Getting the most out of Microsoft Word – simple formatting tips that it seems most don’t know about

I write a lot of Microsoft Word based documents. Specifications, requirements, technical reviews, articles, designs, the vast majority, but not all, IT related. They often contain a lot of tables, diagrams, and in a lot of cases these complex documents are many, many pages long. And I work with, or review many documents written by others.

One of the things that I never cease to be amazed by are the extraordinarily simple Microsoft Word formatting settings, it seems very few people know about, or if they do, don’t use very well, that can easily improve the layout and formatting of documents. They are all related to document pagination and how content is positioned, and essentially remains positioned.

And when these settings are used appropriately, they can make a huge difference to how a document looks, and more importantly how it looks as the document evolves and grows.

These properties are all defined as characteristics of a Microsoft word paragraph and are assembled under the heading of Pagination on the Line and Page Breaks tab. They’re the following settings:

  • Widow/Orphan Control
  • Keep with next
  • Keep lines together
  • Page break before

These seemingly simple settings can help you control the format of a complex Microsoft Word document much more comprehensively than you might at first imagine. I’ll describe the sort of scenarios that they assist you with, or more particularly, the sort of situations I often encounter in documents that these settings can help avoid. I’ll go through a number of scenarios in which each of these settings can assist you with.

Page Break before

How often have you opened a Microsoft word document and right in the middle of it find 10 or 15 successive paragraph marks – or carriage returns if you like – for no apparent reason – right in the middle of a page?

The reason they were inserted much earlier in the document’s life, was because the author of the document, wanted to align some content at the top of a new page, and these “blank lines” or multiple paragraph marks achieved that … at the time.

However, since then, additional content has been added earlier in the document, and these 15 paragraph marks have long since outlived their usefulness, and moved to a totally new, and now totally meaningless place in the document, and they certainly don’t achieve anything worthwhile, in fact they’re just a hindrance now.

This demonstrates what a flawed approach it is to align any word content to the top of a page, by inserting “hard paragraphs” above it. I’d draw the analogy with this being like “hard coded” magic numbers or constants in code. You know it’s likely they’re going to change later on, you just don’t know when! By adding any content earlier in the document, the content later in the document moves, including these successive paragraph marks, so aligning content in this way will never work reliably, as a document changes.

This is where the Page break before setting comes in to play. If you check the Page break before setting for the first paragraph of the content you want to appear on the new page, you are guaranteed, as the name implies that this first paragraph will appear on a new page. This is a very powerful, and a commonly overlooked setting. Something I’ve seen done regularly is applying the Page break before setting to the H1 Heading Style which results in the style generating a page break wherever it is applied, which means each new “top-level heading”, starts on a new page. And as is obvious, using this setting eliminates the need for any spurious additional paragraph breaks between content altogether.

So where is this set? View the properties of the paragraph within Word, either from the menu, or by right clicking on the paragraph, or by using the appropriate keyboard shortcut to bring up the paragraph properties. Note that my screenshots have been taken in Word for Mac, but there is nothing Mac specific in anything I’m showing here, except for the Keyboard shortcuts you see.

Also note that because the paragraph whose settings I’m examining, had its style set to Heading 1, one or more of the properties we’re interested in my document, have already been set, and this is indicated by the “dot” to the left hand side of the paragraph. This holds true for all of the Pagination properties we’re discussing in this article. Whenever one of these Pagination properties, other than Widow/Orphan control are set, then this dot will be visible to the left of the paragraph, indicating that at least one of the other three Pagination control settings are set on.

When we look at the properties page, and move to the Line and Page Breaks tab, we see the Pagination properties.

Keep with next and Keep lines together

I’ve chosen to consider these two items together, as they are very frequently used together.

There are many situations where you may want to ensure successive elements within a word document appear together on the same page. Here are some examples:

  • An image and the description or caption related to the image that need to appear below it – for example: Figure 1: This image shows the details of … You would obviously always want these elements to appear on the same page.
  • Or similarly, you need some explanatory text to precede an image or a table, and you want to ensure they always appear on the same page.
  • The heading for a section, and a significant part of that section, not just the first paragraph of the section, need to appear on the same page. It can look a bit silly if you start a section, and only the first paragraph of that section makes it onto the same page, before a new page starts. You might prefer that the first two paragraphs of the new section are kept with the heading.

It is these circumstances where Keep with next and Keep lines together come into their own. Their purpose is quite literally as their name suggests:

  • Keep with next: Ensures that paragraphs with setting set, will always appear with the next paragraph on the same page.
  • Keep lines together: Ensures that the an entire paragraph with this setting set, will always appear on the same page.

The only complication when using Keep with next and Keep lines together is when you choose to extend their use over too many paragraphs. For example if you extend them to the point where they can no longer be “honoured” within a single page. If the number of paragraphs you are asking to be kept together would exceed a single page. In that case, the first paragraph of that group will appear at the top of a page, and the remainder will proceed on from there, but obviously will extend over a page, because they simply can’t fit onto a single page.

Widow/Orphan Control

The final pagination setting, Widow / Orphan Control is a reasonably simple concept to understand. If the last line of a paragraph “slips” onto the next page, it is called a widow, and if the first line of a paragraph is the only line of that paragraph that appears at the bottom of a page, that line is called an orphan. To avoid those situations, and ensure the entire paragraph appears on a single page, the Widow/Orphan Control property needs to be set in a paragraph’s properties.

For most Microsoft Word paragraph Styles, Widow / Orphan Control is set on by default, as it makes sense to be on. I’ve rarely seen a circumstance where it makes sense to turn this setting off.

Summary

I hope that this brief summary of these important pagination properties gives you a better insight into how these valuable features can help you have much greater control over how your document is formatted and shaped, and will ensure that you’ll have much fewer surprises about how the layout of your document changes as the content of it changes over time.

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