Living with Microsoft Word: Tips for survival

August 7th, 2007 by shane

  1. I have been using Microsoft Word for 12 years, but having just written a 75,000 word document, I feel I am just starting to learn how to use it properly. MS WORD is open to abuse and I guess that many, if not most, of its users don’t get the most out of the program. In this article I share some tips for non-expert MS WORD users that have garnered from my recent experiences of WORD.

    In previous posts on this blog we have advocated the use of the LaTex software. A real type setting program such as LaTex has many advantages. A sustained argument against WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) word processors like WORD can be found here, and an ode to LaTeX by our very own Dario here. In terms of the actual writing of an academic article, a type setting program allows you to concentrate on content and structure, whereas with MS WORD you can easily find new methods of procrastination by trying out different fonts for headings, and get sidetracked from the real business of writing. However, LaTeX is popular with a particular audience, particularly those who are fond of UNIX and the command line, such as those in the engineering and computing fields. For less technically savvy users, LaTex is probably not an option, and MS WORD is all they know. If you stuck with MS WORD, you need to exert a little effort to use it properly and make your life easier, especially when you are writing a large academic document.

    There are lots of guides to using MS WORD on the internet. Below I list the things I have learnt which I have found most useful. Another short useful guide I found is Ten things every Microsoft Word user should know 12. If you are completely unfamiliar with styles, find a tutorial on the internet that will go over the basics in more detail. This guide to styles might be a good place to start.


    The single most important piece of advice to use MS WORD sensibly is to use styles. One of the big advantages of Latex is that is it forces to properly format your documents. With MS WORD you have the option to be chaotic in your use of formatting. Styles creates order, and discipline.

  2. Think about what your main styles are going to be in your document. The styles you use will depend on the formatting conventions in your field. My basic set includes 4 levels of headings, default paragraph, first paragraph of section, table text, indented quotes, and table/figure titles.
  3. Don’t click the “automatically update” option in the modify styles menu box. It might sound fun, but it is bad news. It means that whenever you change the formatting of the text in your document, it will update your style.
  4. If you want to change the formatting of text in your document, modify the style, not your text.
  5. Don’t use the style Normal in your document. Use Body instead for normal text, i.e. Your default paragraph text. The Normal style is the template that most other styles are based on. It is sacred. If you want to make global changes to your document, such as the font, you should modify your Normal font, and all the other styles, which are based on normal, will follow suit.
  6. WORD has a number of tools and menus for working with styles easier. My most used one is apply styles box, which appears if you press ctrl+shift+s, and you can then type in the name of our font (using autocomplete), and hit enter to change the current paragraph.
  7. The apply styles box will also show you the style name of the current paragraph, and then you can click “Modify” to change the style.
  8. My Body style has first line indenting, while I have a separate Body First style for the first paragraph has no indentation. I have it set so that the text following my headings defaults to Body First, while the text following Body First defaults to Body. This way I never have to use the tab key.
  9. When pasting into your document, do not use “keep source formatting” option, as you will introduce junk styles into your document.
  10. If you want to be really strict about your use of styles, you can use the protect document option to limit the styles you can use in your document to a chosen to few. This isn’t a bad idea, as it forces you to use style discipline. For example, if you wanted to italicise a word, you couldn’t just press ctrl-i. Instead you would have to change the style (e.g. Style Emphasis), though this is probably a little extreme for most people.


  11. When you want to insert a title for a figure/table, use the insert caption option.
  12. If you do this, creating a list of figures/tables for your document is a breeze.
  13. When referring to your table/figure in your text, use the cross reference option. Choose the reference type as table/figure, change the “Insert reference to” selection to “Only label and number” and WORD will insert in your text as Table 1/Figure 1 etc…
  14. To update all the references in your document (including table of contents etc), select all text (shortcut: ctrl+a) and fit F9 to update.
  15. Change your caption style with the paragraphing option (Line and page breaks tab) “keep with next”, which will stop the title from being split across pages from its matching table/figure.
  16. With tables, you need to additionally right click the table properties, choose the row tab, and uncheck the “Allow row to break across pages” checkbox.


  17. Proof reading is best done with a hard copy. However, when reading on screen, its best to use full screen mode (shortcut: Alt,v,u) and then adjust font size by using ctrl+mouse wheel so that the font is nice and large. I much prefer this to the new screen reading option in WORD 2007. This is very good for removing distractions so you can just focus on your document.
  18. With large documents, the document map can be useful. You can change the font size with the ctrl+mouse wheel option, and narrow the width so that it is not obtrusive.


