Fixing your #@(*$#)$( Single-Spacing in Microsoft Word

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It used to be a lot easier. Single spacing, that is. It’s a pretty simple concept: you don’t want any extra spaces between the lines within your paragraphs. It ought to be easy to do.

But Microsoft Word somehow takes a simple concept and makes it difficult in practice. And if there is one thing that I find makes people curse Microsoft Word faster than any other, it’s this. Here’s what’s going on behind the scenes and, more importantly, how you can fix it permanently.

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

When Line Spacing isn’t (Just) Line Spacing

A big part of the problem is that there’s more than one setting that actually controls the spacing between lines. There’s line spacing, which is exactly what it sounds like: single-spaced, double-spaced, etc. The easiest and fastest way to reset line spacing is to use the line spacing drop-down in the Paragraph section of the Home tab:

Microsoft-Word-line-spacing-1

But there is also spacing before and after paragraphs which is independent of intra-paragraph line spacing. To put it in simpler terms, if you hit the Return key (which marks the end of a “paragraph” in Word), even if your line spacing is set at 1.0, the before/after paragraph spacing may make your text look as if it is double-spaced:

Microsoft-Word-line-spacing-with-after-para-spacing

Microsoft-Word-line-spacing-without-after-para-spacing

The fastest, most direct way to fix this in your current document is to select the affected paragraphs with your mouse, go to the Page Layout tab, and change the number in the Spacing area of the Paragraph section to zero.

Microsoft-Word-line-spacing-2

When Microsoft Knows Better Than You

Users who upgraded from Microsoft Word 2003 noticed almost immediately that their line spacing was off. Not way off, but off just enough that they could tell the lines weren’t single-spaced.

Their eyes weren’t deceiving them. Microsoft, in its infinite wisdom, decided that all documents needed to have the more online-friendly line spacing of 1.15, so they set that line spacing as the default for the Normal template.

Personally, I think the 1.15 line spacing is good for long documents, particularly letters with lengthy paragraphs. But that does not mean we all have to acquiesce to Microsoft’s “wisdom” by default.

To force single spacing in your current document, use that line spacing drop-down shown above. However, the quickest way to reset the default spacing in your document is to go to the Home tab and, in the Styles section, right-click on the style called Normal (usually the first one in the list):

Microsoft-Word-line-spacing-3

Since the Normal style is what most of the rest of the styles in your document are based on, changing this one style will cascade down to the others. When you right-click on Normal, click Modify to get this dialog box:

Microsoft-Word-line-spacing-4

Just click on the single-spacing icon (circled above) to force single-spacing. To adjust before/after paragraph spacing, click on the Format button on the bottom and choose Paragraph to get this dialog box:

Microsoft-Word-line-spacing-5

Adjust those numbers to zero and click OK to exit.

Fixing This Stuff Permanently

Doing this repeatedly in every document is going to get old quickly. If you want to change the default settings for all new documents, you’ll have to modify the Normal template. But before you can modify it, you’ll have to find it. Microsoft does not make this easy.

The fastest way to find it in Windows is to click on the Start button and drop this text into the “Search programs and files” field at the bottom:

%appdata%\Microsoft\Templates

You’re looking for something called Normal.dotx (in Word 2007/2010) or Normal.dot (Word 2003 or earlier). First, SAVE A COPY of your Normal template under a new name (right-click, choose Copy, then right-click again and choose Paste, then right-click again and choose Rename).

Right click on the one called Normal and choose Open. Make the changes to the Normal style as noted above (switch to single-spacing and zero out before/after paragraph spacing), then do File | Save As and make sure it’s saving it into the location where it came from. Choose “yes” if Word asks if you want to overwrite it. Close the template.

From now on, any new document you create with the Normal template (which, for most users, is 99% of their documents unless they’ve been really diligent about creating their own library of templates) will have the new settings by default.

Updates

  • 2013-07-13. Originally published.
  • 2015-05-29. Revised and republished.

Featured image by Andrew McCluskey / CC BY 2.0.

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  • In Typography for Lawyers, Matthew Butterick explains that the optimal line spacing is between 120% and 140% of the point size. Unless court rules require 12 point text, Butterick recommends testing font sizes between 10 and 11.5 with your chosen font (which should not be Times New Roman) to see what looks good to you.

    Getting back to line spacing, this means that, for example, the optimal line spacing for a document using an 11 pt. font is 13-16 points of line spacing. Butterick further explains that single spacing is equivalent to about 117% line spacing. In his book, he provides instructions about how to set line spacing (and many other typographic settings) in Word, WordPerfect and Pages.

    • This is right. Single-spacing isn’t actually very good typography. Give your text some room to breathe.

    • I’ve seen some courts demand 13 pt. font (Middle District of NC, for example).

  • Thank you for the info. Every time I try to get rid of the Time New Roman font by clicking on the “Default” it seems Word humors me only temporarily. Maybe with this I can fix that and the spacing permanently.

    Thanks again!

    • Also check out Ben Schorr’s posts at Technolawyer, and his book(s) Microsoft Word for Lawyers, for great tips on getting Word to play nicely with the typographical conventions you’re trying to implement consistently.

  • fr0zensphere

    Ummm… It looks to me like you’re making this more complicated than it is. I think that “fixing this stuff permanently” is doable right in the same dialog box that you have posted screenshots of. At the bottom of the “Modify Style” dialog box, I just selected the bullet labeled “New documents based on this template” and clicked “Okay.” I closed Word and opened it again with a new document, and the default spacing was the new setting — single spaced with 0 spacings after the paragraphs. In other words, it did *not* revert to the original default of 1.15, etc. Looks like I fixed it permanently.

    Did I miss something??

  • Jean

    Thank you so much for this simple fix. It was driving me crazy!!

  • HowdyHo Junior

    You did a good thing here and you make a good point. I’m probably one of the last of my generation to actually be taught how to type on both a typewriter and a computer. Though I am a big fan of MS Word and even the new Online version, I feel exactly as you suggest in your title…..Like using some choice Ducking words when Microsoft second guesses me. As a writer I am lord and master of my documents. While I know and respect language, grammar and all the rules of each, I also respect my right to screw with the rules at will. Thank you for your technical tip and also for sharing your well-placed frustrations.

  • mailinda

    Thank you for this. Totally infuriating setting that you helped me figure out.

  • MLSandler

    This definitely needed to have ‘Line Spacing’ in a red box and discussed in greater detail. The screen shot provided is NOT the default and not everyone will automatically understand that this biggest complaint people in business have is the stupid 1.15 line spacing. If you don’t have that corrected in your Normal style, it will haunt you everywhere.

  • zizi Newton

    As you have said, I curse MSFT’s wisdom for making people’s lives difficult. For that matter, Windows too. Windows 7 worked very well. Then came Windows 8. It was so bad that they had to make Windows 10 as an apology. Why change something that is perfectly simple and good to something complicated for very little reason? Your instruction is not only right to the point but also humorous. I am not sure it you intended it to be or not. But I got big chuckles reading your article. Who wouldn’t from reading ” Doing this repeatedly in every document is going to get old quickly.” I am still laughing. hahahahahha

  • Mtb4ever

    Thank you so so so much. I have been banging my head trying to figure this ****t out. Stupid Microsoft. I have been using google docs as a free replacement. They should not mess with this stuff and leave it up to the user to “customize.” I like the 1.15 spacing, but the pts after a new paragraph was awful for my resume building. Thank you so much!