Not the spacebar!Documents consist of words. They also consist of spaces and it is the spaces that make our words readable. Because of that, it’s worth paying attention to how you use spacing in all your documents.

There are all sorts of spaces. Spaces around the edges of the document (margins); spaces at the beginning of paragraphs or surrounding entire paragraphs (indentations); spaces between paragraphs (paragraph spacing); spacing between columns (tabulated text); spacing between lines of text (line spacing); spacing between letters (kerning); spacing between words (spaces).

Not the spacebar!

Just as there are many types of spaces in our documents, there are many different ways to create such spaces using a word processing program. Take a look at that list of different types of spaces – margins, indentations, paragraph and line spacing, tabbed text, kerning, and spacing between words. Only the last one is created by using actual spaces, ie. by pressing the spacebar. The others are created using a variety of settings and techniques.

So if you’re pressing the spacebar multiple times to indent your text or pressing Enter repeatedly to put a gap between paragraphs, you’re wasting effort, misusing your word processing program and, in all likelihood, creating a document with subtly inconsistent spacing which, in turn, makes reading your document less comfortable.

Table 1 shows you how to insert different types of spaces in your document. Most of these techniques are self-explanatory and a little experimentation should make you comfortable using them all. There are two, though, that are worth explaining in depth: using the ruler and creating columns of text.

TIP: Different ways to do the same thing

You’ll note several alternative methods to perform the same action in Table 1 and there are other methods not listed here. Word almost always provides a variety of ways to perform any action, so choose the way that suits your own working style.

[table nl=”~~”]
Type of spacing,How to create it in Microsoft Word 2013
margins around the page,Page Layout tab -> Page Setup section -> Margins
indent first line of paragraph,Adjust indent tabs on the ruler
indent entire paragraph,Page Layout tab -> Paragraph section -> Indent -> Left/Right
spacing between paragraphs,Home tab -> Paragraph section -> Line and Paragraph Spacing~~
Page Layout tab -> Paragraph section -> Spacing -> Before/After~~
Design tab -> Document Formatting section -> Paragraph Spacing
spacing between columns of text,Set tabs on the ruler and then use the Tab key~~
Insert tab -> Table
spacing between lines,Home tab -> Paragraph section -> Line and Paragraph Spacing
spacing between letters,Ctrl+D (to open the Font dialog box) -> Advanced tab -> Kerning for fonts
spaces between words,Press the spacebar

Table 1. How to insert different types of spacing in your document.

Meet the ruler

The ruler runs along the top of the editing window in Word. It displays the width of your page, the margins and the tab stops. You can use the ruler to indent (or outdent) the first line of a paragraph, to set tab stops – useful, for example, when creating a fill-in form or for lining up text in columns – and to visually adjust the margins.


If you can’t see the ruler in your copy of Word, click the View tab on the ribbon and place a checkmark beside Ruler in the Show section.

The settings you make using the ruler apply to the paragraph in which the insertion point is currently located – there’s no need to select the paragraph to make the changes. However, if you wish to apply the changes to multiple paragraphs, you should first select those paragraphs before adjusting the ruler settings.

Here’s a typical ruler with its main features labeled:

The Word ruler

A – The page width, in this case 8.5 inches.

B – The working space, which is the page width minus the margins.

C – The margins (set at 1″ either side).

Note: The page width looks to be, at first glance, 7.5 inches, but that’s because there are really two rulers in one: the first indicates the width of the left-hand margin (1 inch), while the second indicates the width of the rest of the page, a total of 6.5 inches of working space plus the 1 inch right-hand margin. Add the two rulers together, 1″ + 7.5″, and you get the full page width of 8.5″.

D – The left indent controls, which you can click and slide to create an indented or outdented paragraph, a first-line indent or outdent, or a hanging indent. You need some dexterity with the mouse to use these three stacked controls correctly: click and drag the top triangle to create a first-line indent or outdent; click the bottom triangle to create a hanging indent; click the bottom rectangle to adjust the margin for the entire paragraph.

E – The right indent control, which you click and drag to alter the indent on the right side of the selected paragraph(s).

F – The tab selector, which lets you choose the type of tab you’d like to insert on the ruler. If you click that icon repeatedly it will cycle through the available tab types:

  • Left tab – text is aligned on the left at the tab stop.
  • Center tab – text is centered on the tab stop.
  • Right tab – text is aligned to the right at the tab stop and, as you type, shifts leftwards.
  • Decimal tab – for numbers, with text aligned on the decimal point.
  • Bar tab – used to create a vertical line in your document.
  • First line indent – indent the first line of a paragraph.
  • Hanging indent – indent all lines in a paragraph except the first line.

Using tabs

Tab stops provide a way to align text. Each time you press the Tab key, the insertion point jumps to the next tab stop on the line. Tabs are useful for creating simple lists, columnar text and fill-in forms.

By default, Word sets left tab stops at every half inch (assuming you’re using non-metric measurements in your documents). Try it:

  1. Open a blank document and do the following:
  2. Type orange and press the Tab key;
  3. Type granite and press Tab;
  4. Type giraffe and press Enter;
  5. Type yellow and press Tab;
  6. Type marble and press Tab;
  7. Type elk and press Enter a couple of times.

