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Microsoft Word: Living with the Beast

  • Introduction
  • Recommendations
  • Document Model
  • Formatting
  • Macros
  • Alternatives
  • Links
  • History
  • Footnotes
  • rev: 01 Apr 2006. Tips and resources for Microsoft World.


    Microsoft Word is a beast [1].  Word is an evolved creation, the bastard offspring of marketing, some original thoughts on how to create a word processor, and generations of Ziff-Davis (PC Magazine) induced rapid mutation to fit someone's distorted checklist. It is to software as the Irish Elk was to mammals. It is an inherently incurable mass of contradictory impulses, which are fully evident in Word's formatting model. It is the single most miserable piece of software that I absolutely must use.

    This web page contains my personal notes on attempting to live with the beast.

    This document borrows extensive from the material listed in Links. Over time it will be all my own writing, but at this point some is cut and pasted from the real experts who are acknowledged in the Links section. It began with this usenet article.

    I must add that despite my personal dislike of Microsoft Word I am grateful to the experts who've responded to my questions on microsoft.public.word.formatting.longdocs. They fight a noble war with the Beast. Lastly, I'm interested in suggestions on alternative word processors.


    What I do (Aug, 2003)

    I tried following the expert (tech writers) recommendations for some time, but I gave up. It was too hard to make Word behave. As noted above you can't safely mix Word's convenient "formatting" widgets and the style sheet models. So, having given up on the right way to do things, I switched over to the built in formatting tools and I ignore the style sheets completely.

    I use built in Word bullets and numbering, I leave the styles as "normal", I work with normal.dot .. and .... I use macros to set formatting for 3 levels of header. The macros aren't perfect (I'm no guru), but they structure my document headings quickly and consistently. They assign headings outline levels, so I can collapse/expand in outline view and navigate using the document Map feature. (The macros won't work, however, in outline view. Word is like that.)

    That's all I do. It turns out to be enough to make my documents navigable and consistent.

    If you know a bit about Word macros, you can view my macros and copy and paste them into the word macro editor.

    What the Experts Recommend (but I don't do)

    1. Word's "outliner" (not what most of us understand as an Outliner) view is indispensable. As horrid as it is, essentially every document must use it. Work in the Outline view. Define heading styles appropriately.
    2. Word's styles and templates cannot be avoided, but you cannot use any that Microsoft provides - especially not the Normal.dot standard template. (You cannot control the contents of the Normal template, on your computer or on anyone else's.)  Create a template (.DOT) that is empty. Use the style organizer to put styles, shortcuts and anything else one would want into it. Put it in a safe place away from Word. Keep backups. Consider write protecting it. Use this as the source of truth and copy things from it using the Style Organizer to document templates.
    3. Remove all of Word's bullet and numbering and sizing and direct formatting tools. Avoid Word's List Numbering (under Format | Bullets and numbering) unless you're sure you know what you're doing. Manual numbering works; so do SEQ fields. But Word's automated list numbering contains more bugs than a compost heap. All must be done via styles. This is terrible but true.

    What Everyone Agrees On

    1. Make sure “Allow fast saves” is switched off (under Tools | Options | Save).
    2. Never use Master Documents, Versions, or the Document Map. Outline View is safe to use.
    3. Select Tools | AutoCorrect, and on the “Autoformat as you type” and “Autoformat” tabs, de-select most of the options.
    4. Tools:Options:Save: check prompt to save template. If you leave this unchecked then the Normal Template will be altered without warning every time you save and document, potentially altering every future document you view or work on.
    5. Tools:Templates and AddIns: Make sure "Automatically update document styles" is unchecked. The only known way to use this safely is to create a macro that toggles this setting, and manually activate it only when you want to update styles in a document to match those in the document template. The Style Organizer is another way to do this. See this discussion.
    6. Be wary of Section Breaks. In some mysterious way Word keeps a lot of formatting for a document section in the section break that follows it. Likewise Word keeps a lot of formatting information in paragraph breaks.
    7. In Options:View set style width to 1", this will let you quickly see what style applies to a paragraph.
    8. In Options:Edit disable "click and type".
    9. Never save to a floppy; this is also a very frequent cause of file corruptions. If you must use a floppy, copy the file to it using Windows Explorer – or select “Send to”, which you can do even from Word's File | Open and File | Save dialogs – rather than using File | Save As. And perform a full format on the floppy first. When you save a Word file, a large temporary file is created, and if this is too large to fit on the floppy a corruption is likely to result. See MSKB article Q89247, “How Word for Windows Uses Temporary Files”, for more information on this.
    10. If you paste text and and see odd things happen try:

    Document Model

    HTML editors and most word processors see a document as a stream of text that you do things to. You turn on Bold and everything from then on is Bold until you turn it off. Likewise with changing margins or tabs. Word Perfect inserts unseen codes (like printer codes in ASCII text files of old) to turn things on and off. You can see these codes by selecting "reveal codes." Word sees documents as built up of compartments, one inside of the other.

    Characters fit into paragraphs which fit into sections which fit into documents. Formatting changes change only the compartment to which they are applied. If you change the tab settings on one paragraph, the paragraphs that follow aren't changed (if those paragraphs exist when you make the change). Changes made in one paragraph will carry through in subsequent paragraphs which are created from that paragraph.

    Word keeps most of its formatting in the pilcrows (paragraph marks). This is why it is recommended that you switch your viewing options in page layout view and normal view to "view paragraph marks."


    To reveal the formatting of a part of a document, press Shift-F1 (or select What's This? on the Help menu). This will give you a large arrow pointer with a question mark. Point it at the part of the text that is giving you trouble and it will tell you what style formatting is applied and what direct formatting is applied to that text. To see margins and tab settings, display the ruler.


    See also What I do (Aug, 2003)

    Show me the Function Keys! (Word 2000 +)

    You can get the function keys to display in a special toolbar at the bottom of the screen if you want (something like pressing F3 twice in WP 5.1). The following macro will do this.

    Sub ShowMeFunctionKeys()

    Commandbars("Function Key Display").Visible = True

    End Sub

    The following macro would toggle this display:

    Sub ToggleFunctionKeysDisplay()

    With Commandbars("Function Key Display") .Visible = Not .Visible

    End With

    End Sub


    See also MORE for a perspective on outliners and on the passing of great software.

    Under evaluation

    Updated 8/05: I do as little as possible on my PC these days. I use Word a lot and try not to cry (it's not all bad, the grammar tools are very impressive once one learns how to optimize them). Happily OS X has 3 promising applications (Mellel is omitted because it uses a closed file format, TeXShop is on my future list.)


    Found wanting



    Template Examples

    LaTeX products

    Styles, Templates, and Formatting



    [1] I'm told by true experts that until Word 6/Word 95 it was actually not a bad wordprocessor. It really went bad with Word 97 onwards. This parallels my experience with the old Macintosh version of Word 4 and 5; they were quite useable.

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