Microsoft Word is the global standard for word processing. At the same time, it’s one of the most maddening applications to master, which is why this Geek School series is all about learning how to format documents in Word.

Word 2013 and a Little Perspective

Microsoft is far more than a typical staid word processor. Word is one of the most affordable and closest things you can get to your very own printing press. In fact, it is for all With Word, you can write textbooks, create full magazine and newspaper layouts with graphics, write a novel with indices, and much, much more. You can do in mere hours, what twenty years ago might have taken an entire editorial team days or even weeks.

Microsoft Word completely eliminates the aggravation of typos (in theory at least). There is no need to retype whole chapters in order to add or rearrange content. Instead you can add, move, or even remove complete sentence, paragraphs, and chapters in mere seconds!

Of course, we take this power for granted but we can tell you, it really beats using a typewriter (let alone movable type) – making a mistake using a typewriter meant stopping what you were doing, rolling the platen up to better expose your typo, and then either using an eraser to remove the offending characters, or carefully dabbing on White-Out and patiently blowing it dry. Then, of course, you’d have to roll the platen back to the line you were typing on, taking further care to make sure it all lined up perfectly.

If you can imagine how many daily typing errors you make then you can probably get an idea of how long it took to produce even simple documents. Needless-to-say, it paid to be accurate, and unless you were a really good typist, typing an essay or book report, could be a long arduous process. And forget about adding pictures into your document. Doing that kind of stuff at home was nearly impossible. Oh sure, you could include your illustrations and photos and then refer to them, but it wasn’t as simple and elegant as cut-copy-paste we’ve become so accustomed to.

Nevertheless, all this power and control does arrive with a fairly steep learning curve. It can be a pain to get the hang of and be fluent in effectively formatting eye-catching documents. Luckily, that’s where we come in – with How-To Geek School’s Formatting Documents with Microsoft Word 2013.

What We Will Cover

This series aims to introduce you to a large swath of Word 2013’s document formatting features through five lessons.

In this lesson, we first cover some Word basics like the Ribbon and page structure like tabs, margins, and indents. Additionally, we show you how to manipulate formatting marks or simply turn them on/off. Our first lesson concludes with an exploration of fonts, and finally templates.

Lesson 2 begins with paragraphs, specifically alignment, indentation, and line spacing. After that we move on to shading and borders, and then lists (bulleted, numbered, and multilevel). We’ll also briefly touch upon AutoCorrect options.

After that, Lesson 3 begins with a lengthy exploration of tables (inserting, drawing, formatting, etc.) and then we dive into other formatting options, including links, headers, footers, equations, and symbols.

Lesson 4’s primary focus will be illustrations and multimedia such as pictures, shapes, WordArt, and more. We move on from there to briefly cover working with more than one language.

Finally, in Lesson 5, we wrap up with styles and themes, covering the gamut, new styles, inspecting styles, managing and modifying, and lastly themes.

Before we do all that however, let’s take some time to orient ourselves with Word’s anatomy and layout.

The Ribbon

As you may be familiar, Microsoft employs a “Ribbon” interface throughout their products. These ribbons are prominent in Office and Windows 8 (File Explorer and WordPad).

Here we see the Ribbon in Word 2013, the application we’ll be using for all our work.

The Ribbon is further subdivided into tabs (Home, Insert, Design, etc.) and each tab is further broken down into sections (Clipboard, Font, Paragraph, etc.).

Each of these sections can be expanded by clicking the small arrow in the lower-right corner.

Here, if we click on the arrow on the “Font” section, it opens to the trusty “Font” dialog:

While some menus may open to dialogs, others may spawn panes that slide out from one side of the screen. Also, if you use a computer with a lower resolution screen and need more screen real estate, you can click the small arrow to the very far lower-right corner of the ribbon.

This will cause the Ribbon to collapse, giving you more vertical space to work with. To get the Ribbon back, simply click on a tab and it will spring back into view (you can pin it if you want it to stay open).

Alternatively, you can quickly hide/unhide the Ribbon by typing “CTRL + F1.”

Home is Where Word’s Heart is

We’ll take some time before diving into actual document formatting, to talk about the “Home” tab. Even if you never touch another part of Word for the rest of your life (fairly impossible but still), the Home tab contains its most essential functions and is vital to formatting your documents consistently well.

See here how the “Home” tab has a total of five sections: “Clipboard,” “Font,” “Paragraph,” “Styles,” and “Editing.”


“Clipboard” functions are pretty rudimentary; you should know them by now: cut, copy, paste. Most likely you use right-click menus to do many of your cut-copy-paste functions, or keyboard shortcuts: “CTRL + X”, “CTRL + C”, “CTRL + V,” respectively.

Opening the “Clipboard” pane however, reveals a goldmine of functionality that can actually prove quiet useful when formatting documents. The Word clipboard collects everything you cut or copy for later use. This is particularly useful if you need to paste several distinct passages of text and/or images throughout your document. You can simply place your pointer at the correct insertion point, open the “Clipboard” viewer and select the piece you want to paste.


