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:

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:

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.

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.