Table of Contents
Microsoft Word might be the world’s most widely used writing instrument. It’s certainly far more powerful than other popular tools like pencils and pens. And it’s simple enough for beginners, but has accumulated a bigger list of features than almost any software ever written—far more than latecomers such as Google Docs. Many of these features are well-hidden, even from expert users. We’ve gathered a set of tips designed both for beginners and longtime users that will make Word more productive and more efficient than you ever imagined.
We’ve focused on the desktop versions of Word for both Windows and macOS, not the reduced versions available on mobile devices and accessible online through a web browser. These desktop versions come in different flavors. Unless you searched for Microsoft’s hard-to-find option to buy Word without the rest of Microsoft Office and bought it that way, you likely have Word as part of the Office suite that also includes Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook, and more. Microsoft ships Office in subscription-based and single-sale perpetual license versions.
If you’re a home or small business user, you probably have an annual subscription to Microsoft 365. That subscription brings you regular updates to the whole Office suite, as well as cloud-exclusive AI and collaboration features. If you’re a corporate user, or if you’ve gone to the trouble to find and buy a one-time permanent license for Office, you probably have Office Professional Plus 2021 or Office Home and Business 2021 for Mac—or 2019, 2016, or earlier versions of those suites. These one-time purchases don’t get the added-feature updates that subscription versions get, but that means that Microsoft won’t surprise you with changes in the interface, as it often does with the subscription versions.
An AI Is Coming to Word!
One big surprise that you’ll see before long in the subscription versions is a Copilot button that lets you use ChatGPT-4 to generate new content, edit or summarize existing content, or otherwise use AI to produce or modify your prose. The initial release is based only on your organization’s data, but if you use Copilot for general information, double check what it produces: the related Bing Chat AI can get facts wrong. Ask Copilot for summaries or editing improvements may produce better results, but we haven’t been able to test that yet. In any case, proceed with caution!
How to Use These Tips
All the tips in this story should work with any version of Office that you’re likely to be using, including the versions dated 2016, 2019, and 2021. Most but not all will work in 2013 and earlier versions. If you’re a Mac user, when I suggest you right-click on something, Cmd-click on it instead. When I say to press Alt-something, press Option-something instead.
Here are our 24 tips, starting with some simple ones, and ending with more complicated ones. Even if you don’t want to use the complicated ones, they’re worth looking at to learn techniques you can use to customize Word in the ways you want.
1. Use the Search Box to Find Features
Many Word features can be hard to find unless you already know where to look. For example, to edit or insert a page header or footer, you need to open the Insert tab on the Ribbon, which is not even remotely intuitive. Instead, click on the search bar at the top of the window and type Header. Word will show a menu of header-related features and you can choose the one you want. Unfortunately, Word won’t show you where to find those features on the Ribbon, so you may need to use the search bar again.
In Windows, the keyboard shortcut that gets you to the search bar without using the mouse is Alt-Q, which you can learn by hovering over the search bar with the mouse. On a Mac, the search bar is the field in the menu bar that says “Tell me.” The only keyboard-friendly way I could find to reach it was to press Cmd-F6 until the keyboard focus moved to the menu bar, tab right until I reached the search bar, and then press the space bar.
2. Highlight a Sentence With a Click
When you want to highlight an entire sentence, simply hold down the Ctrl key in Windows, or the Command key on a Mac, and click anywhere in the sentence. Word takes care of the rest.
3. Select Text From the Keyboard
Most of Word’s 80s-era keyboard-based commands still work. For example, to select an arbitrary block of text, press F8 to turn on the selection, and use the arrow keys to move the cursor and extend the selection. Or simply start by pressing F8 twice to select the word at the cursor position, press F8 again to select the entire sentence (If you’ve only selected part of a sentence), press it once more to select the whole paragraph, press it yet again to select the entire section of a multi-section document, and finally press it again to select the entire document. Of course, you can also select text by holding down the shift key and moving the cursor to where you want the selection to end.
4. Jump to Your Most Recent Edits
Another of Word’s hidden keyboard tricks is Shift-F5. If you recently made an edit at some remote place in your document, you can get back to it with a keystroke. Press Shift-F5 once to jump to the place in your document that you most recently edited. Press it again to jump to the edit you made before that, and again to jump to your third most recent edit. After the third keystroke, it takes you back to where you began.
