Computing Skills

MSWord - A quick guide to basic functions and formatting of documents

To get the best out of this guide, open MSWord and practise using the functions as you go. The notes are written with respect to Macintosh. There may be slight variation in functions if you are using a PC.

The following notes are simple starting hints for those unfamiliar with word processing.

You may find it useful to print out this document and work through it while you practise using Word on your computer.

Typing text

Click on the name or icon of the word processing file. A file called Document 1 will appear and you can begin typing. The screen will ‘wrap’ your text, so you only need to use the Return Key when you want a new paragraph.

Delete text by using the backspacing Delete key, or by highlighting words with the mouse. Click twice on a word to highlight the whole word, or hold down the mouse key and drag the cursor over whole sections of the text to highlight larger areas. Now when you press Delete, the program will remove everything that is highlighted. Alternatively, you can simply type over the highlighted area and it will be deleted and replaced by the new text.

Styles and fonts

You can change the font of your text using the pulldown menu on the ruler or the Font menu. Use Format, Font to change the appearance and size of your text. The text type can be chosen before you start typing, or changed at any point within your file. Highlight a portion of your text, pull down the appropriate menu and select the font or style you wish to apply. Commonly used fonts and styles are illustrated below:


Times New Roman
New York

Symbol - for Greek letters e.g. α ß χ δ ε σ π (= a b c d e s p)

(Symbols can also be inserted into your documents using Insert, Symbol)

Point Sizes

You can use the pulldown menu in the ruler at the top of the page or the Font menu to change point sizes. Use at least 12 point for essays and other submitted work.

Times New Roman Geneva New York Palatino
10 point 10 point 10 point 10 point
12 point 12 point 12 point 12 point
14 point 14 point 14 point 14 point

(You will notice that the text size in different fonts is different for the same point size. My tame computer buff assures me that the maximum extent of the type (including descenders and ascenders) extends to 10 points (= 10/72 inches) for every font. i.e. the type takes up the same space on the page but the relative sizes of circles and lines within the fonts are different.

Font styles

Plain Text (this is the Default (normal setting)


Italic(remember you must use italics for generic and specific names!)


(avoid Outline and Shadow as they are not easy to read!)

Superscripts and subscripts

Superscript Plain Text Subscript e.g. CO2 ; H2O ; E = mc2.

Word automatically uses a smaller point size for subscripts and superscripts. Note that if the cursor is at the end of your file, and you have selected a particular style, then it will continue typing in that style until you change it. If your typing looks odd at any time, check that you don't still have subscript or a similar command still in force.

There are automatic keyboard commands that you can use to speed up your formatting. Hold down the Command and = keys for subscript, and hold down the Shift and Command and = keys for superscript. You can see a list of these (and create your own!) in Tools, Customize, Keyboard. Select the relevant menu (e.g. Format)

Highlight a portion of your text and practise changing fonts and styles. Try typing in a chemical equation.



You can set your left and right margins at the start of a document by moving the arrows on the ruler with the mouse or using the Format pull-down menu and selecting Document, Margins. You can indent the start of each paragraph by dragging the top half of the left margin marker further along the ruler.


The program automatically sets a left justified tab every 1.27 cm, or you can set your own, which can be left, right or centre justified. Set tabs either (i) by selecting the tab type (left, centre or right) at the left end of the ruler then clicking in the desired place on the ruler, or (ii) using the Format, Tabs menu.. The centred tab with a dot can be used to line up decimal points in a column. You can set new ruler settings anywhere in your text by higlighting the text and changing these settings. When you have set tabs, you can move the cursor into position by pressing the Tab key.

The ruler will change to whatever settings you have made at each point in your text when you move the cursor. To readjust tab settings you must highlight all the appropriate parts of your text.

Practise setting tabs by creating the following table of growth data.

Time (days)

Mass of mouse (g)

Tail length (mm)

















Whole document: Click on the appropriate box on the ruler to set single, double or triple spacing; and Left justified, Centred, Right justified, or Left and right justified. The box will be highlighted when the cursor is on text that has had that formatting applied.

Small portions of your text: Headings or sections of text can be centred by highlighting the text and clicking on the appropriate box on the ruler.

A useful formatting function for organising your text is the Page break, which allows you to choose where in your text a new page begins.

Practise using these functions on portions of your text.

Saving and printing

To save a file to floppy disk, select Save or Save As from the File menu. A window will appear, and you must select the disk you want to use. You can change floppy disks by clicking on Eject and inserting a different disk. Type in the name of your file and click on Save. Once you have saved your file under an appropriate name, you can save further changes by simply selecting Save from the File menu. If you want to preserve an original copy, select Save As and type a different name. Remember the maxim 'Save Early, Save Often'!

