The following are what I consider to be the most critical things to get right when you’re using Microsoft Word when you’re planning to make real documents.
“Real documents” means “more than writing up a shopping list” or “beyond a one-page letter to mom.” However, note that despite the ease of just opening up a default blank Word document and whacking something out, I still use the items below for nearly every document I produce, small as well as large. For complex documents requiring numbering, tables of contents, etc., the points here are a must.
Don’t stress about formatting
You’re producing a document so content comes first. If in doubt, worry about the content now, deal with the formatting later. This includes lists and block quotes and all other items. Come back later for formatting; get the content in the document now.
Styles are key
If you don’t understand how styles work, you don’t understand how MS Word works either. This is not a bad thing if you keep it in your head that you don’t understand how the program thinks. You’re less likely to get into trouble because “Word isn’t doing what it’s supposed to do.” Trust me, word is doing precisely what it’s supposed to do.
If you’re working in a large and complicated document with multiple sections and different bells and whistles, you must understand how Word processes sections and other containers into pages. If you don’t, all hell will break loose as you try to manually fix formatting and you’ll spend untold hours trying to do the manual fixing.
I cannot stress enough how important it is that at least one person in your team, or who is available to you, understands how styles work, and how to set up a document to properly use them. Listen to this person.
Manual Formatting is Terrible
This is actually a subset to the “Styles are Key” point but it bears repeating. If you’re ever tempted to use any of the buttons that I’ve circled in red in the image below, you’re doing it wrong; use styles. If you disagree with me, you’re wrong. If you disagree with me and know when there is an exception to this rule, then congratulations, but if you can’t name the exceptions, then you’re wrong and should go back to never ever using the manual formatting bar. You can’t go wrong by never ever ever touching the Bold or Italics or Typeface buttons. I compile 40 page reports without ever touching them.
There are some exceptions to this rule, but you can’t use them correctly until you know how to use styles. Use styles!
Ctrl-S for Save; Ctrl-Z for Undo
Save early, save often. It’s trite, but too many people don’t do it. Likewise it’s easy to undo things if you’re messing with styles and weird things happen. Learn to use your left hand to operate these two key commands. While there are mouse buttons up there on the menu bar for these functions, Microsoft will probably move them for the next release. To tell you the truth, I don’t think I’ve ever pushed the “undo” mouse button on Word. I always use ctrl-z.
Word Sucks at Desktop Publishing
What does that mean? Word isn’t within its core competency when you’re trying to produce a flyer or a brochure or a newspaper. Anything that comes under the heading of “layout publishing” isn’t something MS Word is very good at. You can do it, certainly, but don’t expect smooth and easy operation. Know that and you’ll be fine. I use Word all the time for this sort of thing, but I’m also not trying to make really snazzy brochures.
Never use Line or Page Breaks
If you find yourself using line breaks to space things properly or page breaks to avoid hanging sentences or misplaced headings, you’re doing it wrong. Refer to my point above about styles and manual formatting. If you disagree with me, you’re wrong again. Sorry.
There are also exceptions to this rule, but they are so few and far between that they don’t bear discussing in this post.
Occam’s Razor is Best for Documents, Too
With all things being equal, the simpler-formatted document is better. If you’re reading this for personal education, then you can’t go wrong with this; I’m assuming that you are not a trained document design specialist. Find something that is clean and easy, and stick with it.
Know How to turn off Autocorrect
Microsoft has made it easy for you to type and ensure that you put on the page what you meant to put there. Frequently, this makes it harder when Word replaces something you meant to type with something you didn’t. Many people love this feature, and many hate it. I hate it for several reasons, one of which is that in the default setting it will automatically make lists for you. This seems like a good thing, except that when you end up with an automatically generated list that’s numbered, and then one that has bullets, if you try to be a correct MS Word user and modify the style that is automatically assigned, you’ve now got trouble. It’s much better to have a bulleted list style and a numbered list style and assign those styles separately to the different lists. This is good practice.
You may disagree with me on autocorrect for your own convenience sake. If only so that you have the option, know how to turn off the autocorrect. It’s different in the various versions of Word. Here are the instructions for 2007 and 2003.
Have an Expert
This is less about how to use Word correctly and more about having at least one person around of whom you can ask questions when Word does something that seems crazy. Through horrible experience, I’ve become that person and when someone doesn’t know why a thing isn’t working, I usually can figure it out quickly, if not instantly. If you don’t have a live person around, remember that Google is your friend and I can’t recommend Word MVPs enough and all the discussions inside it.
Realize that Training is Needed
MS Word is a powerful tool chock full of features that can help you both efficiently deliver an attractive document and efficiently revise that selfsame document. MS Word is also chock full of features that seem designed to make the document a glorious mess as they start piling on top of each other, inserted by inexperienced authors and document “designers.” To do anything with MS Word beyond opening it, typing, and saving requires training. If you’re working on your own, read this list, go to Word MVPs and just practice with dummy documents. If you’re a manager, make time to train your staff. This will pay off when it’s Friday at 4:30 and a document must ship by 5:00. You will have confidence that when you hit print, a well formatted document will come out with minimal need for fixing.
The End (For Now)
This list is not all-encompassing and obviously glosses over the basics of operating the MS Word program. If there’s any one thing to take away it’s that if you know how to use styles, your life with Word will become exponentially easier. Some of my friends are devout anti-Word and that’s something I can respect, but you may work in an industry (like me) where using an alternative to Word isn’t an option. Everyone uses it, and there are efficiencies when you can ask someone to send you their Word file rather than a PDF or an email. For better or for worse, Word is here for the duration and the more you know about it, the fewer problems you’ll find yourself in.