applied tips : november 2008

microsoft word : using columns

While creating a document in Word, we often want to position our text side-by-side for a more efficient use of space or a more interesting layout. 

There are a few ways to accomplish this: columns, tables, and text boxes.  This article focuses on columns, but let's explain the differences between them first.

Columns, Table, or Text Box?

Columns or Table or Text Box?The first step is to decide which of these two methods will be best for you. It's an easy question: do you want the text to automatically flow to the next column, or continue on down to the next page?

Columns allow you to keep the text together on the same page, and text automatically flows from one column to the next until all of the columns are filled up.

Tables don't flow that way. When a table's column is filled up, the content will continue on the next page. Other columns in the table are independent of each other and their contents are not linked.

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So ask yourself: Is this a single flow of information like a news article? or is it two or three or four independent flows of information like a spreadsheet? If it's the first, then you want Columns. Otherwise you want a Table.

What about text boxes? We use those when we need text to "float" on the page secondary to the main text. This is common for special "side bar" quotes like you would see in a magazine.

We'll explain how to work with tables and text boxes in the next two Word articles.

Creating a Column

Working with Columns in Word can take some patience, but the easiest way to get started is to type up the majority of your text first and then convert it into columns. You don't have it do to it this way, but you'll find it a lot less troublesome.

In Word 2003, select all of the text you want in Columns and then pull down the Format menu and choose Columns. The Columns dialog box will allow you to specify the number of columns, their width, and if you want a vertical line separating them. Mark your choices and press OK and you're done!

In Word 2007, select all of the text you want in Columns and select the Page Layout ribbon tab, then pull down the Columns menu. You can quickly select from the five available options or choose "More Columns" for the familiar Columns dialog box.

You can make changes to your columns at any time by placing your cursor anywhere inside the column area and returning to the Columns dialog box as described above.

Forcing a Column Break

To fine-tune your formatting, you may wish to "force" a column to stop so that text will continue at the top of another column. This is a common action when the heading of a new section of text ends up at the bottom of a column.

Place your cursor directly in front of the first letter of the text you wish to "push" to the column. In Word 2003, choose the Insert menu, then Break, and then specify a Column Break. In Word 2007, pull down "Breaks" found in the Page Layout ribbon tab and choose Column.

A column break can be removed by positioning your cursor directly at the top of the column and pressing Backspace.

Troubleshooting a Column

When using Columns, things sometimes go wrong when you want to make major changes to the layout of your document.

One of the easiest ways to troubleshoot a column is simply to "reset" it back to a single column and then re-apply your column settings. To do this, select the entire affected area and open the Columns dialog box (as described above) and specify just One column from the preset.

If further problems persist, you may need to enter Normal/Draft View to see and remove any Section and Column Breaks. To enter Normal View in Word 2003, choose Normal from the View menu. To enter Draft View in Word 2007, click "Draft" from the View ribbon tab. Once here, you'll be able to see the visual indicators that start and finish your columns and identify column breaks. You can delete these breaks with the Delete key, but be careful that deleting sections can often affect your page headers and footers among other layout settings.

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