The “Font” section and applicable dialog should be pretty familiar to the majority of Word users. Even if you’re not a Word pro, you’ve used the font functions in Word every time you create a document. Each time you bold or italicize something, you’re employing font functions. So knowing your way around the “Font” section and dialog is an excellent approach to mastering Word’s formatting bells and whistles.

We’ll go further into depth on fonts and typefaces in this lesson, for now, take a little time to familiarize yourself with its various functions.


Important also is the “Paragraph” section, which lets you set critical formatting features such as indenting, line spacing, and page breaks. Further, adjusting paragraph controls lets you play with borders, shading, and turn paragraph marks on or off. We’ll talk more about this in Lesson 2.


Styles are a great way to manage the way your entire document’s headers, titles, and text quickly and easily. Rather than going through a document and adding or changing headers one by one, you can simply apply a style, and then make changes to it using the “Styles” section. We’ll go into styles a great deal more in our final lesson of this series.

The Page

Your page is where all the magic happens, it’s where you compose your masterpieces and as such, knowing your way around is essential. Let’s dive in by turning on the “Ruler” and then explain how to set tabs and margins.

To turn on the ruler, we’ll first click the “View” tab and in the “Show” section, check the box next to “Ruler.” Note the horizontal and vertical rulers that appear along the page edges.

If you want to work according to another measurement system, you can change it from “File” -> “Options” -> “Advanced.”


With the ruler on, we can cover how to use tabs and set margins. The ruler is used to show to show the positions of tab stops and margins.

Tabs are used to position text by using the “Tab” key. This works better than spacing everything manually, and with most fonts, tabs are the surest way to make sure everything lines up properly.

Microsoft Word sets tabs by default to ½-inch intervals. When you hit “Tab,” the insertion point will automatically jump right (½-inch per tab).

You set tabs by clicking on the ruler to indicate where you want to place them. You’ll see a vertical dotted line allowing your more precise control over where they go.

You can set tabs in any section of the document, meaning the top of the page can have different tabs than the middle or the bottom. Basically, you can a different tabbing scheme on each and every line of your document if you need or desire.

Types of Tabs

There are several different kinds of tabs you can use. To pick the type, click the tab selector located at the far left-hand side of the screen as shown below.

Here we see a left tab, note all the text is aligned to the left.

And similarly, a right tab:

A center tab:

A decimal tab allow you to create columns of numbers and easily line them up by decimal point:

A vertical bar tab, which doesn’t act like a tab, allows you to demarcate text. It looks the same as if you typed | however the advantage is that you can grab the “bar tab” in the ruler and move them together.

You can exert more control over tabs by double-clicking on any one to bring up the tabs dialog window. Note here you can have more precise control over tab stop positions, alignment, and clearing them.


You can see your margins by making sure Word is viewed in “Print Layout.”

Here in this example, we see our left margin is set at two inches and our left is set at four inches, giving us two inches of horizontal printable area. The margin indicators are the bottom arrows, while top arrow is a hanging indent, which we’ll cover in the very next section.

On a normal document, the left and right margins default to one-inch and 6 ½ inches. This means on a regular 8.5 x 11 sheet of paper, you will have one-inch margins where print will not appear, giving you 6.5 inches of horizontal printable area.

To move margins and the hanging indent, hover over each one with the mouse pointer until it changes to arrows and then drag them to the size you desire.

If you simply grab the left margin, it will leave the hanging indent behind.

And on that note, let’s briefly discuss indents in a bit more detail.


Indents are used to position the paragraph with margins or within the columns in a table.

You can tweak your margins further depending on what you’re writing. For example, you can create a “first line indent.” This is more of an old school style wherein the first line of each paragraph will be indented.

This is a more traditional way of formatting paragraphs, allowing you to denote where new paragraphs begin in a single-spaced document. Today, text is usually formatted in a block style with a double space between paragraphs.

A second line, or “hanging indent,” will automatically indent every line after the first one. One confusing part with indents is you can move them outside of the margin, which is counterintuitive unless you consider that a printer can print outside the margins, and is limited only by the width of the paper.

There’s not a whole lot to master when it comes to tabs, margins, and indents. That said, it pays to understand how they work so you can get more precise results in your documents. And it gives you a better understanding of why a documents looks the way it does or more importantly, why it may not look the way you want it to look.

Formatting marks

Before we proceed any further, we should point out that you might be noticing now that in some of our screenshots, there are formatting marks that show paragraphs, spaces, tabs, and others. To see the tabs and other text-formatting marks in the document select the ¶ (paragraph) symbol here on the “Paragraph” section on the “Home” tab.

To choose which formatting marks are seen, you can select them in Word “Options.” To open the options dialog, first click on the “File” tab and then choose “Options.” Finally, under “Display” you will see that you can select formatting options that always appear.

For example, if you want to turn off all the formatting marks except paragraphs and spaces, you would select only those two. Then you can turn off all or individual formatting marks in the “Paragraph” section.

