Making Microsoft Word Your Friend

Unless you’ve totally converted over to RMarkdown (using papaja), LibreOffice, or Google Docs, chances are, you’re still using Microsoft Word for your academic work. Mostly, Word is great for what you need it to do.

Well, it beats using a typewriter at any rate.

Yet every now and then, something will come up in Word, and it will cause you to spend 10 minutes to an hour cursing at Word to fix one little problem. Add that to the stress of formatting your thesis or dissertation, and you may seriously consider throwing your laptop out the window (i.e., the defenestration dilemma). While googling solutions can sometimes help, it can be hard to describe what your exact problem is.

This purpose of this post is to explain some useful Word features for academic work. Over the years, people have asked me questions about their Word problems. In high school, I took a class solely on Microsoft Word for a semester. I was not pleased at the time—it was a required pre-requisite for a web design class, which I thought was silly (and I still do). Now, I have zero regrets about taking that class. The practical  knowledge from that class has helped me countless times over the years, even as different iterations of Word have appeared on the market. That said, I am not a total Word expert; however, I do know which Word features are useful for academic work.

Note before I start: I am working in Word 2016 in the United States. I’ll be using English labels in Word, and in true American fashion, I'll be using imperial measurements (e.g., inches). This guide should work for you international folks, but I’m sorry that I can’t translate the different Word settings to various language defaults. I hope this guide is still helpful, or at a minimum, it should give you a place to start to find various features that you can use.

This post is a long one, but you can skip around with the links below and the links at the end of each section. Here are 8 key Word features (and 5 extras) to help you with your academic work:

1. Format Painter

Format painter is a godsend. I love format painter and use it CONSTANTLY. It is also an unfamiliar feature for many academics who I've talked to about it (because I am that person who will ask you about your Word habits). Pull up Word for a moment. In the Home tab in the clipboard section, do you see that paintbrush? That is format painter. This feature will be your friend more than Clippy ever was.

How it works: As the name suggests, this tool allows you to “paint” the formatting from one part of your text to another part. For example, let say you have IMPORTANT formatted to your preferences, and you want another phrase “pay attention” to have the exact same formatting. Format painter will paste the color, font size, italics, bold, and all caps formatting to any other part of the document you want (for all caps, you need to select the feature in fonts, not type the all caps manually) . With a few clicks, “pay attention” can be “PAY ATTENTION” without repeating all the steps you did the first time.

Format painter isn’t just for font. It is also for paragraph spacing, text alignment, bullet points/numbering, tabs, table formatting, or other style features. Any formatting. This feature is extremely useful to make sure headings match throughout your document, getting all those references to the same format, and getting your APA tables in order. I’ll mention this feature a few times in this guide, which is why I took some time to sing its praises here.

How to do it:

  1. Place your cursor in the middle of the text with the format you want to copy. Any spot will do.

  2. Either go to clipboard and click on the paintbrush, or right-click and click on the paintbrush. Format painter is activated.

  3. Go to the spot in the text you want to change. Click on the word or highlight the text you want to change. Voila!

I’ll admit, sometimes format painter gets part of the formatting, but not all of it (usually if highlighting text rather than selecting the one word you want to change). If that happens, just repeat the steps and it should get the rest of it. Still, 9 times out of 10, it works perfectly fine and saves you a bunch of time and hassle—especially with editing those tables.

Pro Tip #1: Word says that you can double-click in step 3 to use format painter in multiple spots. To be honest, I have mixed success with it. But you can try and see if it works for you.

Pro Tip #2: For those Excel users out there, format painter is there, too. That discussion is beyond this blog post, but it is good to know. Google Docs has a version of this, too (called Paint Format, shocking!), so check your other platforms to see if it is there.

Format Painter.gif

2. Track Changes and Comments

For many academics who have collaborated on projects for a while now, this feature is common knowledge. However, I have met some undergraduates or new graduate students who do not know this feature, so it is good to include it on the list. Who knows? I might cover some little feature you didn’t know about here.

How it works: As the name suggests, track changes keeps track of all the changes you make in your Word document. I mean, all of your changes, even those pesky format changes (see pro tip below). If you get a tracked changed document, you can go back and accept/reject changes as you go through edits. If there is a spot where you want to essentially write a note in the margins about a part of the text, then you can insert a comment, and a small balloon will appear on the side of the screen.

How to do it: Everything you need is in the Review tab.

To turn on track changes:

  1. Go to the Tracking section, and click on Track Changes and select Track Changes. That’s it.

  2. The default is that your changes will show up in red, but this color will change depending upon the number of people working on the document. If you need to change the colors for any reason, click on the tiny square box at the bottom right of the “Tracking” section. This will open up the settings. In the Advanced Options, you can change the colors around.

