Sunday 15 December 2013

5 Essential MS Word Tools Every Student Should Know

Microsoft Word is a powerful word processing program. It can format books, magazines, and brochures. It can access databases to produce individualized printouts. It can do amazing things with page layout.

But most of us don't need these functions. We write term papers, reports, and essays using only the most basic of functions. Nonetheless, we still need to master some basic functions to make our writing lives easier.

In my editing work, I see thousands of student papers. And in many (if not most) I see people not knowing how to use these basic tools that would make formatting their essays a lot easier. If you learn to use these 5 Essential MS Word Tools, your essay writing will be easier, and you will have less work.

The reason I notice these problems is that they become most apparent in the editing process. When a page is set up properly, the editing process is simpler. But I'm not advocating for these tools for my own sake, or for the sake of other editors. The editing process is essential to good writing.

If you want to improve the grades on your papers from B to A, then the key is probably in the editing process. All of the best papers I have ever written have been carefully revised after the first draft. Polishing your ideas and thoughts is key to improving your writing. If you are not editing your papers carefully, or sending them to a professional editor, then you probably have a lot of room for improvement of your grades. If you use these tools, editing is easier, and you can focus on the important content of your paper, which is going to earn you top marks.

1. Page break

Probably 99% of the essays I edit use a series of page returns to force a new page.

Using the page break function means that a new page will stay a new page, whether you have one line or half of a page before it.

How to use the page break function in MS Word
Under the "Insert" menu, select "Break" and then "Page". Whatever follows this character in the document will start on a new page. Use this function after the cover page and before the References. There are better ways to manage page breaks within the document, and I will get to these.

2. Keep with next

The next two tools are found in the paragraph formatting dialog. ("Format"
--> "Paragraph...").

How to use the paragraph formatting tools in MS Word
The paragraph formatting dialog box has two divisions. One is labeled "Indents and Spacing" and the other is "Line and Page Breaks". You can also use this menu to tell Word that you want a page break, just like the tool above, but for reasons I won’t go into, the “Insert…page break” is a better way to go.

The function you need here is the "Keep with next" checkbox. Use this for headings. That way you won't have a header sitting at the bottom of a page when the paragraph it is supposed to head is at the top of the next page. And you won’t have to insert extra blank lines above the heading to force it onto the next page. The "Keep lines together" is also useful for things like bullet points so you don't have part of the bullet on one page and part of the bullet on the other.

3. Hanging Indent

This is an essential function for formatting references, whether in APA or MLA. A hanging indent is when the first line of the paragraph is not indented, but the following lines are indented. What people often do is use insert a return followed with a tab. This means Word will try to capitalize the first word of the new line. In addition, any correction of the lines will mean lots of juggling to create the right indent. And let's face it, APA and MLA styles for references are complicated, and often require a lot of editing. So setting them up right in the first place is going to save a lot of work later.

Under the "Format" menu again, choose "Paragraph..." In the "Indents and spacing" division, choose "Hanging Indent". A 0.5" indent is appropriate.

That's it! Now you can enter your references and simply start a new line for each reference and they will be formatted properly.

Other than the length of the indent for the indented lines, all other items should be set to 0. The correct format for both APA and MLA references is double spaced hanging indent with no additional space between entries. The difference between them is the specific way you enter the information.

4. Tab

The tab is a much abused function. Some people ignore it altogether and simply use lots of spaces to move words to the right on pages. Spaces are the worst choice, because different fonts have different spaces, and when you've forced a page number to the right using spaces, it can suddenly appear on the next line, or not as far right as you want. If you are trying to line up columns, then they will appear slightly out of whack, no matter how hard you try to line them up.

Tabs are usually pre-set at one half inch each. So you can hit the tab character a few times to move things across the page, but again, later editing might mean more work for you. It's better to set the tab correctly the first time, and then everything will stay in place.

The most common place you might use a tab is to set a page number in your running head (I will discuss how to set up running heads in a later post).

How to use the Tab function in MS Word
Using the "Format" menu, select "Tabs..."  Enter the location of the tab. To set a tab for a page number, look at the little ruler at the top of the page. The white portion is the available page width. Right now I can see up to 6 inches. If I wanted a page number at the right of the page, I'd set a tab for 6". But tabs can align the text to the right or left of the tab (or center). So for a page number at the right of the page, I'd set a 6" right align tab. That way the page numbers would end at the 6" location, not begin at the 6" location and run off the page to the right.

You can use tabs to set up columns of figures or other types of data, but often it's easier to use a table. Don't worry about that right now.

5. Spell check

Use the spell check function as the very last thing you do. The spell check is found under “Tools” --> “Spelling and Grammar…” Even if there are no words underlined in red, the spell check will find extra spaces and other problems with the document. The spell check is your friend, but don't always trust the spell check. It can miss words that are correctly spelled, but are not the correct word, such as effect and affect. It will sometimes prompt you to use the wrong version of some words, such as turning a plural into a possessive, or incorrectly substituting “its” for “it’s” and vice versa. (Remember: it’s = it is; its is a possessive pronoun). Nothing replaces a careful proofreading.

Updated April 2, 2014.