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On Document Style: How to Use Section Breaks in Microsoft Word

Here we go again, diving back into Microsoft Word and the murky world of section breaks with the next-to-last week in our month-long look at professional document formatting. This week we’ve been talking about page setup, and — like headers and footers and text columns before — page setup is a per-section setting.

Changing Orientation

By this point, I really do think you know how to use section breaks in Microsoft Word, though. So instead of spending a lot of time on that, I’m going to tell you where and how to adjust your page setup elements. Just remember that, for each one, when you make changes you can either make changes for the whole document, or just within the current section.

Modifying page orientation is a really straightforward example. If you want a document that consists mostly of Portrait Letter pages filled with text, but occasionally switches to Landscape Letter pages filled with landscape-oriented photographs, you would need to insert a section break before and after each of the pages you wanted in Landscape, then click somewhere inside the page and change the setting for that section only.

To do that, navigate to the Page Setup controls. In older versions of Word, you do that from the main menu by selecting File | Page Setup, which opens a new dialogue box. In newer versions, you can simply click on the Page Setup tab at the top of the screen to open a ribbon which contains all the same controls.

Make sure the Apply To dropdown box say “This section,” make sure your cursor is inside the page you want rotated, and then just click the Landscape orientation button. Just like that, you’ve applied a section-specific setting to manage page layout.

Maintaining Usable Margins

Then, of course, there’s margins. I spent a lot of time yesterday waxing romantic about page margins, but what do you expect? Spend as much time thinking about page margins as I do, and you’ll either end up loving them or hating them. Same goes for typos (hate), em dashes (love), paragraph styles that automatically jump to the top of a page (love), and publishing guidelines that require every chapter to start on an odd-numbered page (hate).

Oh, the glamorous life of a Tech Writer.

I think the only guideline I gave yesterday was that your margins should be “generous.” That’s not very specific, but it’s hard to give a fixed value across the board. A 1″ margin creates a much different effect on a sheet of Statement-sized paper than it does on 11″ x 17″.

It’s a handy reference point, though. 1″ margins all the way around are pretty standard on Letter-sized paper. If you switch to Legal (which is a lot taller), you might add a quarter inch to top and bottom. If your page is smaller, make it a little smaller. If it’s larger, make it a little larger.

In the same way, if you have a header make sure you’ve got enough room on the top margin to support it (you usually want at least a 1″ margin, so there’s at least half an inch of whitespace outside the half-inch header area). And if you’ve got a footer make sure you’ve got enough room for it in the bottom margin.

I also talked yesterday about “mirrored margins” — handling right and left margins differently on right-hand and left-hand pages. That’s a far more important thing to get right. Luckily, Word makes it pretty easy.

Once again, open the Page Setup controls, and then look for a checkbox labeled Different odd and even. (On the dialogue box, you’ll find it on the Layout tab.) Once you check that box, the margin fields will switch from saying “Left” and “Right” to “Inside” and “Outside.”

You’ll also see the “Gutter” field, which lets you add extra margin in that inside edge of the page trapped against the binding. A regular 1″ outside margin is usually enough if you’re planning to do a top-corner staple or hole-punch for a 3-ring binder, but if the edges of your pages are going to be bound together, I’ve often heard it recommended to add 1/8″ per 50 pages.

Making Your Document Smarter

Today’s article isn’t a terribly complicated one, but you can give credit for that to Microsoft. Page Setup is a crucial part of professional document formatting, and they made it pretty easy.

Next week I plan to finish up this series with a look at a little bit more complicated tool, but also one of the coolest (and handiest) features for polishing the professional appearance of your document. We’ll talk about adding smart text to your headers and footers, and keeping track of your references.

Definitely come back for that one. You’ll be glad you did.

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