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

I spent yesterday explaining why technical writers use text columns, providing some specific examples along the way. What I didn’t provide was any kind of instructions.

I hope to remedy that today. I’m going to walk you through the basics of setting up columns in Microsoft Word.

Setting Up a Columned Layout

The easiest way to set up columns in a document is to do it from the very start. Open a new document in Word, or load an existing document (assuming it doesn’t have any section breaks, which we’ll discuss later), then go to Format | Columns to open the Columns dialog.

Choose a two-column layout, and start typing (or, if you opened an existing document, just watch what happens). The whole document is now two-columns, and you can see in the following image how the extra whitespace breaks up the text density on the page.

Switching to (and from) a Columned Layout

Now, somewhere in that process, you should have seen a dropdown marked “Apply to Whole Document” (or, if you’re working in an existing document, it might have said, “This Section Only”). It’s easy enough to create columns in Word, but managing them can be a nightmare until you understand a few other elements of the software.

The first is “sections.” In Word, a “section” is a block of text with its own page formatting. Every document has at least one section (and, by default, only one), and with it a page layout (which includes the paper size and orientation, the margins, the header and footer text, and of course the column layout).

If you want to switch from a TOC with roman numerals for page numbers (in the footer) to a body section with Arabic numbers, you’ll need a section break between the two. If you want to switch from mostly vertical pages to a couple horizontal pages with illustrations on them in the middle of the book, you’ll need a section break before and after the change.

And if you want to switch from single-column body text to a multi-column offset section, you’ll need section breaks. Word handles breaks by inserting non-printing characters into the text flow, and there’s an option to display these non-printing characters. It clutters up your screen a little, but it’s incredibly helpful when you’re trying to figure out why a document isn’t cooperating with you.

To display non-printing characters, look on your toolbars for a paragraph symbol. (It might be hiding in a drop-down at the end of one of the toolbars.) Turn it on, and you should see (at the very least) all the paragraph marks on your page indicating where your paragraphs end. Depending how complicated your document layout is, you might see a whole mess of extra information on your page.

Now, move your cursor to the end of a paragraph partway through the document, and insert a new section break. From the menu choose Insert | Break… and you’ll get to see all the different types of break available. For our purposes, we want Continuous. Ignore the rest for now.

Skip down a point further down in the document (at least a few paragraphs down), and then insert another Continuous Section Break. Now your document has three sections: one before the first break, a second after it, and a third after the next break.

Click your mouse anywhere within the second section (between the two breaks), and go back to the Columns dialog. This time, instead of applying your change to the whole document, choose “Apply to This Section Only” before you hit Next.

For the illustration above, I turned the non-printing characters back off, so you could more easily see the visual effect we created. Some writers like to leave them off all the time, but I toggle back and forth all the time — sometimes you need to see what your readers will see, but other times it’s important to manage all the quirky effects Word is playing with.

Columnating a Selection

Of course, there are times when you have no desire to manage Word’s quirks at all. If you’re trying to create a quick effect, or if you don’t anticipate having to maintain the document later, there’s a much easier way to force a separately-columned section without inserting breaks or even understanding them.

All you’ve got to do is select the bit of text you want to modify:

And then, with it selected, go through the steps I defined above. Now, instead of choosing to apply the new layout to the whole document or to the current section, choose Apply to Selected Text.

Easy as that. Maybe I should have led with that method…but you know, eventually, you’re going to run into problems. And the only way you’ll ever be able to fix them is if you understand what’s going on behind the scenes.

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