  8. sunny says:

    Off-topic question: I’d really really love to know what graphics application you’re using to put that tear-off effect on your image. Pretty please? :)))))

  9. Eric Fletcher says:

    Other useful Word settings I always have turned on via Word Options > Advanced include:

    • in the Show document content section, set Field shading=Always to cause any field code content to be set with a light gray background so you know it is a field code result and not typed content (i.e. Table of contents, cross-references, page numbers, styleref content in header/footers, etc.) . The shading is for the screen views only and won’t print. You can toggle between the field code and its result with Shift-F9 when you are within it, or Alt-F9 to toggle all field codes.

    • in the same section, turn on “Show bookmarks” to have light gray [ and ] characters contain any defined bookmarks so you can see them. These also only show on screen views and won’t print.

    • in the Display section, include a value >0 in the “Style area pane width in Draft and Outline views” setting. I use 0.5″ so there is a half-inch area to show the style name for paragraphs in these views. Very useful for reviewing styles.

    Oh, and about WP vs Word: IMHO, the battle was lost when the initial developers based Word’s formatting on objects instead of characters. This made it possible to use styles–which was how documents were being formatted in the printing industry–rather than be stuck with having to use inline codes–which came from the limited processing capability of early standalone word processors.

  10. Cheryl T says:

    I am struggling with a document right now. It contains both a header and a footer. On screen and in print preview everything looks fine. However, when I print it, the footer prints where it should but also across my header. I have no idea how to fix this and it’s making me crazy! Please help.

  11. TheMechanicalGirl999 says:

    Hi, I am a tech and for the life of me and my colleagues we CANNOT figure out why Word is doing this and have tried EVERY formatting trick in the book, HELP! No matter what OS we have tried this on, ANY OS that supports Word2010, but MAINLY win7/win8 have had the following wretched errors and we would all rather us WP if we could and CANNOT since most of our customers have to use Office and since we cannot help them with this and WORD’S “TECH SUPPORT” IS A JOKE, we have to tell them that there is nothing we can do and leave them depressed and have been losing business, because if your tech person can NOT figure out the cause, then you are probably going to feel like you need a WHOLE new system, even when it could be something a “second grader” could figure out, but due to the nightmare Word’s ALWAYS been the solution(s) are hiding from ALL OF US! Anyway, here are the problems…

    Problem A: Whenever we try and format multiple items with different formatting settings AKA Center a title and then justify the text beneath it, put it to the left, so forth…NO MATTER if you directly type it in, cut/paste it from a different source, whatever…it will ALWAYS, even if you edit the formatting to be its own individual thing take the formatting of the title/first thing on the page and if you had a centered title and pasted something in the pasted text will take the same characteristics of what the title had and should the pasted text be sent left the whole document will be sent left, BUT you can still edit the fonts HOWEVER you want, EXCEPT to be in any individual formatting settings you want and we have tried EVERY option you’ve listed and THEN some!

    Problem B: Paragraph spacing…if we have to have one line/paragraph hanging at 1.5 and then another single spaced for instance…the bottom line of the above paragraph will ALWAYS have a huge gap in it not consistent with the current formatting of it and is irreparable UNLESS we format everything the same way! This is especially true with formatting errors AFTER page breaks should spacing of any sort be required, BUT IT IS FAR WORSE!

    Problem C: Bullets, Numbering and indenting…Should we try to bullet anything how we want, make itemized lists like “1.) Example title, followed by bullets” for instance. We run into far worse problems, not only similar formatting nightmares in “Problem A” when trying to make each section unique, but also the same ones in “B” should we have them need to be at different line spacing’s, indentations, etc. and FORGET about trying to make somethings numbered lists and other things bulleted lists, because it will EITHER just make them ALL bulleted or numbered and/or formatted the same way(s) depending on INITIAL choice(s) of settings!

    Help please!,


  12. Guy says:

    Thanks for the tips.
    I have a weird problem.
    In word, I highlight a line of text (clicking just to left in margin) that is normal single space format and normal paragraph. I then bold it via control-B. Unfortunately, it get bolded but so does a ton of other text below it that I had not highlighted, nor showed selected. Any ideas why this happens? IF I only select the text in the line manually (highlighting via mouse drag over text), and then control-B, it works fine.