  19. The default heading styles in WORD are a little funky. Change them to something that suits you.
  20. If you want to use numbered headings, they can be a pain to implement. I ended up finding a WORD document template for numbering on the internet that I used as the basis for my heading styles due to the infuriating way in which WORD deals with numbering.
  21. To make headings easier to apply, WORD has some shortcut keys ctrl-alt+1 for heading 1, and so forth. It only goes up to heading 3 I believe, so I have set up additional shortcut keys for level 4 and 5 headings.
  22. Use of proper headings allows proper use of the Outline mode.
  23. Using the cross reference method described above tables & figures can also be used for headings, as you insert the heading number. Then you write in your text, “as shown in Section X….” and the Section X number will automatically update even if the heading number changes later in your writing.


  24. I used to have the highlight grammar option switched off. I believe it is improved in Word 2007, and now I find about 70% of its advice useful. You can customize it to ignore some of its pet peeves, such as the use of passive sentences.


  25. With the use of keyboard shortcuts, notes can be very useful and convenient to add. For example, I am often removing sentences or references from my main text and adding them as notes instead.
  26. Use a shortcut key for adding new notes (I use ctrl+alt+n).
  27. I have a shortcut key to get hide/show the notes pane, as when you add a note it will automatically bring up the notes pane, which I prefer to have hidden from view when in writing mode.
  28. I also have a macro set up to add a new note, paste the contents of the clipboard, and then close the notes panel.
  29. I also have a bunch of ideas stored at the bottom of the WORD document, text which I may incorporate into the main body of the document later and “things to do”, which I navigate to using the ctrl+End shortcut.

  31. Ctrl+Up and Ctrl-Down will navigate to the last searched text, either up or down your document.
  32. Find is very useful for finding text in a document, obviously. When correcting a proof, you can search for a few words close to where you need to make a correction, to quickly find the text you need to correct.
  33. Find and replace is a powerful tool, especially when you understand how to use the advanced syntax and wildcards, but be careful when using Find and Replace. Check it after making large changes. For example, I capitalised all the incidences of the word table in my text, and ended up with changes such as noTable, which would have been easily avoided if I had been more careful in my search term (e.g. ” table ” instead of “table”.)
  34. Another tip in being careful is to use the Match Case option. For example, if you realise you have made a consistent spelling error in your document, first correct it using lower case find and replace (e.g. find “thier”, replace “their”, and then correct those cases where the word starts the beginning of a sentence: find “Thier” replace with “There”).
  35. Use ^W^W in find and replace with ^W double whitespace characters. Keep doing this till none are left.
  36. Use the same technique to remove double lines with find ^P^P, replace with ^P
  37. Use the Highlight All option to give you a count of many search items found. This is useful for picking up overuse of certain words. We all have our favourite words that get tired when overused. For example, I found about 30 uses of the word “investigate” in my document. I went through a changed a bunch to examine, look into, explore etc…


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20 Responses to “Living with Microsoft Word: Tips for survival”

  1. BastienNo Gravatar Says:


    However, the “LaTeX savvy user” will surely have his eyes hurt by the three typos in your text: LATEX is not “LaTex”.

    It would also be interesting to know if these advices are the same for OpenOffice.

  2. drtaxsactoNo Gravatar Says:

    Those are wonderful suggestions. Much better organized than any of the manuals that come with Word!

  3. kdNo Gravatar Says:

    Don’t forget vbacs – emacs key bindings for emacs users who find they occasionally have to use Word with colleagues.

  4. GTD WannabeNo Gravatar Says:

    Great list. I was recently torn between using LaTeX or Word for a rough technical document. Originally, I figured Word would be easier because I could just cut/paste and get quick and dirty images. Then I remembered how much of a pain styles were! Back to LaTeX I went.

    I’m bookmarking your list for the next time – it’ll help me beat Word into shape :)

  5. Cosas por hacer » Aprovechando Says:

    [...] Academic Productivity » Living with Microsoft Word: Tips for survival I have been using Microsoft Word for 12 years, but having just written a 75,000 word document, I feel I am just starting to learn how to use it properly. MS WORD is open to abuse and I guess that many, if not most, of its users don’t get the most out of (tags: academic advice microsoft) [...]

