Who is in control here?

I did a workshop for three ladies from a local organisation.  They had inherited a set of Microsoft Word documents which detailed the procedures that their department had to follow.

The trouble was that they had little experience of the program.  Looking at the documents, it was clear to me that the person who created them didn’t know much about it either!

You see, if Microsoft Word documents are well designed, they are a dream to work with.  However, if they are badly put together, altering them can be a nightmare.  It seems as if the program is in control, not you.

“Show me the Money”

On the face of it, this document looks OK, but in fact it contains several “crimes”:

Of all the features available in Microsoft Word, the most useful is the Show/Hide button.  You will find it in the [Home] tab of the Ribbon in the group called [Paragraph].  It is used to “Show paragraph marks and other hidden formatting symbols“.  It’s the button at the top right in the following illustration – (it looks a bit like something from piece of sheet music):

You absolutely cannot function effectively in Microsoft Word without using it.  This is what our document looks like when that button is clicked – [I’ve also turned on the Word Option –  Show text boundaries]:


Spacing Before and After

The first “crime” is pressing Enter several times to make the gap between the heading and the text which follows.  Doing this takes away a huge amount of flexibility when designing the “look and feel” of a document.

The same effect can be achieved in the [Page Layout] tab, [Paragraph] group by adding 36 pt of Spacing After:

side issue – how many people these days know that 36 pt is a measurement of height – that these are “point sizes” – and that there are 72 points in an inch?  I just wondered how many of you are looking at this and saying “Oh he’s put half-an-inch of spacing there”.

For me, the major benefit is that I can now easily alter the gap between the two paragraphs to get the look I want.  This is also helpful when trying to fit text onto one page – (altering the Bottom Margin can give a document an unbalanced, scruffy look).

Indenting Paragraphs

Oh dear, Oh dear! – The author of our document has tried to line up the third and fourth lines of text using the space-bar.  That is sooo 1980’s.

In those days computers (and manual typewriters for that matter) described the size of the text using “Pitch“.  If the text was “10 pitch”, this meant that there were 10 characters to the inch horizontally.  They could use that system because each character, no matter what it was, had the same width (we called it mono-spaced). So an”i“, a “w” and a “space” all took up the same amount of horizontal space.

Type five spaces, a six-letter word, then another five spaces – you absolutely knew how far across the page you were.

If you want to see this in action, try using the font Courier New

Modern computers don’t it that way.  They use proportionally-spaced fonts.  An “i” is much thinner than a “w“.  If you type five spaces, a six-letter word, then another five spaces, you have no idea how far across the page you are.  It depends on what the six letters were!  Consequently, there is no hope of lining things up accurately using the space-bar.

It is much better to use an Indent to make sure each line is exactly the same distance from the Left Margin.  Again we are using the [Page Layout] tab, [Paragraph] group.  As you can see, my copy of Microsoft Word is set up to use Inches (I’m old-fashioned) – your’s might well use Centimetres.

Custom Tab Stops

The columns at the bottom of our document have been set up using the Tab Stop feature.  Now straight-away let’s say that some people don’t use Tabs.  Faced with creating the layout seen here, they would create a three-column Table, then take the Borders away.  I couldn’t really argue with that.

However, our author has used Tab Stops – just not very well.  Even my mother’s manual typewriter had Tab Stops.  They were metal “tabs” which you slid across to mark the positions on the page where you wanted the columns to be.

A new Microsoft Word document has the electronic equivalent of these every half-an-inch across the page. [If your computer is set to use Centimetres they are every 1.27cm].  To put the first column 1½ inches in, our amateurish author has pressed the Tab key three times.

Just like Peggie’s typewriter, you can “slide” the Tab Stops to any position that suits you.  To be fair to the author, the place where you set this up isn’t immediately obvious.

We have looked at the [Page Layout] tab, [Paragraph] group a couple of times already.  Can you see a funny little chiselled out box at its bottom right corner?  That is called the Dialog Box Launcher.  Clicking that gets you to the Paragraph dialog box. In that box there is a Tabs… button.  Click that next…

Paragraph Dialog Box Tabs Dialog Box
. .

… to get you to the Tabs dialog box.

Here you Set the Tabs Stop at any position you choose (just like sliding the metal tabs).  In our example they are at 1.5″, 3″ and 4″.  Now we only have to press the Tab key once to move from column to column.

The Result

We have a far less cluttered document which will be much easier to update and maintain:

In this blog I’ve looked at just a few issues which could make Microsoft Word documents difficult to work with.  There are other potential pitfalls which may be lurking behind the scenes.

If you were to remember only one thing after reading this it should be – USE THE SHOW/HIDE BUTTON.

Would your documents benefit from a good “Spring Clean”?  You can contact me via info@base2.co.uk for some advice, training or assistance.