What you don’t know about Microsoft Word will hurt you

Microsoft Word is more than a blank sheet of paper; it’s sophisticated software that can help to apply consistent, professional, and attractive formatting to your documents. But if you don’t learn a few key features, Word will be cruel to you and you won’t understand why. Honestly, Word may still be cruel to you… it’s that kind of software.

I’ll focus here on professional and academic writing, rather than on desktop publishing or flyers.

Always insert page numbers. Any multi-page document you create should have page numbers. For academic or report writing, I recommend placing page numbers bottom, center with no number on the first page. For example:


For résumés and curriculum vitae I recommend placing page numbers top, right with no number on the first page. Also, edit the header and add your LAST NAME and short title of the document in all caps before the page number so that when printed, pages 2, 3, … can be easily associated with your materials. For example:



Alignment and Whitespace

Position content using tabs and page or section breaks, don’t use multiple whitespace characters (spaces, tabs, returns) to achieve placement. You know you’ve done it: “tab tab tab tab tab tab space space space… that looks like it’s pretty much at the right hand margin… maybe one more space…….no… too much…”

Short version: rather than multiple spaces, use a tab; rather than multiple tabs, set your own tab positions; rather that using multiple carriage returns to advance to the next page, insert a page or section break.

Rather than space space space space, use the tab key. By default, Word places a tab stop every half-inch. You can set your own tab stop positions to better suit your needs.

Rather than tab tab tab tab to fake center or right aligned content, use center or right tab stops. Proper use of right-tab stops is how you achieve perfectly aligned dates in your résumé or CV.

Rather than return return return return to advance to the next page, use INSERT > PAGE BREAK or LAYOUT > BREAKS… for more page advancing options.

When you need to have a landscape page in the middle of your portrait document or if you want different headers and footers in sections of your document–other than the omission of page numbers on the first page of a section, covered above–you must insert a section break before and after the pages with the different formatting.


Do not manually select font, font size, center, justification, color, bold, italic, etc.; use styles, instead. They’re similar to CSS, used for webpage design, and can help you to ensure a consistent look in your document.

Microsoft Word also uses styles to generate automatic tables of contents: All heading 1, heading 2, heading 3… styled items appear in an inserted table of contents.

Avoid any tutorial that tells you to use the fonts and placement sections of the Home ribbon—use styles instead.

Any tutorial that shows you how to apply a style, then immediately suggests that you use the fonts and placement sections of the Home ribbon to override the style simply doesn’t understand how to use Microsoft Word.

You apply styles to add meaning to the parts of your document: “this is a first level heading”, “this is a sub-heading”, “this is normal text on the page”, “these are references”. To control the appearance of those parts of the document, you should modify the styles to suit your requirements, not apply one-off changes to the font settings for a few characters here and a few characters there. By using styles and setting the styles’ properties, you make it easy to come back later and change the look of all headings or all references or all the normal text in the document simply by modifying the style.

Use indents to achieve first line indentation in your paragraphs and to achieve a hanging indent for your citations, references, or works cited section. For very simple documents, you might set the indents for the whole document as shown in the video, below. However, for documents with any complexity, you should set your indents by modifying the style and setting the paragraph options for that style.

Hyphen, En Dash, and Em Dash

Each has its purpose. The en and em dashes are so named because they are customarily the width of a capital N and M, respectively, in whatever font face and font size is being used.

Hyphen To join related words common-cause, mis-identify
En Dash To indicate a range 2014–2017, June 2017–April 2019
Em Dash To set off a parenthetical statement The Yeti—long sought but seldom seen—is thought to be found in the mountains of Tibet.

There are several ways to type these characters in MS Word. The easiest approach is to let Word’s auto correct feature do it for you. Find the AutoCorrect options in your version of MS Word. Typically they’re in Preferences > Proofing > AutoCorrect (Mac) or File > Options > Proofing > AutoCorrect (Windows). Usually this feature is used to correct common typing errors: abuot -> about. You can use it to correct, or at least mitigate, your personal glitches, too: I tend to type both as bothe, for some reason. AutoCorrect to the rescue.

Here, you’ll use AutoCorrect to convert a pair of hyphens to an en dash and three hyphens to an em dash. For Windows

For… You want to be able to type… replace… with…
No change necessary
En Dash
ALT 0150
Em Dash
ALT0150- ALT 0151

And on Macintosh

For… You want to be able to type… replace… with…
No change necessary
En Dash
Em Dash
option+hyphen hyphen shift+option+hyphen

In a résumés or CV, be sure all your employment history and other date ranges are at least using the same type of dash, ideally an en dash.

Comments and Changes

Use the reviewing features in MS Word to track changes and insert comments. Never write notes to yourself or other authors into the body of the document; you incur a technical debt with each note-to-self, each highlight color, each [**NEED CITATION**] or (Table XX)—every bit of stray text or formatting is something that you’ll later have to remove from the document and that you run the risk of accidentally leaving in your final version. Learn MS Word’s features that allow you to comment about the document rather than comment in the document.

Word's Insert Comment feature

Multipage Tables

When you have tables—long or short—that need to appear across multiple pages, you should repeat the header row or rows of the table on each page so that your reader doesn’t need to guess or look back to recall what each column contains.

Pro Settings

On the View tab, make sure that Ruler is checked so that rulers are visible. This allows you to keep an eye on what tab stops and first line or hanging indents are active at your insertion cursor’s current location.

(Macintosh) In Preferences > View set the Style Area Width to 1.5″.
(Windows) In File > Options > Advanced > Display set the Style area pane width in Draft and Outline View to 1.5″.

This is an obscure setting, but possibly the most important bit of advice in this post. By setting this value to something other than zero, when you’re in Draft view, there will be a left-hand gutter showing the style that is applied to each paragraph. This is critical for being able to ensure consistent use of styles and to detect odd styles that may have crept in when you copied content from a webpage into your Word document.

Chris Menard’s video provides a nearly perfect explanation of why this is important and how to use it. Near the end of the video, he reverses the settings changes he made… I wouldn’t bother doing that: leave the style area setting at 1.5″.