5. Change Capitalizations the Easy Way
Do you want to capitalize every word in a header, or reduce all-caps text to lowercase? Select the text you want to change, and press Shift-F3 repeatedly until the text looks the way you want. Each press toggles between lowercase, uppercase, “sentence case” (capitalizing the first word of a sentence), and, if you didn’t know the Caps Lock key was down and yOU tYPED tHIS, a “toggle case” option that gets it right. You can also do this from the “Aa” pull-down menu on the Home tab of the ribbon, in the Font region, but why bother when a quick keystroke or two can get it done?
Do you waste time searching the Ribbon for commands you often use? Bring them front and center by using the Quick Action Toolbar. In Word for Windows, start by selecting File > Options > Quick Action Toolbar. (On a Mac, choose Word > Preferences > Ribbon & Toolbar, and choose the Quick Access Toolbar tab.) In the menu, select on the left a command that you want on the toolbar and click the Add button to add it to the toolbar. You may need to go to the Choose commands from… dropdown and select All Commands to find the one you want.
One advantage of the Quick Action Toolbar is that you can hide the Ribbon (in Windows, Ctrl-F1 toggles the Ribbon on and off; on a Mac, it’s Option-Cmd-R) and find commands with one click on the toolbar instead of opening the Ribbon and navigating among tabs.
I use the Quick Action Toolbar for Word’s Format Painter—the tool that copies the formatting of one paragraph so you can apply the same formatting to other paragraphs—and for much else, including a button that switches to full-screen instead of windowed mode. You can also add your own Word macros to the toolbar for instant access.
In Windows, you have the choice of placing the toolbar either above the ribbon, where it’s likely to look cramped and displays only icons, not the command names, or below the ribbon where an option lets you display both the command name and the icon of each command. This is especially useful for commands that don’t have easily recognizable icons, like the Calculator that I mention in tip 23.
7. Show Hidden Characters
When Word isn’t acting as it should, you can only sort things out by seeing the invisible paragraph marks, tabs, section breaks, and other formatting marks that are causing the problem. Press Ctrl-Shift-8 in Windows or Command-8 on a Mac. You can remember this easily because the 8 key also has an asterisk, which can remind you of a symbol.
You can also find this function in the Home tab. Its icon is a paragraph mark. But you can add this to the Quick Action toolbar (see tip 5 above) by adding the “Show All” command.
8. Search For and Replace Hidden Characters
Until a few years ago, when you wanted to search your document, Word opened a full-featured Find and Replace dialog box that floated above the editing window. Now, by default, when you press Ctrl-F (or Cmd-F on a Mac) or you open the Find command from the Editing box in the ribbon, Word for Windows opens a Navigation pane to the left of the document, and Word for the Mac opens search box at the upper right. If you want to search for a paragraph mark or a tab or nonbreaking space or other nonprinting characters, there’s no obvious way to do it.
The slow solution, in Windows, is to click the drop-down arrow at the right of the search box in the Navigation pane and choose Advanced Find. This opens the old-style Find and Replace dialog box, with a More… button that leads to options for searching invisible characters or text formatted with a specific font or margins, and much more. (On a Mac, choose Edit > Find > Advanced Find and Replace…) The “Special…” button shows you a list of invisible and other codes that you can enter in the Find or Replace box, including ^p for a paragraph mark, ^t for a tab character, and much else. You can replace excess paragraph marks by replacing ^p^p with ^p and repeating the operation until no excess paragraph marks clutter your document. For a faster solution, see the next tip.
9. Add Keyboard Shortcuts for Your Favorite commands
It’s always easier to press a key combination than to navigate a menu for what you want. I want the old-style Find and Replace dialog when I press Ctrl-F (on a Mac, Cmd-F), not the new Navigation toolbar. Here’s how I got it back. You can use the same technique to assign keyboard shortcuts for almost anything in Word.
In Windows, use File > Options > Customize Ribbon, and click the Customize… button next to Keyboard Shortcuts. On a Mac, choose Tools > Customize Keyboard. In the keyboard-customizing dialog, in the left-hand box, under Categories, scroll down to All Commands. From the right-hand list, select EditFind. Move the cursor into the Press New Shortcut Key field and type Ctrl-F. The dialog will tell you that this key is currently assigned to SmartFind, which is Word’s internal command that opens the Navigation pane. Click Assign, then Close, then OK, and you can use Ctrl-F to open the full-featured Find and Replace dialog. If you want to use the Navigation pane, you can open it from the Editing box on the Home tab in the Ribbon, or you can assign another keystroke to it, using the same technique I described here.
Notice that you can assign keystrokes that run macros by scrolling down to Macros in the left-hand list and choosing a macro from the right-hand list. You’ll find this feature useful for some of the tips described below.
