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

No, you’re not mistaken — that’s a title you’ve seen before. It was the title of the application article on my last Document Style series, and it’ll probably be the title of the third article in next week’s, too.

Because that’s what we’re doing. Whether you’re trying to manage text columns, headers and footers, or any other page layout elements in Microsoft Word, you’ve got to understand and work with the program’s Sections and Section Breaks.

I’m not going to duplicate the content, though. This week I want to talk to you about how to use those sections to fill your headers and footers with the document context information I talked about in yesterday’s post, so if you skipped the first post on section breaks in Microsoft Word, go back and read it now. Once you’re up to speed, we’ll get right to work.

Modifying Header and Footer Text

Now, before you start messing with the sections, the first thing you need to know how to do is put anything in a header and footer. That depends a little bit on your software version, but it’s not too hard to find.

If you’ve already got a header or footer, you’ll see it as grayed-out text above or below the document’s page text, and even though you can’t select it or type over it, it’s really easy to get access to modify. Just double-click anywhere in the header or footer area (the easiest way to make sure you’re in the right place is to double-click the gray text, but that’s not strictly necessary), and now the page text will become grayed-out and uneditable, and the headers and footers are yours to control.

At that point, we’ll say you’re in Header and Footer Mode. Word basically toggles between the two — either you can edit the headers and footers, or you can edit the page text. You can never work on both at the same time.

If you don’t already have something in the header or footer, though, Word doesn’t bother tracking your mouseclicks in that area, so you’ll have to access it another way. In older versions of Word, you’d use the menu to go to View | Header and Footer, which toggles you into Header and Footer Mode and places your cursor in the header of the currently-selected page. In newer versions, you’ll find Header and Footer as an option on the Page Layout ribbon, and once you enter Header and Footer Mode Word will provide an extra ribbon just for that.

Managing Word’s Helpfulness

Once you’ve got information in your headers and footers, that’s when you need to start worrying about Word’s section breaks. If you’re trying to make a really professional-looking document, anyway, you’ll want to manage your headers and footers, and Word goes a long way to help you with that…and sometimes goes a little too far.

There are three key things you’ll eventually want to do:

  • Different odd and even pages
  • Different first page
  • Different front matter

I’ll address them in reverse order, because the last one is the easiest to explain.

Different Front Matter

“Front matter,” in case I haven’t already explained it, refers to things like a Foreword, a Letter from the Author, an Introduction if you’ve got one, and (most commonly) a Table of Contents. The reason you want a different header and footer in the front matter is because of an old standard: Roman numeral page numbers.

So you’d want your Table of Contents to start on i and maybe run through to iv, but then Chapter 1 should show, in the footer, “Page 1” (even though it’s actually like the seventh or ninth page in the document).

The way you handle that is with Sections. Insert a Section Break between the end of the front matter and just before the beginning of the body (put your cursor before the “C” in “Chapter One” and Insert | Breaks | Section Break – Next Page).

Now that you’ve got a break, switching into Header and Footer Mode will now show a little title in the box outlining the header and footer, labeling it as “Header (Section 2)” or something to that effect.

By default, Word will go ahead and duplicate your initial Header and Footer across all the sections. It uses a setting called Same as Previous which you’ll find highlighted in the Headers and Footers toolbar. As long as that’s on, anything you change in the Section 2 Header will also change in the Section 1 Header (and vice versa).

Once you turn it off, though (just click on it, and it’ll toggle off), you can change the Page Number settings in Section 1 to Style “i,  ii,  iii…” and Start With “i,” then change Section 2 to Style “1, 2, 3…” and Start With “1.”

That’s all it takes.

Different Front Page

You’ve got a couple more options, too. You can tell Word if you want a Different First Page header and footer (and that’s the first page of the section, not necessarily of the whole document).

This feature is often handy when you’re dealing with something other than a book, because the first page almost always contains all the information you would put in a header and footer (author, title, section, subject, and even the page number should be pretty apparent).

By far the most common way to use Different First Page is to turn it on, and then just delete everything in the First Page Header and First Page Footer.

Different Odd and Even Pages

You can also turn on Different Odd and Even, which lets you format the fronts of pages in a bound document (right-hand pages, or odd pages) differently from the backs of pages (left-hand, or even). They’re usually done as mirror images of each other, so instead of the page number being right justified in the footer, it’s right-justified on the odd pages and left-justified on even pages, meaning it’s always on the outside edge of the page.

That only matters when you’re printing front-and-back, but it can add a really professional look to documents produced that way.

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