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Professional Microsoft Word Skill #4: Know the 3 “T’s” of Layout – Tab Stops, Tables, and Text Boxes

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In Microsoft Word, there are several methods to have text appear on the page where you want it to appear.  While amateurs will use the methods that they first learned, such as pressing the space bar to try and line up text in a column, or maybe tapping tab multiple times, professionals are aware of the four major ways of doing layout in Word, and will choose a layout method based upon the specific need, and how well the specific method accommodates that need.

Tab Stops and Indents

Tab stops and indents are related features of Microsoft Word that can be challenging for beginners to learn.  Partly this is because if you are using the ruler to do these, then your mouse has to be precisely on the right spot, and it is very easy to mess up.   Because of this, for many tasks, I recommend using tables with no borders to do layout instead of tab stops for most purposes.

But there are several instances where tab stops are very useful.  For instance, if you want to have a small list of things, with a label on the left side, and a value on the right side of the page, then using a right tab stop on the right side of the page is very useful, and leader lines can be added to make it even easier for the eye to follow from the text to the value.   There is a great video on YouTube from Ken Swartwout that shows how to do Tab Stops and Leaders, GCFLearn also has a good video about indents and tabs.

Indents are useful for doing block quotes, and hanging indents can be used in conjunction with tab stops to make a nice glossary, although tables also can do a great job with this, and I haven’t found a good video that shows how to use hanging indents in conjunction with tab stops to make a glossary, but maybe you can figure that out on your own, as you become more advanced…  And make a video that I can share.


Tables are one of the most powerful, and fairly easy to use layout features of Microsoft Word.  When I taught Word, I would often teach tables before tab stops, because it is far easier to do columns, with tables by simply turning off the borders.  In fact, I generally prefer to use tables for most layout functions, instead of trying to use the “Columns” feature.

But tables have their limitations, and some special knowledge is needed with them.  First of all, if you want to use tabs with tables, you need to use Ctrl+Tab to activate the tab, because otherwise tapping tab will move to the next cell.  Also, sometimes it is hard to put a line above a table.  This can often be solved with going to the very first part of the first cell of a table, and tapping Enter. Also, while you can have headings in a table, these will not be part of the navigation pane, nor show up in automatically generated table of contents.  Tables also sometimes have troubles and weirdness when they extend more than one page.  GCFLearnFree has a good tutorial about how to do things with tables.

Text Boxes

In Microsoft PowerPoint and Publisher, textboxes make layout very easy.  Unfortunately, in Word, text boxes can cause some weirdness, because Word was first designed to deal with things as characters like on a typewriter, and textboxes act more as objects.  But, if you want to do all your layout with textboxes, and mostly avoid typing in the normal text area of Word, this can work as a layout strategy, and Microsoft Word will then act much like Publisher works.  Check out this article about how to Use Word Text Boxes Effectively to learn about some of the cool things you can do with text boxes.

Page Setup – Columns

I will be quite up front, that I am not a fan of the “Columns” feature that can be found in page setup.  To use them properly, it takes having a good understanding of sections, and section breaks, and nearly everything that Columns can do, tables can do more easily.  The only exception, is that Columns allows for wrapping from one column to the next, while tables don’t.   If you want to learn about the Columns feature, I recommend the Advanced Microsoft Word video on YouTube from Technology for Teachers and Students.

So how are you using these various ways of doing layout?

Are there important concepts I left out of this article?

Please comment and let me know your thoughts.

Tomorrow, we will talk about ways to be able to have various forms of internal and external references in your Word documents.

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Written by Jacob Walker

December 6th, 2018 at 11:59 am

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