Paragraph formatting essentials for unbreakable documents(book excerpt)

Applies to
Microsoft Office Word 2003
Book image This article was excerpted from Microsoft® Office Document Designer by Stephanie Krieger. Visit Microsoft Learning to buy this book and CD set, which includes the Microsoft Office Document Designer tool kit.

In this article


3 levels of formatting

Paragraph alignment and spacing options

Keyboard shortcuts


Wouldn't it be nice to know that your documents will always look the way you intended, whether on screen, printed, or e-mailed? Well, one of the best ways to guarantee the appearance of your documents is also one of the easiest: strong, solid, simple paragraph formatting.

As you know, Word is all about keeping things simple. No matter how complex your document's content, the least complicated solution to any task will always give you more precise, impressive results than convoluted workarounds that take three times the effort! A quick overview of paragraph formatting provides one of the best examples of this core Word concept.

3 levels of formatting

You might know that Word organizes most document formatting into three levels (font, paragraph, and section). Paragraph formatting, the second of these and the basic building block of most documents, includes tasks such as paragraph spacing, line spacing, alignment, paragraph borders and shading, bullets and numbering, and indents and tabs.

When you apply paragraph formatting to the text of your document, Word stores it in the paragraph mark (¶) that falls at the end of each paragraph. Why is this important for you to know? Well, if the formatting of your text has ever changed when you moved it from one part of the document to another (or between documents), formatting stored in a paragraph mark was the reason.

Formatting can change if you move text into a paragraph that contains different formatting. Notice, in fact, the formatting smart tags that appear whenever you paste text from one location to another in Word. These smart tags offer you the option to keep source formatting or match destination formatting, which refers to the formatting contained in the paragraph marks at the copy source and the paste destination.

Want to be even smarter than the smart tags? Easy! To steer clear of the complications of source and destination formatting, avoid leaving empty paragraphs in your document (that is, paragraph marks where there is no text). The best way to do that is to use spacing Before or After the paragraph (find this under Spacing on the Indents and Spacing tab of the Paragraph dialog box, accessible from the Format menu, Paragraph command) to automatically make space between paragraphs when you press ENTER. Increase your paragraph spacing instead of pressing ENTER multiple times for a new paragraph and you won't get any of this:

Sample paragraphs

Those ugly, empty paragraph marks aren't empty at all — they contain lots of formatting that can get in your way.

For a strong document foundation, check out more helpful tips on paragraph alignment and spacing options in the table that follows.

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Paragraph alignment and spacing options

The action The recommendation Tips and more information
Create space between paragraphs

Use paragraph spacing before or after a paragraph to create space between separate paragraphs.

Just go to the Indents and Spacing tab of the Paragraph dialog box (Format menu, Paragraph command) and type the desired number of points (or use the spin boxes to make a selection) in the text boxes labeled Before or After.

As a good rule of thumb, use 12 points before or after the paragraph when working with standard body text (type that has 12 pt in either the Before or After text box), to create a single line of space between your paragraphs.

 Important   Be sure to include the pt when you type points before or after. Otherwise, Word might convert your entry to a line setting that is not what you intended.

Keep your document simple to edit by keeping your formatting choices as consistent as possible throughout the document. If you choose to use space before on some paragraphs, try to stick with space before throughout. It will end up being less work than switching back and forth.

You might be thinking, "Why should I take the extra step to set paragraph spacing when I can just press ENTER twice to get a new paragraph?" Well, think about this: Once you set paragraph spacing, it stays set until you change it. So, it's a lot less work than manually making space between your paragraphs with empty paragraph marks.

Paragraph spacing also gives you more control than extra paragraph marks because you can set the space precisely. If you want half or a quarter of a line between paragraphs, or multiple lines, just set whatever you need. Even adjust paragraph spacing to suit your font size by changing the number of points before or after the paragraph.

Use equal amounts of space before and after the paragraph for text in table cells, to easily center the text vertically within the cell and create the desired cell height at the same time without having to set row height or cell alignment. (For help formatting tables, see the tip sheet "You Don't Have to be an Architect! The Pure and Simple Logic of Building Extraordinary Tables," in Microsoft Office Document Designer.)

Create space between lines of the same paragraph

Use the line spacing feature to create space between lines of the same paragraph.

Access line spacing on the Indents and Spacing tab of the Paragraph dialog box (Format menu, Paragraph command). By default, line spacing is set to Single. To change line spacing, select a different option from the drop-down list labeled Line spacing.

1.5 lines and Double line spacing are the obvious options. When you select line spacing At least or Exactly, the text box beside the Line spacing drop-down list reads 12 pt. Use the spin boxes to change the point setting, or just type in the desired number of points. At least 12 pt means that lines of the active paragraph(s) will be no less than 12 points high, regardless of text size, so text in 8 point font will have 12 point line spacing, but lines of text in 24 point font will grow to accommodate the font size. Line spacing Exactly, on the other hand, will keep the line spacing to exactly the selected number of points, regardless of font size.

If the top or bottom of text is cut off in paragraphs with a large font, line spacing set to Exactly is a likely cause!

 Note   Notice that there's a difference between single line spacing on 12 point text and line spacing of exactly 12 points. Single line spacing adds buffer space between lines. On the other hand, when you set exactly 12 point line spacing on 12 point text, the bottom of the text in the first line of the paragraph will almost touch the top of text in the second line, etc.

When you need to fit just a little more text on one page, try decreasing your line spacing by setting Exactly to just a point or two larger than your font size. The line spacing will be less than single, so you'll get more room, but not so much less that anyone will notice!

