Like it or not, Microsoft Word is a standard for document preparation across almost every industry. While content is typically pulled into InDesign, Affinity Publisher, or another serious desktop publishing package for the production of books and other long documents, sometimes even this step is done in Word.

This is using the wrong tool for the job, but sometimes you don’t have a choice. If you must use MS Word to do serious layout, it can be done… carefully. Here are some pointers, listed in alphabetic order:

Cross reference   Fonts   Graphics   Headers and footers   Left-aligned text   Long docs   Margins   Page numbering   Running headers   Sections   Spaces after periods   Space between paragraphs   Styles


Cross reference

When text in one place refers to content in another place, use a cross reference. This will insert text and an optional hyperlink that will automatically update as the document changes. However if your document is so long that it must be broken into multiple chapter files (see Long docs below], then that might be more pain than it is worth.

Here are instructions for how to insert text with the name of a heading and a link to it. First, highlight the text you want to replace or place your cursor where you want the text inserted. Go to the Captions section of the References tab and click on Cross-reference. (Unless your window is wide, the name will not show. See the screenshot below for what that icon looks like). Choose what you want the reference to be to, such as a heading or a table, and then choose what you want the inserted text of the reference to be, such as the heading text or table number. Check whether you want it to insert as a hyperlink, then choose from the list the specific header (or table or whatever you want) to refer to.

In Word for Mac (version 16.33):

And in Word in Office 365 in Windows:



Common default fonts, such as Times New Roman, Arial, and Calibri might be perceived as the “I don’t want to be bothered to choose a font” fonts. There’s nothing wrong with that, but if you want a little edge, choose a new font as your standard and use it consistently.



Normalize the graphics used throughout the document so that they all use the same color palette, fonts, size, and overall style.


Headers and footers

Only use headers or footers that differ on the left and right pages if you are planning your document to be printed two-sided. In this case, swap the page number to always be on the outside margin side (on the right for odd-numbered pages, and on the left for even-numbered pages). You could do this in the header as well, having the current chapter name on the outside. But again: if this document will primarily be read online, then just use a single header/footer and keep your page numbers in one spot. [Also see Margins below.]


Left-aligned text

I understand that this is a style decision that might not be up for debate… but I almost always recommend that text be set aligned to the left rather than full-justified, especially in a letter-size or A4 document. It makes the document easier to read. Set this in the Normal style. (It looks pretty much the same in Mac and Windows.) [See Styles below.]


Long docs

While you can force MS Word to be a layout program to some extent, that’s really not what it’s for. Depending on the quality and speed of your computer, this becomes especially apparent in documents over about 80 or 90 pages when your computer may slow to a crawl or crash unexpectedly. If this is your situation and if you really can’t use a real desktop publishing tool, then you’ll need to break this document into multiple files. This gets way beyond the scope of this little blog post, but for starters, save chapters or sets of chapters as separate files, reset the starting page numbers in the subsequent chunks, and google for “Word master document” to learn more. Tread carefully or consider hiring an expert!



Set your margins based on how your document will be published. If your document is four or more pages long, printed double-sided, and bound, then the inside margins — those closest to the binding — should be larger than the outside margin. For example, set the outer margin to .75-inch, and set the inside margin to 1.25-inch. However, if your document will be a PDF that is read onscreen or online, then the left and right margins should match. Adjust margins by choosing Custom Margins from the Margins item on the Layout tab.


Page numbering

Here is something that matters quite a lot to some audiences and doesn’t matter at all to others: In the screenshot below, I scrolled 9 pages down a document, then looked at the page number that is on the top of the page and compare that to the page number that my PDF software said I was on. If it is important to you that these numbers match, then always start your page numbering at 1 with the cover of the document. Do not number the front matter with the lower-case Roman numerals and wait until after the table of contents to start at 1. For the engineering communities I work with, having these numbers differ causes no end of frustration. Do whatever your audience would prefer.


Running headers

For longer documents, it is nice to show the name of the chapter or section in the header area at the top of the page so the reader can keep track of where she is in your document. The best way to do this is to use a field so that whatever the last-specified value is for, say, your Heading 2 style, that will show in your header.

Microsoft changes how things are done far too often, but at the time of this writing, the first part of how to do this is slightly different on a Mac vs. Windows, and I show screenshots of both ways below.

On a Mac, go to the Text section on the Insert tab, then choose Field.  In Windows, go to the Text section on the Insert tab, click the Quick Parts icon, then choose Field. The rest is the same (or similar enough) regardless of the system you use: choose the Links and References field and choose StyleRef. Then on the StyleRef box, click options, choose Styles, then select the style that you want to use. Of course this will only work if you use styles. This also has the advantage that if you decide to change the text of the chapter name, it will automatically update in your header. [See Styles below.]

Here’s how this looks on a Mac in MS Word for Mac:

And here’s how to get to it in Windows in MS Word as part of Office 365:



Sections can make working with MS Word a bit painful and, if your document is very long, more prone to crashes. If at all possible, do not insert section breaks into your document. If there are section breaks and you want to delete them, go into Outline view mode, then in the Paragraph section of the Home tab, click on the paragraph symbol. This will display the hidden codes on your screen, and you will clearly see the section breaks. Select a break and hit the Delete key to get rid of them.


Spaces after periods

This isn’t about MS Word, but I don’t want to miss an opportunity to say this: there should always be just one space after a period when using proportional fonts. That old rule about two spaces went away with typewriters and existed because of the non-proportional fonts (such as Courier). Seriously, regardless of what anyone tells you, your editor will thank you if you delete those extra spaces!


Space between paragraphs

The way to insert spacing between paragraphs or before or after subheads is not to hit the Enter key a few times. Instead, edit your style and modify the paragraph setting to add the space there. This way it will be applied consistently throughout your document, and if you decide to change it later, it’ll be updated everywhere.



Have you noticed how often I’ve mentioned styles in this post? Styles provide an incredibly powerful feature that is greatly underused and misused. A good practice is to try to use only styles to do all your text formatting. At a minimum, use the “Heading n” styles for your heads and subheads. Consistent use of these styles not only makes formatting easier, it automates the creation and maintenance of a table of contents, automated text in your headers, and much more.

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