To add a comment:

  1. Put the cursor in the spot or highlight the section you want to comment. Then go to Review, Comments, and New comment. You can also right click and the option is usually in the menu, too.

  2. Your comments (and track changes) will use the user name and initials that you have in your word setup. You can change them by clicking the tiny square in Tracking to go to Change Tracking Options. Click on Change User Name. Under “Personalize your copy of Microsoft Office” you can change your name and your initials in how they appear in track changes.

How you see the changes:

  1. There are different default settings of how you’ll see track changes in your document. Typically, I like the following setup. In Tracking, make sure the top drop-down box shows “All Markup.” In the next drop-box “Show Markup” make sure everything is checked and under “Balloons” click “Show Revisions in Balloons.” I personally don’t like the inline stuff, but I know everyone has their preferences here. Play around with the settings to see what works best for you.

  2. If you have a TON of edits, it might be easier to look at everything in the reviewing pane rather than the margin. Under tracking, just click reviewing pane, and it pops up on the side.

When you receive a tracked changed paper:

  1. Go through and accept/reject changes with the Accept/Reject buttons. I would not recommend clicking “Accept all changes” from your advisor or co-author—edits are a good place to learn to be a better writer. And for me, it is easy to miss typos with the red track changes on.

  2. Use the previous and next buttons to go to different changes and make sure you found all of them in the document. Sometimes a small change, like a period, comma, or space, is hard to find in your document.

Pro tip: Unless you have an anal collaborator, turn off track changes if you’re doing any formatting work (e.g., bolding text, changing text size, line spacing, etc.). When collaborating, I don’t really care about these formatting changes—I care about the content changes. You can also un-check formatting in the middle drop-down “Show Markup.” However, this means that you don’t see formatting changes in tracked changes, but they are still recorded. You’ll still have to go back through and accept these changes in the end. If you accidentally do keep it on, my advice is to go back through and accept the format changes that you’ve made. This will make editing easier for your collaborator. You can also click on the Reviewing Pane to go through and get rid of these formatting changes quickly.

Pro Tip #2: If you are someone who likes to print out hard copies of track changed documents, you may notice that the font is smaller because all the changes in the margins and the comments on the side. If you want to look at an edited version without all the track changes, you can do so by changing the top drop-down option of “All Markup” to “Simple Markup” or “No Markup” instead.

Pro Tip #3: I’ve had collaborators who hate track changes and find it distracting as they work. Here is an option to try.  If they do work in Word on a document, you could just set it up with “No Markup” so the track changes are recorded, but not seen by the person working in the document. You’ll still have some people who prefer to write out feedback on hard copies, and that is fine. But if they do the work in Word, you should be able to work with them around this issue.

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3. Tabs

By default, you hit the tab button and you move to next half inch in your document (at least on U.S. Word docs). But there is more to tabs, and you can bend tabs to your will. *evil laughter* Anyways...tabs. 

How it works: Knowing how to work with tabs can save you a lot of time and effort, especially if you have to change fonts or formatting in future versions of your document. Have you ever added spaces to your document just to get things to line up? Have you entered dots by hand in a table of contents? Or have you had a journal ask you to align your numbers by decimals, but not sure how (add in dealing with uneven numerical digits and negative numbers)? The Tabs section is your solution to setup your docs to work just as you need them to be.

How to do it:

  1. There are a couple of spots where you can find tabs, but the easiest way is just to double-click on the ruler at the top of your document (If you don’t see a ruler at the top, then go to View, select “Show,” and select “Ruler.”). If you get Page Setup by mistake, close it and try again.

  2. By default, Word will set a tab, left orientation to the spot you just clicked. Often times, you don’t get the spot just right, so you can just delete this first spot. You can do this by selecting “Clear” for that specific value or “Clear All” if you accidentally added tabs or want to reset everything.

  3. To add a tab: Start with the tab stop position: Type in a number value (corresponding with your ruler) where you want the tab. If you like the spot where you clicked, then you can use that number. The value is in inches in the U.S., centimeters everywhere else.

  4. Alignment: This is how your text will be aligned around that tab position. Left means text will appear to the left of that spot (e.g., normal paragraphs). Right means text will appear to the right of the text (e.g., a date in a letter). Center distributes it in the middle. Decimal means that you can align it by decimal point of a number. This last one is useful for your tables (see GIF below).

  5. Leader: Often just none. The only time I use it is when I want to make a table of contents with the dots. You can put your chapter title at the first part, create a right aligned tab with a dot leader for your page numbers.