10. Hide White Space at the Top and Bottom of the Page
One major annoyance of almost all word-processing programs is the space they waste displaying the top and bottom margins of the page you’re typing. If a sentence extends across a page break, the first part of the sentence is separated by an inch or more of screen space from the second part of the same sentence. You can hide the page header and footer by double-clicking in the break between pages. In Windows, you can use File > Options > Display and remove the checkmark next to Show white space between pages in print layout view. On a Mac, you’ll find the option in Word > Preferences > View.
To save time, you can assign a command to a keystroke that will show or hide the white space between pages. Follow the technique in tip 9, above, and assign the command ViewTogglePageBoundaries to a key combination. I use Alt-zero, which Word doesn’t use for anything by default.
12. Use the Keyboard for Almost Anything
This tip is Windows-only, unfortunately. The less you use the mouse, the better for your body, and the less likely you are to get aches and pains in your wrist and forearms. To use the keyboard to navigate Word’s interface, tap the Alt key once. Word will display boxes with one or two letters next to everything on the interface that you normally access with the mouse. Type the letter or letters to access the feature. More boxes with letters will appear as you drill down to the exact option that you want.
13. Stop Word From Adding Horizontal Lines and Automatic Numbering
Microsoft obviously thinks it’s helping you by formatting your documents automatically. For me, at least, its automatic formatting produces mostly annoyance. Have you had the experience of finding that a horizontal line suddenly appears below a paragraph, and you can’t figure out how to delete it? Here’s how to remove one of those pesky horizontal lines, and how to prevent Word from inserting them.
If you type three or more hyphens on a separate line, Word will insert a horizontal line across the page, and, unless you’re an expert, you won’t know how to remove it. If you’re suffering from one of these intrusive lines, the trick is this. Click on the paragraph with the line below it. Go to the Home tab, and, in the Paragraph box, find the Borders icon, which looks like a four-cell table. When you click on it, you’ll see that Bottom Border is selected. Click on No Border, and the line will disappear.
To prevent this and other surprises from happening, in Windows, use File > Options > Proofing and click AutoCorrect Options. (On a Mac, use Word > Preferences > AutoCorrect.) Look at every tab and uncheck anything likely to cause surprises. In the AutoFormat as You Type tab, uncheck Border Lines to prevent a surprise horizontal line from appearing on the page. I also get rid of automatic numbered lists and a few other things, but you should let your taste be your guide.
14. Insert Spreadsheets and More
You can make Word display the current contents of an Excel spreadsheet, PowerPoint slide, and much else. The contents displayed in Word will be the current version of the spreadsheet or slide, though you may need to go through a few steps to update Word’s copy of the data. In Windows, start by going to the Insert tab of the Ribbon, then, in the Text box, click Object (it’s the icon at the lower-right of the box). Then, in the dialog that opens, choose, the Create from File tab, and select an existing Excel worksheet. (On a Mac, use Insert > Object, and click the File button.) Click the “Link to File” checkbox so that changes in the Excel file will be reflected in the Word document. Word will insert the cells from the worksheet that have data in them. Word calls the inserted cells an “object.”
Later, when you change the data in the worksheet in Excel, you can make Word update its version of the data by right-clicking in the cells and choosing Update Link from the pop-up menu. If you have more than one inserted object in your document, you update all of them from File > Info > Edit Links to Files. Also, if you close your Word file, and reopen it after changing the content of the Excel file, Word will prompt you to update the data in the Word file.
15. Add Your Signature to Your Letters
If you’re like me, you’re more likely to send letters in PDF format than on paper. You can add a personal touch to your letters by inserting a scanned image of your signature into your Word documents so that the signature will be baked into the PDF that Word exports for you to send to your correspondents. (See tip 15 below.) And you can automate the whole procedure.
Start by scanning an image of your signature written with a felt-tip pen on white paper. If you don’t have a scanner, your camera will get the job done, though not as easily. Use any photo editing app on your system to crop the image down so there isn’t a lot of white space around the signature. Now open a blank document in Word, and choose Insert > Picture and import the picture. Right-click on the picture and choose Format Picture. In the Format Picture pane, click on the right-hand icon (it will say Picture if you hover over it), and open the Picture Corrections menu. Here you may need to experiment. Start by changing Sharpness to 100%, Brightness to around 50%, and Contrast to around -40%. You’ll know you have it right when you see a clearly defined signature on a blank background. Drag one of the corners of the picture to scale it down to a size that will look right in your documents. Now right-click in your signature, choose Save as Picture, and save the image, preferably in PNG format, to a folder where you know you can always find it, typically your Pictures folder.
