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Professional Microsoft Word Skill #3: Know the 3 levels of Attributes – Character, Paragraph, and Section

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One thing that distinguishes experts from novices, is that experts in an area, have a “feel” for how things work, where they intuitively know what they should do for a given situation without having to think about it.  This often comes from having an accurate ingrained mental model about what they are doing. In Microsoft Word, one of the most important mental models that a professional user has, is that of understanding what level of formatting different tools affect, which there are three:

1. Character (Font) Level Attributes/Formatting

Everything in the Font portion of the Home Ribbon in Word is Character-Level (often called Font-Level) formatting, meaning that it affects individual characters.  This includes font size, font face, bold, italics, underline, strikethrough, subscript, superscript, and other text effects; text highlight color, and text color.

To use these on existing text, you must select the text you want to change, and then choose one of these.  If you are having a hard time selecting text with the mouse, try using Shift and the Arrow keys to select text with the keyboard.

2. Paragraph Level Attributes/Formatting

Everything in the Paragraph portion of the Home Ribbon in Word is Paragraph-Level, which means that it affects an entire paragraph.  Paragraph effects include bullets, numbering, indents, tab stops, horizontal text alignment, paragraph spacing, and text spacing.  It also is how paragraph shading and paragraph borders work, but I don’t recommend usually using these, as tables are generally a better way of doing these things.

It is very important to understand how Word defines a paragraph.  If you tap the Enter key, you start a new paragraph.  If you tap Shift+Enter, you stay in the same paragraph.  You can easily see where new paragraphs start in Word by using Show/Hide, which I talked about on day 1 of my blogging about professional Word skills.

With paragraph level formatting, the whole paragraph changes.  So you only need your cursor (aka text insertion point) to be in the text, and when you select the formatting, it will all change.   Even if you have text selected in the paragraph, the entire paragraph will change, because it would not make sense for instance, to have only part of a line become centered.

3. Section Level Attributes/Formatting

Everything in the Page Setup portion of the Layout Ribbon affects either the entire document, or if you add Section Breaks, will affect only that section.  This means by having different Sections of a document can have different page orientations, different margins, different page sizes, and different vertical alignments.  It also can be used for the Columns feature of Word, but I generally prefer using Tables to do columns, instead of the “Columns” feature.

To insert a Section Break so you can change the Page Setup on only part of your document, go to the Layout Tab, and go to Breaks, and under Section Breaks, choose Next Page.  This basically acts like a page break, but also makes an entirely new section.

Check out O’reilly’s missing manual section about Formatting Text, Paragraphs, and Headings, for more info about the different levels of formatting.

So how else do you think understanding the levels of formatting can help you?

Are there important concepts I left out of this article?

Please comment and let me know your thoughts.

Tomorrow, we will talk about the three major ways of doing layout in Word: Tab Stops, Tables, and Text Boxes, and share a little about the pros and cons of each method.  I’ll also talk a bit about the “Columns” feature and why I personally don’t use it.

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Written by Jacob Walker

December 5th, 2018 at 11:59 am

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