  6. After you set your tab stop position, alignment, and leader, click "Set." You should see this tab in a list under the tab stop position numbers. You can add more tabs, but be sure to hit "Set" after each one.

  7. Click OK, and your tab is set at the top. If your cursor is on the left (and not in a table), hit the tab key and it should go to your newly placed tab.

  8. You’ll see different symbols in your ruler for the different types of tabs, and you can move them around by dragging them if you want. You can also remove a tab by clicking the symbol and dragging it down toward the document. However, I find it better just to manage in this tabs window as I just described.

Pro Tip #1: Typically, tabbing inside a table causes you to go to the next cell in a row. If you do want to tab inside a cell to specific spot, hit ctrl+Tab, and it should work for you.

Pro Tip #2: Like other formatting stuff, you can use Format Painter to apply your tabs everywhere, especially a table. Here is a GIF to show you how I set a tab and apply it to my whole table in just a few clicks. I went for larger font and non-APA format to make a clear point. It is magic that will save you time and stress with your tables.

4. Paragraph Spacing

How it works: In typical APA format, everything should be double-spaced. Sometimes, you’ll want 1.5 spacing. For references, you need hanging lines. Knowing how to use paragraphs is the easiest way to take care of all your paragraph alignment and spacing needs.

How to do it:

  1. Either put your cursor on the line where you want the paragraph, or highlight the text. Either will work.

  2. You can access the paragraph area 2 ways. 1) Go to home, and click the tiny square with the arrow at the bottom right of “Paragraph.” This will take you to paragraph settings. 2) Right click and click paragraph.

  3. To change the spacing, go spacing, line spacing, and click your choice from the drop-down menu. Alternatively, there is a button in the paragraph section (the one with the arrows up and down) that has various spacing options.

  4. For hanging lines for references, go to indentation, special, and select “hanging.”

  5. Remember, you can apply Format Painter to match these paragraph settings throughout your text.

Pro Tip #1: If you have some weird spacing issues going on in a table or text, chances are, Word decided to mess with you and put spacing before or after your text. Go to Paragraph Settings, Spacing section, and look at the before and after numbers. These values should be zero most of the time. If it is auto or some other number, you can change them to zero.

Pro Tip #2: If you quickly want to change your whole document to double-spacing, you can use the following keyboard shortcuts: ctrl + A (select all text), ctrl + 2 (double-space). If you want to switch everything back to single-space, you can just use this shortcut: ctrl + A (select all text), ctrl + 1 (single-space).

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5. Line Numbers

How it works: Has a journal ever asked you to make sure your document has line numbers? As a reviewer, I find line numbers super helpful even if the journal doesn’t ask for it. Line numbers allow you to direct authors to the exact sport —especially helpful for typos. This saves time for everybody—both the reviewer trying to explain the issue and the author trying to fix it.

How to do it: In the past this feature was buried in Page Setup (and it is still there). The current Versions of Word have made it easier.

  1. Go to Layout, Page Setup (far left section).

  2. Click on Line Numbers, and select continuous. I prefer this option because it removes the need for even having to mention page numbers. The other option is to restart on each page. Regardless, either of these options are better than nothing.

 You should see line numbers along the left side. If you have double-spacing, the line numbers will appear double-spaced as well. The line number font is your default text font for Word (whatever the font is when you open a new word document). If you want to change it you can do the following:

  1. Go to Home, Styles, and click on the tiny square box with the arrow at the bottom right corner (or use keyboard shortcut Alt+Ctrl+Shift+S, which I think is a bit much). This shows you some common styles (handy if you want to make a table of contents with headings).

  2. You’ll see a list of common styles, but not Line Numbers. So go to the bottom Manage Styles button (of the 3 square buttons under “Disable Linked Styles”, the one on the right. Hover over the button to check “Manage Styles”).

  3. In the Edit tab, you’ll see a bunch of styles that you never knew that Word had. The easiest option is to click on “Sort Order” drop-down and click “Alphabetical.” Then scroll down until you find Line Numbers. Select it, and then click “Modify.”

  4. In the Formatting Section, You can then pick the formatting options that you want to use. I set mine to Times New Roman, 12 point, black font, which is my standard font choice for publication submissions. Then, Click “OK” from Modify, and “Ok” from Manage Styles. You’re all set!

Pro Tip: Double-check the PDF copy of the journal to see if the PDF maker doesn’t automatically add line numbers to your PDF upon submission. I have had duplicate line numbers appear before (and of course, they did not match), so you just omit them from your Word document and re-upload your submission.

