5 Microsoft Word Rules You Must Follow

Microsoft Word is a powerful piece of software that conceals many of its most useful features. Unfortunately, using Word over time doesn’t improve your skill because you won’t stumble across what you really need to know. You can take classes, read a 1,000-page manual, or read these tips, which will help you learn to control the most powerful (and maddening) program you may ever use. Here are five rules to help you with your next Word document.

Rule 1: There Is A Feature For That

This is a very important rule and should be a big red flag when you are working on a document. Essentially, if you have to keep doing something over and over to get the document to look the way you want, you must be missing a feature that would make it easier. For example, if you don’t like the way your footnotes look so you are “fixing” them by selecting each one and manually changing its formatting, that would constitute an annoying, repetitive and laborious process for which there must be better approach. In that particular case, you would simply find the style called Footnote Text and change it which would instantly update all of your footnotes to the formatting you want without selecting any of them.

Rule 2: Never Create Spacing Between Paragraphs By Using Extra Hard Returns

Many legal documents have single spaced paragraphs with an extra blank line between each paragraph. Using additional hard returns to accomplish this is repetitive, annoying, and requires more (rather than fewer) keystrokes. Further, it makes it easy to end up with too many lines between paragraphs or not enough.

In fact, this is one of the things that Word users routinely look for and fix before printing a document. Word has a feature for creating vertical space between paragraphs automatically. It’s fast, requires fewer keystrokes, and will never allow you to end up with too much or not enough space between paragraphs. You can get to this setting by right clicking on your paragraph, selecting Paragraph, and going to the Indents and Spacing tab. From here, you have four options to create automatic spacing between your paragraphs.

1. Define Spacing Measurements: Generally, 6 points of space is a half line; 12 points is a full line; eighteen points is one and a half lines and twenty-four points is two lines.

2. Define Spacing Before: If you would like Word to automatically insert an extra space above each paragraph, use Spacing Before. Make the Spacing Before 12 pt. This will add a double space above each single spaced paragraph.

3. Define Spacing After: You can do the same thing as above, but the space will occur after each paragraph. Just follow the steps listed for Spacing Before only add the points to Spacing After.

4. Using Lines Rather Than Points: If you find the point system confusing, you can always erase the “pt” measure and type “1 line.” If you switch from points to lines, the up and down arrows will make adjustments in those terms.


Rule 3: Never Use Spaces To Line Up Text

Not every character occupies the same amount of horizontal space (even the same character like a space). For example, in the screen shot below, exactly five spaces were entered before and after each paragraph number. I inserted a red line into the screen shot, so you can see how misaligned the paragraphs look with the same number of spaces.

Instead of spaces, you want to use tables, tabs, and indents to line up your sentences. These methods will work perfectly and add to the professionalism of your document.

Rule 4: Strip The Formatting of Pasted Text

If you copy text from one document (or another program), you will often bring along formatting attributes foreign to the document. To avoid document issues, it is best to remove all of the formatting when you paste the text. This will allow the text to absorb the formatting of the document you’re pasting into.

The Paste Options button addresses this by giving the user the option to keep the source formatting, match the destination formatting, or strip the formatting (Keep Text Only).


Rule 5: Don’t Violate Outline Rules

Yes, there are specific rules to outline paragraph numbering and formatting which lawyers routinely violate. Here are the big two:

1. Do Not Number Only One Sub-Paragraph: If you do not have a B. paragraph, you cannot have an A. In that case, the paragraph should be un-numbered. If you have an article with a single paragraph below it before the next article, that paragraph should not be numbered. In other words, the following is incorrect. The paragraph numbered 4.01 should be un-numbered because it is the sole paragraph under that article.


2. Don’t Change Numbering Schemes In the Middle of a Document: In other words, if your document employs numbering or lettering, be consistent about its use. If you properly use Word’s multi-level list numbering, it won’t let you switch numbering schemes in the middle of a document.

Ultimately, how a document looks and its readability impacts how readers feel about you. Following these rules will create a favorable impression you need to make.

Originally published 2014-11-13.

Barron Henley
Barron Henley is a lawyer and founding partner of Affinity Consulting Group, where he helps automate and streamline legal departments. He works with firms on document assembly and automation and is an expert on Microsoft Office, Adobe Acrobat, HotDocs, and other law-practice software. Barron does teaching and training on law practice management, technology, and ethics throughout the US and Canada.