  6. Wake Up Now!No Gravatar Says:

    What I noticed is that many people upgrade to next version of Word and keep using it in the same way they used previous version. By reading “What’s New” section of readme or help file you can boost your productivity with new features significantly!

  7. HyperrealityNo Gravatar Says:

    Great post! I too learnt how to properly use styles when writing my Final Year Project. None of that messing with font sizes and tabs.
    LaTeX on the other hand, takes care of all that, but it can be a pain sometimes, specially if you’re in a rush!

  8. Study Hacks » Blog Archive » Around the Web: Living with Microsoft Word Says:

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  9. Replace Microsoft Office | Says:

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  10. Academic writing with Word 2007 « VisionOS’s Weblog Says:

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    [...] Living with Microsoft Word: Tips for Survival A post from Academic Productivity provides a master class in the advanced features of Microsoft Word. [...]

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  13. RRealtor1No Gravatar Says:

    You poor poor people, sucked into usinf MS Word! If you want a kick ass word processor get Lotus Word Pro. It’s 100 times better and easier to use. The learning curve is fast, jut click the right mouse button to change anything.

    Try it and you will never go back!

  14. SKane Says:

    I concur with RRealtor1 regarding Word Pro’s ease of use, to some extent.

    But if one wishes to use styles in Word Pro, which is not really necessary for quick documents, it does take the same sort of knowledge of how styles work, and familiarity with Word Pro’s own interface, namely the tabbed properties window, beloved by all Word Pro users, and probably the styles management window (if one really wants to create and control their own styles).

    The major drawback with Word Pro has been its total lack of support for font pair kerning, and Word Pro appears to implement very poorly other font specifications too. This has not changed from the big 1997 release to the latest release as of 2008.

    The font display problems affect the printout and the onscreen display. The onscreen display of some font character pairs is so bad in Word Pro, I often switch to Word 2002 or a text editor (like EmEditor) even when I’m just writing for the web. I just cannot focus on the content of what I am writing when some characters have unseemly gaps between them, and other characters are kissin g one another …practically laying on top of one another!

    This really frustrates me. The Word Pro interface has great potential, especially as an alternative to the “wizard”-based controls of Microsoft Word.

    Additionally, Word Pro is part of a suite which includes an extremely useful, accessible and stable database program: Approach. This is why I have kept Word Pro updated. And I fear that Approach will just disappear if IBM/Lotus does not improve Word Pro …or Approach (beyond fixing bugs and maintaining compatibility).

    (Manual “kerning” is possible in Word Pro, but it’s not the same thing at all. And even that is extremely inconvenient to access, because it is buried behind tabs and a button in the paragraph properties control window.)

  15. Mary Link Building MasterNo Gravatar Says:

    OK. RRealtor threw down the gauntlet!! You guys are the experts here (not me that’s for sure!) which is better? Lotus or Microsoft Word? I’ve always used Word because that’s what they taught us in college. I still have my Office 97 software! I am too cheap to change it. You know what they say, “if it ain’t broken don’t fix it”

    But seriously, I am interested in upgrading and I would like to know what the “pros” think in regards to lotus.

  16. Learn MS WordNo Gravatar Says:

    When writing in MS Word, the most important tip you mentioned that helped the most is the “find and replace” tool.


  17. Learn MS WordNo Gravatar Says:

    When used properly, knowing all the shortcuts and tricks, then MS Word may be a powerful tool when trying to complete academia material.

  18. AlexNo Gravatar Says:

    For work with word files use-how to repair word 2007,because tool is very good,it is free as far as i know,soft can try to open your report in Microsoft Word format, that you have been preparing for a week, but in vain,can work with .doc, .docx, .dot and .dotx files and with any version of Microsoft Word text editor,recover only plain text, it means, that text formatting, graphics and all other elements will be lost,can recover your data from corrupted *.doc files, located on corrupted media: floppy and CD disks, flash and zip drives, etc,export recovered content into a new document in Microsoft Word format or any other text file.

  19. Ted PavlicNo Gravatar Says:

    You should add a tip about inserting non-breaking spaces as well. Hitting Cntrl+Shift+Space inserts a non-breaking space. For example, you would not want the name:


    to break across lines between the “Mr.” and the “LastName”. Nor would you want


    to break between the “Figure” and the “3″. So you insert the non-breaking space (NBSP).

  20. TapiNo Gravatar Says:

    Hmmmm… you said you found a template on the web to handle numbered paragraph. How about posting a link. As it is, people like me googling for the template end up on your blog wasting time trying to find it.

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