You’ll end up with a nicely columnar list like this:

Columnar list

Now on the next line type green, press Tab, type manganese and press Tab, type baboon and press Enter. Here’s the result:

Alignment out of whack

Our nicely aligned list is now out of alignment because those default half-inch tab stops are too close together to accommodate the contents. This is easily remedied:

  1. Select all three lines (and only those three lines).
  2. Make sure the Left tab icon is selected on the left of the ruler.
  3. Click to place a left tab at the 1″ mark and again at the 2″ mark. You need to click within the ruler – you should see left tab stops displayed if you do it correctly, and your list will now look like this:

Alignment fixed

Note that the tabs you’ve added were only added to the selected lines and not to any other lines in your document. Here’s how you can verify that: click anywhere in your list and look at the ruler – you’ll see the two tab stops you set. Now click in one of the empty lines following the list – no tab stops! So, what do you do if you want to continue the list – do you have to set tab stops again on the next line? No, instead click immediately after the word ‘baboon’ and then press Enter. If you look at the ruler you’ll see that the empty line you created has inherited the tab stops from the preceding lines.

Why does it work this way, with the next line inheriting the previous line’s tab stops? Because Microsoft Word stores formatting information in a hidden paragraph mark at the end of each paragraph and pressing Enter at the end of the paragraph carries that formatting forward.

TIP: Display hidden formatting

To see the hidden formatting symbols in your document, including paragraph marks, on the Home tab of the ribbon, in the Paragraph section, click the ¶ button. You’ll discover that paragraph marks look just like that button (it’s called a ‘pilcrow’) while tabs look like this: Žtab character

Some people work with these marks always displayed because they can be useful in advanced editing tasks and for troubleshooting if something weird starts to happen in your document’s formatting.

You can easily move or remove tab stops you’ve placed on the ruler. To move a tab, click and drag it along the ruler; to delete a tab, click and drag it off the ruler. So, for example, we could add more horizontal spacing to our list by clicking and dragging the tab currently on the 2″ mark over to the 3″ mark, and then drag the tab on the 1″ mark over to the 1 ½” mark:

Moving tab stops

Now try creating a list using a decimal tab stop:

  1. Start on a new line without any tabs set. (If there are tab indicators on the line, you can clear all of them by double-clicking any of the tab indicators to display the Tabs dialog box, clicking the Clear All button and then clicking OK.)
  2. Click the tab selector icon in the left margin and select the decimal tab (it’s an inverted T with a dot to the right), then click at the 2″ mark on the ruler to place a decimal tab there.
  3. Type Labor, press Tab, type $920.50, press Enter.
  4. Type Parts, press Tab, type $1257.90, press Enter.
  5. Type  Car rental, press Tab, type $49.99, press Enter.

Here’s the result:

Using decimal tabs

And here’s a list with a decimal tab at 4.5″ and a right tab set at 7″:

An assortment of tab types

From tabs to tables

As you can see, tabs are useful for arranging simple columns of items, where each row of text fits on a single line. They’re less useful when you want to arrange chunks of text of differing lengths. A good example of that sort of task is a résumé.

The last list we created using tabs is like the stub of a résumé; if you want to create a full-fledged résumé you need to abandon the tabs and use a table. Here’s a fragment of a résumé created using a table:

A resume fragment

When you use a table, the table cells expand to accommodate the text you type, so you can have a cell with a small amount of text neatly aligned beside cells with lengthy text.

As with most things in Word, there are a number of ways you can create such a table. Ideally, it helps if you know how many columns your table will require. In our example, it’s three (for organizations, positions and dates), so to create the table:

  1. Click the Insert tab on the ribbon.
  2. Click the Table button in the Tables section to display the Insert Table box.
  3. Click in the third cell of the first row – you’ll see ‘3 x 1 Table’ displayed, and that’s what you’ll get: A table with three columns and a single row.
  4. Type Community Work and Non-Profit Experience in the first cell. The text will be too large for the cell, but don’t worry about that right now; we’ll fix it later.
  5. Press the Tab key three times. Each time you press Tab you move to the next cell; when you reach the end of the row, Tab takes you to the first cell of the next row or, if you’re at the end of the table (as we are), it will add a new row to your table and position you in the first cell in that row.
  6. Type Organization, press Tab, type Position, press Tab, type Dates and press Tab to add another row.
  7. Type Bleeding Heart Do Gooders, press Tab, and then continue to add the rest of the information in the example table to your table. Rather than type all of it, copy and paste the information cell by cell, pressing Tab at the end of each row to add more as needed.
  8. To fix the table heading, click immediately to the left of the heading row to select the entire row of three cells; right-click within one of the selected cells and select Merge Cells from the pop-up menu. This turns the first row of the table into a single cell, and you can now choose a much larger font for your heading so it stands out.

Once you’ve entered all your text, you can use Word’s table tools to make your table look more impressive: click within the table, click Design on the Table Tools tab, and then apply a style or use the shading and box drawing options.

TIP: Tweak your table

Note that when you apply one of Word’s handsome looking styles to your table, the results may not precisely suit your table. For instance, Word often automatically bolds the text in both the top and bottom rows of a table, assuming you’ll have a heading at the top and totals at the bottom. Experiment with the styles to find one that works with your content, or choose one which mostly works and then manually adjust text attributes and box styles.