Next, write a letter, and when you get to “Sincerely yours,” press Enter, and do the following: In the Ribbon’s View tab, click Macros, then Record Macro. Give your macro a name like AddSignature and click OK. (You can ignore the Button and Keyboard options for now, or use them to add the macro to your Quick Access Toolbar or to a keystroke assignment.) Now start recording these actions: Go to the Ribbon’s Insert tab, choose Insert, Pictures, and Choose Picture from This Device. Navigate to the image that you saved earlier, and click Insert. Go to the View tab again, click Macros, and Stop Recording.
You can now perform that entire operation easily in any other document. Press Alt-F8 to bring up the Macros menu (or go to View > Macros > View Macros), select Add Signature, and press Run. If you ignored the Button and Keyboard icons in the Record Macro dialog, you can now assign a keyboard shortcut for the macro by customizing your keyboard as in tip 9 above. Choose Macros in the left-hand list of the Customize Keyboard dialog and your AddSignature macro from the right-hand list. Or, similarly, you can create a Quick Action Toolbar button for the macro, as in tip 6 above.
There’s one possible complication. You may want to type some text that overlaps your signature, and the text won’t appear if the signature image is formatted in Word’s default setting, “In Line with Text” (this option appears in the Layout Options menu that you can open by clicking the icon that appears to the upper-right of a selected picture). You want the signature to appear behind the text, but you probably don’t want to go through a lot of menus to format the picture “Behind Text.” You can’t record this option as part of your AddSignature macro, but you can add a command to the Quick Action Toolbar (see tip 6 above); under All Commands, find Send Behind Text, and add it to the toolbar. Now, If your image is hiding some text, just click on the image and on the “Send Behind Text” button on the toolbar to make things right.
16. Save Your Documents as PDF Files
You probably know this already, but it’s worth repeating, just in case. Use File > Export > Create PDF/XPS Document, and keep clicking until you’ve saved your file as a PDF. (On a Mac, choose File > Save As, and select PDF as the output format.) Take the trouble to click the Options button when you save the file. You can use that button to save some, but not all, pages to PDF and to choose other advanced options.
17. Insert or Create Equations
From the Ribbon’s Insert tab, choose Equation (or, in Windows, type Alt-=; on a Mac, Ctrl-=), and start typing your equation, using standard notation. When you press Enter, a string like ^2 will be converted to a superscript 2. You can also insert commonly used equations from a menu, select non-alphanumeric signs from an extensive menu, and save your equation to a gallery so that you can insert it into other documents. Some years ago, Microsoft devoted a lot of effort and expertise to Word’s math typography, and it’s now probably the most elegant math typography available anywhere.
18. Protect Your Document
In Windows, use File->Info and click the Protect Document button to save your document in read-only or encrypted form, force readers to click a prompt before they can edit the document, limit the changes a reader can make so they can only fill in forms or add comments, or set other restrictions you can remove at any time from the same dialog. On a Mac, use Tools > Protect Document.
Recommended by Our Editors
Another useful feature on the File > Info panel is Inspect Document (from the Check for Issues button’s dropdown, where you can also check for accessibility and compatibility with earlier Word versions). This scans your document for any personal info or comments from reviewers; it’s a good idea to use this before sending the document or pasting it somewhere for publication.
19. Customize the Status Bar
The status bar at the foot of Word’s window can be as clean or as cluttered as you like. Right-click on the status bar and check or uncheck the dozens of items that the status bar can display. To avoid distractions, I keep page numbering and word count on the left side of the status bar, and clear out almost everything else.
20. Modify Your Default Template
Most of Word’s formatting dialogs include a Set as Default button that lets you create a default setting for fonts, paragraph format, page layout, and much more. Click on that button, and Word offers you a choice of making your chosen format the default for the current document or all documents based on the current template, which will almost always be Normal.dotm.
But you can’t modify everything from these dialogs. I want my documents to have no page number on the first page, but a page number in the upper right on later pages. To do this, navigate in Windows Explorer to the folder that contains the default Normal.dotm template, which is in C:\users\
Word will create an empty file with no name. Press Return a few times to create empty paragraphs, then Ctrl-Enter to insert a page break, then press Return a few more times to create new empty paragraphs. Back on the first page, use the Insert tab to add a header or footer. In the Header and Footer tab that appears in the Ribbon, choose among options to use a different first-page header and similar choices. Click in the document, go to the second page, click in the header or footer, and insert page numbering or use any other option. When you’re done, click in the document, press Ctrl-A to select the entire document, and delete the selection. Word will clear out the empty paragraphs, but will keep your instructions for headers and footers.
