Stupid Word Tricks

I’m going to take a brief break from book promotion to talk about something a little more practical. Hearkening back to David Letterman, today I’ll share some “Stupid Human Tricks” you can do with Microsoft Word that aren’t really stupid, but might make a document look better.

Is All This Necessary?

If you’ve been writing and editing with Word for a long time, you’ve probably had the opportunity or need to make some detailed changes to a doc to make it fit a particular page count…often with the request that you not delete too many words. This is where format changes can work more magic than wordsmithing.

Non-Printing Characters

One of the first things you’ll need to do to perform this formatting wizardry is to turn on some of non-printing or “hidden” characters. While I’ll be displaying the Mac version of these steps, I’ll provide the PC versions in text as well because I’m friendly like that. I’m using Microsoft Word for Mac Version 16.4 on one laptop, Microsoft Word 2016 on a PC laptop, so my tools are reasonably up to date.

In Mac, you first need to go to the Word menu at the top of your application and select Preferences from the drop-down menu:


PC: Go to File > Options

From the Preferences window, you’ll be double-clicking on the View menu.


PC: Click on the Display menu.

From there, go down to Show Non-Printing Characters. The items you want to be able to see on the screen are Paragraph marks and Tab characters.

Non-Printing Characters

You can click on Hidden text, too. You’d use hidden text for something like a blind copy (bc:) of a business letter. This will also enable you to see the lines in a table even if they’re formatted to have no borders. Once you’re done, click on the red dot in the upper-left of the window to close it.

PC: Click on the same items and close the window.

Hard Returns, Soft Returns, and Tabs

Great, you’re thinking, now I’ve got all these extra characters on my screen. What does that do for me? To start with, if you’ve got formatting issues, you might be able to find out why. For example, inconsistent formatting might be the result of the type of return used at the end of a line or paragraph.

There are two different types of “return,” which is short for carriage return for those of you who haven’t used a typewriter–that button would return the typing carriage to the left side of the page after you’d reached the end of a line

  • Soft return: You reach the end of a line or paragraph and you press Shift-Return. That produces the down-and-to-the-left arrow symbol you see below.
  • Hard return: You reach the end of a line or paragraph and just press Return. That produces the backward, bifurcated “P” symbol.


  • The arrow pointing to the right appears halfway between the start and end of a tab space.

So what do these symbols do?

The soft return behaves differently from the hard return. For example:

  • You can use it to add a line to bulleted section without adding another bullet, like so:

Soft Return Bullet

If you were to press only Return in the same spot, you would create another bullet:

Hard Return Bullet*

  • If you have your page alignment set to full-page Justified, the text will spread all the way to the end of the line instead of stopping right where you run out of words. Example…

    Soft Justified
    The hard return, on the other hand, would look like this:

    Hard Justified

  • If you use a soft return after a heading rather than a hard return, the paragraph following the heading will be included as part of the heading style and, as a result, that whole paragraph will appear in the automatic table of contents Word generates based on styles. Make sure you use a hard return between heading styles and paragraphs.

Paragraph Formatting

The next menu that can help make your life easier is the Format > Paragraph menu (which is the same on Mac or PC, fortunately). It should look something like this:


That will bring you to the Paragraph window, which has all sorts of neat tools to make your page formatting easier.


At the top, you’ve got General, which allows you to format regular body text or (if you click on the drop-down menu) any level of heading you want (Level 1 on down). Text can be shifted to the left, center, right, or all the way across the page:


Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod
tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua.


Egestas tellus rutrum tellus pellentesque eu tincidunt tortor aliquam nulla.


Felis eget nunc lobortis mattis aliquam faucibus purus in massa.



The Indentation section, obviously, allows you to indent your text from the left or right. Let’s say you wanted to do something fancy like set off a quotation from the rest of the the body text. You’d select the text you want to inset–preferably a separate paragraph or Word gets confused–and select Justified, indent left .5 inch, indent right .5 inch.

Screen Shot 2020-08-26 at 10.09.27 PM

Your result would be something like this:

Screen Shot 2020-08-26 at 10.10.34 PM

Another useful thing included in the paragraph formatting window is the Spacing section. Here, you can set how much vertical spacing you want between lines or paragraphs. Spacing in Word is typically handled in points as in points of typography. I use “6 pt” for that sort of spacing, which is approximately half a line. 12 pt would give you approximately a full line between each paragraph if you’re using a standard 12-point Times New Roman font.

(Helpful hint from my friend Regina: if you’re indenting every paragraph .25-.5 inches, you don’t also need to add more vertical space between them. Likewise, if you have the first lines of each paragraph flush left, it’s smart to add a little space between each paragraph so that they’re visually distinct.)

The “Line spacing” drop-down menu under the Spacing section also allows you to do an automatic line spacing within a paragraph of single, 1.5 lines, Double, At least, Exactly, or Multiple. The first three are pretty straightforward, and look like this:


The At least, Exactly, and Multiple functions allow you to set the spacing between lines within paragraphs to particular distances, depending on your needs, such as spreading words out to fill a text box or condensing them to pack as much information on a page as possible. I’m not a fan of any of them, but here are some examples of what they can do:

Spacing 2

One last note:

If you’re working with one of the specialized spacing schemes described above is you use a soft return, you will move exactly one line down without any additional spacing. For example, in the text below, the standard spacing between paragraphs is 6 points and the first line of each paragraph is indented .25 inches. If you do a regular hard return (the first circled paragraph mark), Word will give you that 6-point gap between the paragraphs and the .25″ indent. However, if you do a soft return (the second circled paragraph mark), the text will shift directly to the next line (no extra spacing) and the text with be flush left:

Hard-Soft Returns

What This Will Do For You

With this set of tricks up your sleeve, you can expand or condense text on the page (at least within the limits allowed by your customer) without sacrificing content. You can also make minor adjustments to body text or headings to ensure that text fits without paragraphs bleeding off onto a subsequent page, leaving you “widows and orphans.” (There’s “widow and orphan control” in Word, too, but that’s a trick for a different day.) I hope you found these tricks useful. Unless you take a course in Microsoft Word or just start poking around the application at random, you might not be exposed to them otherwise.

* By the way, if you need a good nonsense “Lorem ipsum” text generator as I used here, try Graphic designers have been using this sort of faux-Latin text for a long time as a way to portray the “look” of something on a page without providing any content.

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
This entry was posted in editing, technical writing and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.