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6. Page and Section Breaks

How it works: Page and Section breaks are good to know for several reasons. It is easier to use page breaks rather than manually adding spaces to the next page—especially if you edit that document later and randomly find extra spaces in the middle of your document. Most people know and already use page breaks. People don’t know section breaks as much, but they can be extremely helpful. I had to use section breaks regularly when working on my dissertation formatting. Section breaks allow you to change the page formatting for that specific section—such as changing it from portrait to landscape, or changing the margins for this one section.

How to do it:

For Page Breaks

  1. Go to Layout, Breaks, and select Page. Or if you’re a fan of keyboard shortcuts, just hit ctrl + enter.

For Section breaks

  1. Go to Layout, Breaks, and select either next page or continuous. This next page break is not the same as a normal page break from above—this starts a new page and a new section. A continuous break appears like you have done nothing—but it is there. After that point, there is a new section.

  2. If you want to back to the original formatting, say have one landscape page in the middle of a manuscript and then go back to portrait pages, then you’ll need to add another section break at the end of this section.

To change the page from portrait to landscape in this one section:

  1. Highlight the text in your section. Then go to Layout, Page Setup and click the tiny arrow box in the button right corner to go to Page Setup settings.

  2. Side note: If you want to make sure you go the entire section (especially with continuous section breaks), I would recommend turning on the Show/Hide feature. This is Home, Paragraph, and it is the button that looks like the paragraph symbol: ¶. Click on it. You will now see a bunch of dots for every space, a ¶ at the end of each line (with a return key), and it should show you where all your page breaks and section breaks are located. After you finish the steps below, I would turn this feature off again because it is distracting, but is useful for this task.

  3. In the Margins tab, select landscape orientation. Then go down and make sure Apply to “This Section” is selected from the drop-down menu. Click Ok.

  4. You should be good to go. If your section isn’t quite right, then undo (ctrl + z). Try again, and maybe use the Show/Hide button if you need it.

Pro Tip: Have you ever had a random page that no matter how many times you hit delete, it won’t go away? Try hitting the Show/Hide button to see if there are any weird page breaks or weird spacing issues going on. Not guaranteed to fix it, but it can sometimes help.

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7. Spell Check and Grammar Check

How it works: Most people know about spell check, but Word also has a grammar check that I find useful. It isn’t perfect, but it helps me spot passive voice or some basic grammar errors as I go along. Spelling errors show up in red squiggly lines, and grammar errors show up in blue squiggly lines.

How to use it:

To Run a Spell/Grammar Check:

  1. Under Review, click spelling & grammar. Or just hit F7.

To turn on grammar check, you have to go into the depths of Word customization options to turn it on.

  1. Go the File/Options. Then you’ll see a huge box pop up. Go to “Proofing” tab.

  2. There are quite a few options here to go through. At the minimum, in the “When correcting spelling and grammar in Word” section, check “Mark grammar errors as you type.” I also check “Check grammar with spelling” so you run both at the same time when you do a spell check.

  3. Click Ok. Now you should see blue squiggly lines as you type to tell you about grammar errors.

Other cool related features in the File/Options/Proofing section:

Adding words to your dictionary. You can set some time aside and do this task here. Alternatively, you can just get into the habit of adding words to your dictionary as you work in different documents. You can just right click on a word with the red squiggly line underneath, and under the recommended changes, you should see “Add to Dictionary.” I sometimes add author names or jargon terms that are common in my work, but make 100% you spelled it correctly before adding. It is worth the investment. Here are instructions for the other option:

  1. Go File/Options/Proofing, look under “When correcting spelling in Microsoft Office programs.” You should see a button “Custom Dictionaries.” Click on it.

  2. Click on CUSTOM.DIC and then select “Edit Word List…”

  3. If you never used it before it is blank. You type in the word under “Words.” Then click “Add.”

  4. It should appear in your dictionary below. Add as many words as you want. You can delete words from this list as well (in case you accidentally misspelled a word and it was on your list).

  5. Click Ok when you’re done, and then “Ok” two more two more times to leave Custom Dictionaries and Options.

Readability statistics: It gives you an overview of the information at the end of a spell and grammar check. It might be helpful feedback f you’re writing to a target audience. This option can be checked under the “When correcting spelling grammar in Word” section of Proofing.

Writing Style: Under the option of readability statistics, you can be specific about Word checks for you. I have grammar and style selected. You can click on “Settings” to get into the weeds about what you want Word to check and not check for you.

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8. Mail Merge

How it works: Mail merge is the easiest way to generate letters, e-mails or letters from a database. While things are moving away from paper to more electronic communication, this skill is still a good one to have because you never know when you might need it. If you need to generate a participant report, a student feedback form, or any form that can embed Excel information into a Word document of some kind, mail merge can come in handy. I’ve had to use it a few times over the last several years, and it is helpful to know how to do it correctly.