Now choose File >Save As, and very carefully navigate to the same Templates folder where you opened the template. Be careful when navigating, or Word will take you to some other folder. When you’re in the Templates folder, choose Word Macro-Enabled Template (*.dotm) as the file format, and save the file with the name Normal.dotm, replacing the existing file. Then close down Word.
The next time you open Word and create a new document, the settings you chose for headers and footers will automatically apply.
21. Use Old Keyboard Shortcuts
This tip is Windows-only. If you’re a longtime Word user, you may remember old keyboard assignments that have disappeared from Word’s menus for at least 10 years. For example, to access the dialog that displays all available special symbols and Unicode characters, in the current version of Word, you need to go to the Ribbon’s Insert tab, then Symbol, then More Symbols. If you remember some of Word’s old menu structure, simply type Alt-I, then S, and you can get to the same dialog with two keystrokes. (After you type Alt-I, Word will display a tip explaining that this is a shortcut from an older version of Word.)
Experiment with other keystroke sequences that you might remember. Another that I use often is Alt-I, then B, to insert a section break, saving me the trouble of navigating to the Layout tab on the Ribbon and clicking the Breaks dropdown.
Incidentally, speaking of symbols, sometimes it’s helpful to know the Unicode number of a character that shows up in a document—for example, a symbol from a foreign alphabet, or some variety of hyphen or dash. In Windows, select the character and press Alt-X to see the Unicode number (and press Alt-X again to hide it). On a Mac, select the character and use Insert > Advanced Symbol, or choose Symbol from the Ribbon’s Insert tab.
If you use a lot of footnotes, you may want to change the length of the horizontal line that separates text and footnotes, or the line that separates text from a footnote continued from the previous page, and you may want footnotes continued on a new page to have a heading like “(footnote continues)”. Unless you were born using Word, you may not guess how to accomplish these things, because nothing in the interface gives you a clue.
The method is this: On the View tab, switch to Draft view. Then in your document, use the References tab to insert a footnote. The bottom pane in the window will display a dropdown menu that lets you edit the Footnote Separator and other options. If you want, you can delete the footnote, and Word will retain the changed options. And if you want to make your changes apply to all new documents, edit your default template (as in tip 20 above) and save the changes there.
23. Use Word’s Built-In Calculator
Microsoft keeps this almost secret, but you can add a built-in calculator to Word’s Quick Access Toolbar. Follow the procedure in tip 6, above. In the Choose commands from… dropdown, select All Commands, then scroll down to Tools Calculate [Calculate] and add it to the list on the right. In older versions of Words, the name of the command may be Calculate, not Tools Calculate [Calculate].
Unless you choose the option to display the Quick Access Toolbar under the ribbon (Windows only) you’ll see only a gray or blue circle icon in the toolbar. But that’s the calculator. Enter a calculation like (7*9)/5 (don’t include an equals sign), select it, click on the Tools Calculate tool in the toolbar, and Word will display the result in the status bar.
24. Bring Back the Old Spellcheck Dialog
In its quest to make life easy for nonexperts, and harder for experts, a few years ago Microsoft suddenly replaced Word’s old spell-check dialog with the Editor pane that opens in Word when you spell-check a document. The Editor pane is almost impossible to navigate from the keyboard, and if you’re working with a long document, that means you’ll spend far more time moving the mouse than you want to. The old spell-check dialog wasn’t perfect—it was too small to show all the text you want to see when making a correction—but at least it let you fly through a document instead of struggling through it slowly as the new Editor pane makes you do.
To bring back the old spellcheck dialog, press Alt-F8 (or go to View > Macros > View Macros). In the Macros dialog, type SpellCheck (no spaces) in the Macro name field and click Create. A new window will open, named Microsoft Visual Basic for Applications, and the cursor will be in an editing window, just above a line that says “End Sub”. (The lines that begin with a single straight quotation mark are comment lines that won’t affect the macro that you’re creating.) Copy the following six lines and paste them into the window where the cursor is, and then press Alt-F4 to close the window.
On Error GoTo errhdl
If Err.Number 4198 Then
MsgBox “Error ” & Err.Number & vbCr & Err.Description
If all went well, then you can now press Alt-F8 for the Macros window, select Spellcheck and run it to start the old spell-check dialog. Of course, you probably want to assign the macro to a keystroke, which you can do by following the technique in tip 9 above.
More Where These Came From
These are just some of the many techniques that Word makes possible, and we’ll continue to add to the list over time. Tell us about your handiest tricks and techniques in the comment section below.
Like What You’re Reading?
Sign up for Tips & Tricks newsletter for expert advice to get the most out of your technology.