When you are satisfied that your file is finished, properly formatted and checked for errors, you can print it. Don't print out your entire file every time you make a small change to it.

Check that a printer is linked to the computer. Choose the appropriate printer, then click on the box in the top left hand corner of the window to close it. Select Print from the File menu. Check all the commands and click on OK. Your file should then print.


If you have highlighted a section of your text, and then you hit another key, the highlighted area will be deleted and replaced by whatever you have typed. DON'T PANIC! You can select Undo from the Edit menu to reverse your last command. Practise undoing such mistakes to become familiar with this function.

The Edit menu will also allow you to Cut, Copy and Paste whole sections of text that are highlighted. Again, if you make an error, you can select Undo Paste or Undo Cut from the Edit menu - the command available on the menu will be changed according to your last command. Practise using these functions.

Recent versions of Word will allow you to Undo every action you have performed since opening the file. Older versions allow you to Undo the last action only.

Hints on formatting documents in MS Word

These notes were first prepared as a guide to thesis preparation for Honours students in Biological Sciences at the University of Sydney. (For thesis you can substitute essay or report.) This brief guide is by no means comprehensive but is designed to introduce you to useful techniques to automate formatting and improve the look of your written work. Refer to the manual or Help window of your particular Word version. Share your expertise with your fellow students - it will be reciprocated.

Rule 1: The science/scholarship is your first priority.

However, proper formatting makes easier writing and reading. Setting up your files with appropriate paragraph formatting and heading styles at the start will save time in the last frantic days when you are producing and editing drafts of your thesis. Using heading styles allows you to change the style within an entire document with one keystroke. Formatting paragraphs and heading styles will give your work a consistent look, prevent hanging headings and make paragraph spacing coherent.

Rule 2: Use techniques that will SAVE time, rather than WASTE time.

Rule 3: Decide on a formatting style and set up headings and paragraph formatting as you start your writing.

Style formatting allows you to automatically apply character formatting (font, size, etc.) and paragraph formatting (spacing, text flow) to sections of your text.

Paragraph formatting

What is a paragraph?

It is worth remembering the definition of a paragraph (as given in the Intermediate Skills Manual): ‘A paragraph is essentially a unit of thought, not of length’ (Fowler, 1965). Each paragraph should be homogeneous in content and should treat the content in logical and sequential order. There is no general rule about the length of a paragraph and it should be a matter of common sense. Avoid writing lots of very short paragraphs or excessively long paragraphs. Sensible paragraphing gives your reader a rest and indicates that you are going on to the next point.

A paragraph should be able to stand alone and be understandable independent of the preceding paragraph so do not start a paragraph with ‘Its ...’, ‘These ...’, ‘They ...’ or any other pronoun that is defined in the preceding paragraph.

A good way to check that your prose flows logically is to summarise the point of each paragraph with a single sentence or phrase. Check whether the flow is logical, with ideas moving easily from one to another, as you read through the summary. If you follow the principle that a paragraph is homogeneous in content, it should be easy to summarise the guts of it in a phrase or sentence."

Formatting paragraphs

Normal style is used for the text. Select Format, Style, Normal, Modify and choose Format, Font and Format, Paragraph in turn. Set your Normal style in an easy-to-read font, set line spacing so that the text is easy to read and edit, and set Space After so that you don’t need returns between paragraphs.

Line Spacing/Space Before/Space After: In 12 point font the following conversions apply: 12 pt = 1 line. 18 point = 1.5 lines. 24 pt = 2 lines. You can set the line spacing to any point size you wish (e.g. 15 point, to save paper when printing drafts)

Text flow

Keep with Next = the paragraph will stay on the same page as the next one.
Keep Lines Together = the entire paragraph will stay on one page.

Heading styles

Set up your own preferences and create your own ‘form’ file (or template if you are familiar with templates). Use a large Space Before and a smaller Space After. (The Space Before will not be inserted if the heading is at the top of a page.) All headings should be formatted with Keep With Next so that the heading stays with the next paragraph and prevents it being stranded at the bottom of a page.

The style is set with respect to the paragraph mark at the end of the paragraph (¶). If you delete a paragraph mark the style of the next paragraph will change to that of the preceding one. Beware of this when you are editing documents.

Your Word program will have default settings for headings - you can change these! Don’t use italics or underlining for headings as it makes the text difficult to read.