How to do it:

To Mail Merge a Letter: Let’s assume you have an IRB-approved letter to participants already ready to go in a Word document. You also should have an Excel file with your participant information with clear headers at the top (e..g, Title, First Name, Last Name, Suffix, Address Line 1, etc.). Here is what you do from there.

  1. Go to Mailings, Select Participants, Use an Existing List. Find the Excel file you have with the contact info. Click OK when the message box pops up. Your Excel file is now linked with the Word document

  2. You’ll need to add the merge fields to the document. A merge field is the header in your Excel file. You can use “<<” and “>>” and type out these headers (e.g., <<First Name>>). Do this for the full information (Name, Address, Dear NAME, etc.). You can also use Insert Merge Field and select the names and pick the spots where you want them. If you have a less common field, such as Suffix or Address Line 2, go ahead and add it. If it is blank, it will be skipped in the merge. For any people you’re worried about, you can double-check as you go along.

  3. When you’re done adding all the field you need, you can preview the results before finishing. Go to Mailings, Preview Results. Use the arrows to skim through to check them.

  4. To finish the mail merge (and a way to check each of the letters individually). Go to Mailings, Finish & Merge, and Edit Individual Documents. When the message box pops up, select All, and then Ok. You should be able to go through each letter to see if everything is as it should be.

To Make Labels:

  1. Look at the package of the labels that you have. There should be a code on them. Word has a huge database of them, so odds are that you’ll find it in there unless it is some hand-crafted address labels that you found at the local arts fair.

  2. In a new document, go to Mailings, Start Mail Merge, Labels. Select the Vendor (Office Depot, Avery, etc.) and then pick the specific code of all the labels. Double-check this. Triple-check this. Click Ok.

  3. Now you can repeat #1 and #2 in the Mail Merge a Letter steps. You just need to add the merge fields to the first cell. Don’t delete the “Next Record” line—this will instruct Word to keep reading the Excel file until it is done.

  4. Once you finished labels, click on “Update Labels.” Remember, formatting is important. Select all the labels, then go to Table Tools, Layout, Align Center. Check to make sure the size of the font fits for all the labels.

  5. Repeat steps #3 and #4 in the Mail Merge a Letter steps.

Pro-tip: Be careful about moving these files around. Once the mail merge file is connected, any change in file location will make Word cranky.

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9. Five Other Tidbits

  1. Let’s say you have a list of items from 1-25. And then you make a second list of items and you see 26 pop up in your document. You really want to start that one at 1. What do you do? Click on the 26, and right click. Select option “Restart at 1.”

  2. Whenever I open up my CV, I set it up so that the date automatically changes whenever I open the document. This helps with version control and date control so I don’t forget to update the date whenever I add something to it. To do this, go to Insert, Text, Date and Time. Select your date preference. As I am in the U.S. now, I typically do the “month day, year” format (e.g., June 13, 2018). Then make sure the box “Update automatically” is checked. Click Ok, and it should appear in your document.

  3. If you have an international collaborator, you might get a Word document that is in A4 paper format rather than 8.5 x 11. For some reason, the U.S. is stubborn in its imperial ways on this one, which is ridiculous. To change from A4 to 8.5 x 11 (or vice versa), go to Layout, Page Setup, and click the tiny arrow box on the bottom right. In the Paper tab, go to Paper size and select “Letter” for 8.5 x 11 (which you’ll see in the dimensions below it) or A4 for A4 dimensions (8.24 x 11.69 in inches, or 21 by 29.7 in cm).

  4. Learn the different ways to paste. Sometimes you just want the text without the formatting, so Keep Text Only or Unformatted Text is a good way to go. Keep source formatting keeps the original formatting from where you copied the text. Use destination formatting uses the formatting where you paste it. Each of these options can be helpful, so try them out.

  5. If you’re bored with the fonts in Word, you can add your won fonts. Google Fonts is a great resource, and I use Cabin for my CV. Word of caution: If you share this file with your fancy new font and the person doesn’t have the font, it will convert the document back to a Microsoft Word font. This can be problematic, especially with a CV. However, you can embed the font in the file so this isn’t a problem. Go File/Options/Save tab. Under “Preserve Fidelity when Sharing this Document” check “Embed fonts in this file.” When you save the document, you’ll be saving the font with it. The other option is only to share PDF versions of the file with the font you like.

And that's a wrap! I hope that you found this post helpful! If I missed your favorite Word trick for academic work, feel free to post in the comments below!

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