  13. Jonna says:

    For some reason in Word 2010 (I have Win7) there are random huge Header spaces that I cannot remove, even though I’ve changed the header space to zero. I’ve gone step by step with all the advice and instructions, changed the line spacing to be the same both before and after these header spaces, but I can’t make the header delete.

    This is for a self-published novel, so I really need to have it looking professional.


  14. JamesR404 says:

    Aahh!! I love you and want to make babbies with you! But euhm, I’m a guy so I guess I’ll have to settle with saying Thank You!

    My entire word document was one big hyperlink, which wouldn’t get removed or changed. So whenever I pressed enter I would go to this hyperlink. Also all valid hyperlinks were gone… Wtf really.

    So your article help wonders, especially the part about “if your formatting has gone awray and you just want to fix it and don’t care how”, ctrl+space I’ll remember for ever.

  15. Leatus Viator says:

    Wish I had stumbled into your instructions while I still had some hair left. I could not figure out why some paragraphs started in a new page, creating large white spaces in a document. After watching the Reveal Formatting pane display the settings as I moved the cursor into each offending paragraph, I was able to fix this. The solution was tucked away in the Line and Page Breaks tab – the one I rarely look at – of the Paragraph dialog box!Thank you…thank you…thank you!

  16. riggwafam says:

    For the benefit of anyone that may run into this issue, uninstalling 2003 corrected the problem or use demo software Word Fix Toolbox (http://www.word.fixtoolbox.com/).

    I do appreciate your response but as you are suggesting that in some situations it may not correct the issues, it should be noted all systems have variances in them for installed software and personal configuration so it should not be summarily dismissed because in some environments it can help.

  17. King Kohn says:

    I have some weird codes on the bottom of my Word 2008 MAC version document.
    For example, like this:


    The 15 is the page number. I have page numbers in the header not in the footer, so it is odd they appear there.

    It seems as if some of the page codes are getting jumbled with the footnotes. I have tried the following:

    1) Clicked the Paragraph symbol to hide formatting
    2) Switched off the View Mark Up (from my editor)
    3) Switched off the Reveal Formatting which is liked to the Paragraph button
    4) CMD 6, CONTROL F9, CMD F9 –> do nothing.

    Besides putting the document into PDF format and using the tool to remove the 18 unwanted codes that appear throughout my 240 page text or start fresh with a new file, I am at a loss of what to do.

    Any help or information would be much appreciated.


    • Sam Glover says:

      From Deborah:

      My take would be (a) a caveat that I don’t have a Mac and can’t directly test a solution; (b) some of this depends on how King Kohn added the page number (did he do Insert > Page Number, or did he go into the header and manually insert the PageNum field from Insert > Quick Parts > Field? I would recommend undoing the former and trying the latter, assuming that option is available in Mac); and (c) his “visual” doesn’t really tell me much. He may be dealing with a corrupt file and might benefit from https://lawyerist.com/45283/microsoft-word-editing-committee/ (see #2).

  18. ALISON says:

    thanks. didn’t help though – the reveal formatting option says there are no formatting difference between the two blocks of text, but they still appear differently:(

  19. Random writer says:

    I had an issue with Microsoft Word where every time I tried to switch back to normal style from bold it would automatically switch back to bold. I went to a number of Articles about how to change your default style but none helped. Eventually I found a simple solution; simply type random letters, highlight them, and press Ctrl + Space bar. This will switch the random letters back to normal style. You can then erase the random letters and when you start to type again, it will still be in normal style. Hope this helped!

  20. Maggie Weidner says:

    I am saving my word document as a webpage and left side of document is out of margins. How do I correct?

  21. Martay says:

    Does not work for me. Any of them! Neither of my 2 pcs. The line breaks make no sense. Notepad or wordpad do not help either. Help!!!!!

  22. Selfmademax says:

    This is one of the top 10 blog posts. ever. Thanks. Printing it out and keeping next to computer monitor.

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