An example of heading styles:

Heading 1

Font: Times New Roman 16 point Bold, Line spacing: Single, Space Before: 12 point, Space After: 6 point, Keep with Next.

Heading 2

Font: Times New Roman 14 point Bold, Indent: 0.5 cm, Line spacing: Single, Space Before: 12 point, Space After: 6 point, Keep with Next.

    Heading 3

Font: Times New Roman 12 point Bold, Indent: 1 cm, Line spacing: Single, Space Before: 12 point, Space After: 6 point, Keep with Next.

To change the Style of any heading: make the changes in one place, highlight the relevant text, select that style name from the Toolbar, select Update the style to reflect recent changes. This will automatically change all headings of that level to the new style. (This works for other style settings as well EXCEPT Normal style in more recent versions of Word.)

View, Outline

In outline you can view as many heading levels as you wish. This allows you to quickly scan the order of sections and check that heading levels are appropriately formatted and numbered.

You should make an outline of your thesis as early as possible: you can then type small sections at a time when inspiration strikes.

Numbering Headings

To number headings go to format, bullets and numbering, outline numbered. You can select the format of heading that you like.

1. Heading 1

Depending on your version of Word you can automatically number headings. You can choose the extent of indenting from the margin and from the number.

1.1 Heading 2

If you indent lower level headings don’t do the same for the text. Using this automatic function allows you to change the positions of text and the headings are re-numbered automatically. You can use the Increase Indent and Decrease Indent buttons in the Toolbar to change the heading level if required.

    1.1.1 Heading 3

Page Numbering

You don’t want to be freaking out about page numbering when your thesis is due the next day. Include page numbers in a Header or Footer, or you can use Insert Page Numbers. (I prefer the former as you have more control over where they appear.)

If your thesis is in several different files you will have to print them one at a time and set the appropriate starting page number for the start of each section. To you make these changes use the Insert Page Numbers function but do not click OK when you exit this window - choose Close. If you click OK from the Insert Page Numbers window it will insert page numbers every time (and they will overwrite each other).

Header and Footer

Select View, Header and Footer and set appropriate tabs and margins. Make sure the margin for your header is the same as the margin for the text. Set a Right Justified tab for the page number if you want it at the right hand edge of the page (although I prefer to have page numbers centred in the Footer). You can have a running header that is the chapter heading. You can choose not to have the header appear on the first page - select Format, Document, Layout, Different First page number.) Or click on the "different 1st page" button on the toolbar in Header and Footer view.

Useful keystrokes

You can make a new line without making a new paragraph by holding down Shift and Return together. This will give a new line without the automatic space between paragraphs. This may be useful for lists (that you don’t want to be numbered).

If you use certain symbols often (e.g. a , ) you can assign a shortcut key (e.g. Ctrl-D for - degree). Select Insert, Symbol, select the symbol you want and then Shortcut Key, and set the key you want to use. You can also use Autocorrect to change abbreviations to full words, e.g. temp to automatically become temperature. To do this go to Tools, Autocorrect then type the words in.


Select Insert Table and choose the number of rows and columns (you can always add or delete them later). Use the Space Before and Space After functions in the Format, Paragraph window to improve the appearance of your tables. Column widths can be adjusted using the mouse when the cursor is aligned with a border (the cursor becomes two parallel lines with arrows pointing left to right). Once you have set up paragraph formatting for tables you can make it a Style and format all future tables automatically.

Example 1. Default paragraph formatting (your tables will formatted according to your Normal style). Space Before 0 point and Space After 0 point, cell alignment Left, column headings Bold.

Symbol Shortcut key Meaning
Ctrl-D degrees
a Ctrl-A alpha

Example 2. Space Before 5 point and Space After 5 point, cell alignment Centred, column headings Bold.


Shortcut key







Note that the Tab key will select the next cell in the table. If you want tabs WITHIN a cell hold down Option and Tab together.

Table of Contents

If you have used heading styles throughout your document you can automatically create a Table of Contents. Do this when your document is complete - not for drafts. (If you edit and hence cause page numbers to change you will have to re-create the Table of Contents.) Position the cursor where you want the table, then select Insert, Index and Tables, Table of Contents. You can choose how many heading levels you want to display in the Table of Contents.

Reference Management

Endnote is a commonly used referencing software package in the School. This allows you to create a database of references then create a reference list based on the citations in any document. Record ALL details of every reference you read as you read it. If you do not have access to the software, use a card index.

Further help

Refer to the Help menu in your particular version of Word for further details on these functions. I am very happy to help you set up formatted files and provide advice on these techniques. Elizabeth May, Rm 248 (A12) Ph: 9351 4482