Tabs, Tables and Columns In Word

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Creating good-looking documents is what Microsoft Word is all about. But in order to present text in an attractive way, a lot of control characters—the supporting cast—have to be placed in the background.

In the old old days, manual typists would simply hit the space bar until columns lined up. Later versions of the typewriter introduced the table key or the tab key. It moved the carriage not a specific distance, but whatever distance was necessary to get to a prearranged stopping place. We have all carried over these habits—even those of us who have never used a clackity-clack-clack typewriter. (If you want to feel old, think about kids in high school now who wouldn’t even recognize the sound that a typewriter makes! Cheap laser printers are older than today’s college students.)

Many people still use the space bar or the tab key to line up columns of text. If you’ve never had the pleasure of editing a document someone else has created with a long list of tab-separated rows you may not realize the problem. Once one "box" overflows with text, the rest of the document is ruined.

You can immediately see how the document was created by showing the control characters. Click on the symbol that looks like a backwards P with two stems in the Home tab of the Ribbon. Be sure to turn it back off when you’re done editing. The next person who gets the document probably doesn’t want to see the control characters! They’re just for editing.

Creating a table is very easy in Word. Go to the Insert tab on the Ribbon. You'll see Table straight away. You can 'draw' the new table by dragging the mouse out the number of rows and columns you'd like.

The table will be inserted wherever the cursor is positioned. Don’t worry too much about the number of rows and columns, they’re easy to change. Your table will have borders you can see both on the screen and in printout. 

Working with tables involves some setup but will save you a lot of time in the long run. Even if you believe your document is complete, other people will edit it later and will be glad you used tables.

If you have text that should flow from the end of one column to the top of another, that’s a different story. If your text has only columns and no rows—like a newspaper story or magazine article, use columns, not tables.

Columns can be set up for an entire document, or they can be used in only one section. In other words, if you are writing a document which has ‘normal’ formatting at the beginning and end and columns in the middle, you can set up multiple column formatting for just the center section.

To set up columns, go to the Page Layout tab on the Ribbon and click the Columns icon. You can choose a simple layout from the dropdown or click More Columns... for greater control.

You should see the dialog box below.

Here you can set your document to have the number of columns you want. Be careful with too many columns as the space between columns can eat up a lot of space on the page.

If you shrink the spacing between columns, you should add a line between columns to enhance readability as shown in the graphic.

Also note that here is where you choose to apply the column formatting to one particular section, or to the Whole document. In the graphic we have chosen to format the Whole document.

If you want to format only one section, you need to explicitly create separate sections. This is done in a Word document by adding section breaks.

Next to Columns on the Page Layout tab is  Breaks… You’ll notice that there are many types of Section breaks to choose from. The most common is continuous. This means that no visible break is seen in the finished document. The other types of section breaks force the text onto the next page, the next even page, or the next odd page. Once you have more than one section, you can format each with whatever column formatting you like.