Formatting marks are very important for creating clean, consistently formatted documents and they don’t show up in the final, printed document, plus you can turn them on or off as needed, so learn to use them to your advantage.

Fonts vs. Typefaces

Typefaces and fonts will be a routine part of your daily document formatting unless you’re happy with one single font for every document you write. Good font use is very important as it can allow you to better express yourself and get your point across. For that reason, you want to at least understand the very basics of how they work and what font is appropriate where and why.

For the sake of clarification, a “typeface” is basically the way a collection of letters, numbers, and symbols looks across its entirety. Here we see the Times New Roman typeface, which will have the same characteristics no matter which font you use. In other words, Times looks like Time, whether it is bolded, italicized, or whatever formatting you apply to it.

A font may be understood as the entire collection of typefaces. For example, Times New Roman and all its various forms (bold, italic, bold italic) is a “font family.” Each of the variations (regular, bold, italic, and bold italic) within the family is a font:

For the sake of simplicity, rather than split hairs and confuse you with talk of typefaces and fonts, we’ll just refer to everything type-related as a font.

Serif fonts

There are two types of fonts you should understand.

First, there are so-called serif fonts; serifs are those little bits that stick out from a letter as in the example below.

In many cases, a serif font will look best in formal of official documents. One of those most immediately identifiable and iconic examples of a serif font is seen on the New York Times masthead:

Sans serif

Conversely, a sans serif font will obviously not have serifs, hence the “sans” part. Here you see the Arial font, which is one of Windows’ default fonts.

Sans serif fonts are widely used in advertising and logos because they often tend to look new and modern. Without a doubt the most notable sans serif font is Helvetica, upon which Arial is obviously based. You can find dozens of examples of Helvetica-derived fonts in modern culture. Check out Microsoft, Target, and Panasonic for just a few examples.

You can add different fonts to Windows, and by extension Word, by downloading them from the web.

If you want to read up more about typefaces and fonts, Microsoft provides more information its typography homepage.

Point size

Point size relates to the size of the font, leading, and other page items. It is not connected to any established unit of measurement. In typography, a point is the smallest whole unit of measurement.

For most fonts in Word, the smallest point size is 8 points tall. The smallest lines and other graphic objects can have is a point size of 1. Here are some example of various point sizes:

Font Styles and Effects

You can apply various font styles and effects from the “Font” tab on the “Home” ribbon.

You can access further font effects from the full font dialog accessible by clicking the arrow in the bottom right corner.

You have a whole range of effects, including colors and different underline styles you can apply.


Before we end this lesson, we should take a moment to briefly acquaint you with templates, since they can often make short work of complex layouts.

Templates are pre-configured documents, like a resume or business cards that you can use to speed creating forms. There are templates for pretty much anything you can think of.

The goal of Microsoft Word is twofold: (1) provide sets of themes and styles so that the Word user can create professional-looking documents and (2) give the user the ability to create documents of graphic-designer quality by providing tools and pre-configured set of objects from which the user can select.

When you open Microsoft Word or click on the “New” from the “File” tab, the first screen it shows you are the templates available to you, either already included with the program, or available for quick download. If you don’t immediately see what you want, try “suggested searches” or use the search box.

Right-click on any template and you can “Preview” or “Create” the template. You can also pin a preferred template so it is always available at the top of the list.

Creating a template will cause it to open if it is stored locally on your computer, or it will download if it isn’t. Note that some these templates, such as the gift certificate pictured below are offered by third-party sites, so they may not all be free.

If you decide you want to purchase a third-party template, you will be provided with further instructions on how to do so.

After you pick a template, it will open as a new document, and you can fill it in and tweak it to your liking. We see here the template for the “Basic Resume.”

Note how Word will automatically fill in your name and the template provides instructions on how to use it. In reality, this template is really nothing more than a table (discussed in Lesson 3) with a Theme (discussed in Lesson 5) applied to it.

When you are done filling out the template, you can then save it as a new document. You can also take a template, make changes to it, and then save it as a new template. Let’s say for example, that you wanted to apply a different style to our “Basic Resume.” You’d simply need to open the template, affect the changes you want, and then save it as a new template.

There’s a whole lot to discover with templates. Best of all, you don’t have to worry about creating every single document on your own. Need a quick business card or invitations to your retirement party? Word templates make quick work of a lot of formatting headaches, leaving you time to actually design something you’ll be happy with!

Coming up Next…

That concludes our lesson for today, you should now have a fairly firm grasp on Word’s layout, tabs, margins, indents, fonts, and templates.

Tomorrow we’ll go over how to change the appearance and behavior of paragraphs on your pages, shading and borders, as well as introduce you to lists and all their various parts!

Profile Photo for Matt Klein Matt Klein
Matt Klein has nearly two decades of technical writing experience. He's covered Windows, Android, macOS, Microsoft Office, and everything in between. He's even written a book, The How-To Geek Guide to Windows 8.
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