Align paragraphs horizontally on the page

Select paragraph alignment options to align complete paragraphs along the left or right margins, or centered between the two. Or, select justified alignment for text that is equally distributed between the margins so that each line of the paragraph (other than the last) is identical in length.

To set paragraph alignment, either click in the desired paragraph or select several paragraphs to format them at once. Then, click the icon on the Formatting toolbar that corresponds to the alignment you want, as shown here:

button images

Or select alignment on the Indents and Spacing tab of the Paragraph dialog box (Format menu, Paragraph command).

You don't have to push text over with indents, tabs, or the ruler bar to change the alignment of a paragraph. A single click changes the alignment for the whole paragraph at once (or several selected paragraphs).

 Note   If your tabs or indents seem off when you change paragraph alignment, that's because tabs and indents are designed to work with left-aligned paragraphs. For more information on setting indents and tabs, check out the tip sheet "Do Your Paragraphs Measure Up?" (Microsoft Office Document Designer).

Start a new line within the same paragraph

Use a line break (also called a soft return) to force text to start on a new line of the same paragraph.

Just place your insertion point where you want the line to break and press SHIFT+ENTER.

When viewing formatting marks, a line break character will look like this: Icon image

Please don't use the spacebar or tabs to push text to a new line of the same paragraph! It's too much work and never works smoothly. The line break places one nonprinting character at the end of the line and that's all. One step, perfect every time.

When lines of text logically go together, simplify paragraph formatting by placing line breaks instead of paragraph returns. The address information in a business letter, for example, is a collection of single-spaced lines that fall above the salutation, like so:

example letter

Since there is space before and after that group of lines, use line breaks to separate them instead of paragraph marks, and just press ENTER for one paragraph mark at the end of the group. That way, using the example here, you have one set of formatting in one paragraph mark instead of four sets of formatting for the same result.


  • If you are unfamiliar with the three levels of Word formatting, reading chapter 2 of Microsoft Office Document Designer will help you get more from this and the other paragraph formatting tip sheets.
  • For a quick look at everything in your document that's considered paragraph formatting, turn on the Reveal Formatting task pane. Learn more about this task pane in the tip sheet "The Long Document Heroes" (Microsoft Office Document Designer).
  • If you don't see the paragraph marks in your documents, click the Show/Hide ¶ button on the Standard toolbar.
  • Not familiar with paragraph marks and other formatting marks (also called nonprinting characters)? Check out the tip sheet "Making Your Word Documents Behave" or chapter 2, both in Microsoft Office Document Designer for more information.
  • For help with smart tags (including formatting smart tags), see the tip sheet "Office Top Timesaving Tools" (Microsoft Office Document Designer).
  •  Important   Extra paragraph marks won't substantially increase file size or use more memory, but they will make editing the document more difficult, and if you're sending your document electronically — well, those extra formatting marks just look nasty on screen. And, using paragraph spacing before and after will save you time as well, so why wouldn't you?

  • Just because you can turn off formatting marks in your view doesn't mean they're gone! If excess formatting marks — such as empty paragraphs — exist in your document, anyone who views your document electronically can see them by looking at your document with formatting marks on. So, keep your readers' attention on the content instead of the formatting by using formatting commands — such as paragraph spacing — in place of workarounds like excess hard returns — for clean, sharp, impressive documents every time.
  • Space before and after a paragraph can be measured in points or lines. Since 12 points is the default font size, Word thinks of a single, default line of space between paragraphs as 12 points before or after. The tip document Making your Word documents behave provides more information about measuring in points.
  • Though 12 points is default paragraph spacing for a single line between paragraphs, a single line of text in 12 point font is actually a little bit taller. Notice that when you use the default — Single — line spacing, a few points of space are added as a buffer between lines of the same paragraph.
  • Recommendations like the tip under the line breaks information might not seem to make much difference for isolated instances. But they add up to saving you a lot of editing time and stress later. Just in that one example, using one set of formatting in place of four removes three possible pitfalls that would cause you extra work when the letter needs editing later.

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Keyboard shortcuts

Here are some keyboard shortcuts to use when formatting paragraphs.

Keystrokes Action
CTRL+L, E, R, or J Sets left, center, right, or justified paragraph alignment, respectively.
CTRL+1, CTRL+2, or CTRL+5

CTRL+1 applies single line spacing to the active paragraph(s), CTRL+2 applies double line spacing to the active paragraphs, and CTRL+5 adds 1.5 line spacing to the active paragraphs.

These keystrokes only work from the main keyboard (the numbers that appear above the letter on your keyboard) and not if you try to access the numbers from the number keypad.

CTRL+SHIFT+C and CTRL+SHIFT+V Keystroke alternatives to the Format Painter Button image. (The first copies formatting and the second pastes it.) Format Painter is great — but these shortcuts are better because once you copy formatting, you can paste it as often as you like until you copy something else, regardless of what you do in between (other than exit Word).
CTRL+Q Removes all paragraph formatting that isn't part of a paragraph style.
  See the Keyboard shortcuts topic in Word Help for a complete list of available shortcut keystrokes for all features.

More information

Want some more basic instruction for some of the topics discussed here? Try Word online Help.

Type either of the following online Help topics into the Type a question for help box on the right side of the Word menu bar: Adjust line or paragraph spacing; About text alignment and spacing.

About the author    Stephanie Krieger is a professional consultant, trainer, and writer who specializes in creating solutions with the Microsoft Office System. She helps clients customize software and design templates and also provides train-the-trainer services.

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Applies to:
Word 2003