Your Microsoft Word Skills Suck

Today just about everyone uses a word processor, but not everyone knows how to use one effectively. If you use Microsoft Word without understanding some basic concepts, it’s painfully obvious to everyone else. Even worse, you’re wasting time—yours and theirs. If your Word repertoire includes any of these five behaviors, it’s time to stop committing them right now. We’ll show you how.

Microsoft Word: Common Rookie Mistakes

1. Using Spaces instead of Tabs

Rookie Word users rely the spacebar way too much. They use it to indent text from the left margin, and they use it to line up columns of text and numbers. This wastes time and keystrokes, but it also causes all sorts of problems—not the least of which is that the numbers and words won’t line up exactly because the width of characters in proportional fonts vary in size.

Smart Word users know to use the Tab key to line up text. Each press of the Tab key takes you a half-inch step across the document. You’ll use fewer keystrokes, and the text in columns will line up perfectly. A rough rule of thumb: anytime you press the space bar twice or more in succession ask yourself why you aren’t using the Tab key instead.

Microsoft Word: small business tips

Using tabs instead of spaces to line up columns of text and numbers saves time and ensures perfect alignment every time.

2. Lacking in Style

Rookie Word users format every heading and every piece of featured text one piece at a time. They select a heading, apply a font and font size, perhaps change the color, or even change the heading alignment; then they repeat the process for each heading one by one.

By the time they work through a long document, they’ve wasted a lot of time and probably overlooked applying the formats to some of the headings.

Smart Word users know to use Styles to format. They know that Styles improves consistency and speeds the time it takes to format a document. Smart Word users click in a heading in the document and choose Heading 1 from the Styles gallery on the Home tab of the Ribbon to apply font, font size, color, and other features typically used for headings.

If they don’t like how the style looks, smart Word users right-click the Style in the Style Gallery, choose Modify, and alter it to look the way they want it.

Formatting with styles: Microsoft Word

Use Styles to speed up formatting and to give your documents a consistent look.

3. Numbering Pages Individually

Rookie Word users spend a lot of time numbering document pages. They click at the top or bottom of a page, and they type the appropriate page number. Then they lather, rinse, and repeat for every page of a document. It becomes a monumental problem later on when they have to add text to the document. The added text pushes all the text after it further down the document sending the page numbering with it. The reverse problem occurs when they remove text.

Smart Word users know to use Headers and Footers to add page numbering. They click the Insert tab on the Ribbon and either add a Header or a Footer with a built-in page number, or they click the Page Number icon to add a page number automatically to every page in the document with one click.

If the page number isn’t correct—because they need to start at a different number—smart Word users know they can use Page Numbering Options dialog to start numbering at the number of their choice. They know that page numbering works independently, and that changing the text in a document won’t affect the numbering.

Numbering pages in Microsoft Word

Word’s built-in page numbering options correctly numbers pages without you doing all the work.

4. Squashing Photos

Rookie Word users insert images and photos into a document and, when they realize that they’re too large, they grab a sizing handle on one side of the image and drag it inwards. The resulting image looks weird, squashed, and out of shape—but hey, it fits now, right? Um, no.

Smart Word users know to drag an image by the corner handles. If you drag on a corner handle the aspect ratio—the relationship between the image’s width and height—remains unchanged and yields a correctly rescaled image.

And, if they need to reduce an image and the sizing handles can’t make it the size they need, smart Word users use the Crop tool to cut the image to the required size instead.

Resizing images in Microsoft Word

The image on the left was squashed in an attempt to reduce its height. The correctly scaled image on the right retained its proportions.

5. Never Setting the Table

When they need to line up two paragraphs side-by-side, rookie Word users type the paragraphs line-by-line. They type the first line of the left-hand paragraph, press the space bar a few times, and then type the first line of the right-hand paragraph.

They continue this way until they finish both paragraphs. Even if this works, editing that document will be a nightmare. Adding text to either paragraph will break the text, and it will take a lot of time and patience to fix it.

Smart Word users know to place two paragraphs side-by-side by inserting a Table. They create a two-column table with as many rows as they need, and they type their paragraphs into the table cells. The cell structure keeps the text separate, and it remains easy to edit.

When they’re done, smart Word users select the table and from the Table Tools > Design tab they click Borders > No Border. This hides the borders so the document shows two paragraphs sitting side-by-side. If they need to see the (non-printable) table gridlines, they choose Table Tools > Layout, and then click View Gridlines.

Formatting side-by-side paragraphs in Microsoft Word

Use a Table to place paragraphs side-by-side. The text looks neat and remains easy to edit.

The rookie behaviors identified here not only indicate that your Word skills suck but they are also huge time wasters.

Banish these behaviors when working in Word. Learning the right way to handle these tasks will make your documents look better, and help you get your work done faster. Plus, you won’t suck anymore.

Helen Bradley is a respected international journalist writing regularly for small business and computer publications in the USA, Canada, South Africa, UK and Australia. You can learn more about her at her website,

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