The Internet is fierce with polemics about one-space-or-two-after-the-period. Bah, lightweight stuff. What about all those poor people you see making MS Word docs look a little more spacious by inserting an extra empty line between paragraphs? There is a better way! But the Office UI (on Mac at least) is heinous, so here’s a step-by-step.

Behold two paragraphs of text, crushed unkindly against each other.

two paragraphs, too close to each other

What you want to do is tell Word to henceforth leave a tasteful amount of space between all your paragraphs, without you having to moronically double-Enter.

You pull down the “Format” menu and select “Style”, for reasons which are obvious if you understand how Word thinks about the presentation units that it manages for you.

Format=>Style in Microsoft Word

Which gets you this entirely opaque screen.

Style in Microsoft Word

Once again, if you were able to mind-meld with a seasoned Office developer in Redmond, you’d understand that there’s a reason for each and every little morsel in this smorgasbord. You may not have thought that “No List” or “Theme Body” were important to your writing; silly you! Anyhow, ignore all that crap and just hit the “Modify…” button in the lower center, to tell Word that you want to fix up the rendering for the “Normal” style, softly highlighted in the left-side window.

Hm, that soft select suggests that you could hard-select “Normal” by clicking on it. But don’t, because I can’t be responsible for the consequences. Or even double-clicking; I betcha something happens. I wonder… no, let’s go back to “Modify…”; it’s your friend. And people who take a wrong turn in the Office style dialogs are in Gandalf-and-Mirkwood territory: Leave the path and the giant spiders are waiting.

Modify Style in Microsoft Word

Now we’re getting somewhere. Here are lots of interesting things about the “Normal” style, which is what you’re using in Word when you’re not using anything else. And this screen is just the tip of the iceberg.

It’s helpfully highlighted the style’s name in case you want to change it; after all, you might not be feeling Normal that day. But for now we just want some white space. Many brave women and men have faced this screen, seen no path forward, and their courage has failed them. But I’m here to help. It turns out that what you want is the bottom-left control labeled “Format”. Mind you, everything else on this screen is all about format too; In effect it’s the We Must Go Deeper menu.

Modify Style Format Pulldown in Microsoft Word

Look at that! All the Aristotelian Categories of WYSIWYG, pregnant with ellipses. Well, except for “Shortcut key…” which you have to feel a little sorry for, stranded as it is among strangers.

Since we’re trying to space out paragraphs, you might be inspired to think that the “Paragraph” entry in this pulldown would be your ticket to happiness. And you’d be right!

Paragraph Style dialogue in Microsoft Word

Really, Word is a pretty-full featured document presentation system, if you’re up to the dialog-navigation challenges.

Anyhow, it turns out that to achieve the desired effect you use the “Spacing” group, third from the top — you can see that I’ve hit the “After” setting which helpfully jumped to a suggested 6 pt of paragraph separation. And 6 pt isn’t terrible but I normally prefer a little less, 5 or 4. The effect is way more polished than just hitting Enter twice after each paragraph. OK, so hit “OK” already.

Back to the Style dialog in Microsoft Word

You’re pretty well done, but now you have to escape this maze of twisty little dialogs, which is not as straightforward as you might think.

A close look reveals that the dialog in front with the “Apply” button doesn’t actually have focus, the one behind it does. I’m not sure exactly how this happens, but it’s really easy to get into a mode where you mash away at the Apply button and Word just isn’t having it, sneers at your attempts to Apply your amateur typographical notions. Then you have to bring the other dialog forward and hit the “OK”. Or maybe I have that backward. And it doesn’t always happen. But with a little persistence and after saying “Make It So, Number One” to a variety of subtly-3D blue buttons, the dialogs will all be gone, leaving your prose vaulting airily over graceful open space from paragraph to paragraph.

Separated paragraphs in Microsoft Word

OK, 80% of you probably knew this already, and I have learned over the years that people cheekily double-tapping the “Enter” key between paragraphs rarely appreciate being told that There Is A Better Way. Especially when I start filling their screen with dialogs.

Back to your regularly-scheduled programming.


Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: George (Mar 01 2017, at 01:07)

I'm an 80 percenter but it was still worth reading for the humour and snark and a reminder of how whack these dialogs are.


From: Philip Storry (Mar 01 2017, at 04:59)

This will sound terrible, but I must say it...

I feel sorry for the team working on Word.

I have done ever since the OOXML debacle. It showed how clearly they are held to a legacy code base that, in all likelihood, nobody understands anymore. Over the past few releases there are signs that they've begun to free themselves of that legacy code base, thankfully.

But there's always another horror lurking in Word. Work like the Ribbon makes it look like there's been massive progress, but then you get into the dialogues and realise that there's so much more work to be done.

So I really do feel sorry for the folks on the Word team. They've done a good job - it's a much better product than it was a decade ago - but there's so much more to do...


From: Matěj Cepl (Mar 01 2017, at 05:13)

And then you finally see the light, switch to some plain text format (Markdown, reStructuredText, LaTeX) and then you press RETURN twice again ;).


From: Joe Clark (Mar 01 2017, at 05:41)

Except that any text you intend to be taken seriously must look like all the text you ever read that intended to be taken seriously: Paragraphs following paragraphs get indents and no blank lines intercede between them.


From: Liam Quin (Mar 01 2017, at 09:49)

I’ve always preferred a small amount of extra space between sentences - it can help disambiguate from an abbreviation followed by a capital letter. But not enough extra space to make visible and distracting holes.

I haven’t used Microsoft Word in the past 15 years at least; LibreOffice/OpenOffice has been fine when I needed a word processor, even for writing a book.

On the Web, a blank line or half-line between paragraphs can work better than an indent at the start in cases where the line length is unpredictable and there may be intrusions into the start edge (e.g. left side in English) that disrupt the even line. Block-direction space isn't at such a premium as in print. But if you're using Word you're probably writing for print.


From: Michael Zajac (Mar 01 2017, at 12:28)

I’ve been using styles since the 1980s. The minute you share a document to collaborate with someone, it will all go to hell.

Since Word 4 for Mac, the interface has been getting steadily worse. is imperfect, but at least it's simpler.


From: Tom Magliery (Mar 01 2017, at 13:01)

1. The process in Word 2007 on Windows is similar enough that this would get an intrepid person through it. The actual Modify Style dialog is practically identical.

2. I'm sad that I know this.

3. I have written plain, old, ordinary business letters in XML using XMetaL.


From: Rob (Mar 01 2017, at 20:16)

Ah, real perfectionists do not accept default line spacing, let alone default paragraph spacing, and yes, Word lets you express your fine sensibilities there too! You can probably even custom font your kerns and whatnot.

But you know what Word is REALLY good at? Mail merges. The mail merge system is truly a marvel of engineering. It once and for all time definitively solved the world's mail merge problems, so much so that you never hear anybody around the office office complaining about setting up professional looking mass mailouts anymore. Quite possibly Redmond's greatest achievement. Lord knows they put enough effort into it. For the longest time in the last century it was the star of every sales demo.


From: Tim (but not THE Tim) (Mar 01 2017, at 20:49)

It's often the time spent looking for things like this which cause people to use the "double enter" method. My wife writes for a living, her patience with the learning curve for styles is used up, usually, by deadline pressures.

I'm of those mainframe folk who used IBM's Document Composition Facility with its GML markup (SGML-based, I believe) and while it wasn't WYSIWYG, I often miss the clarity of just putting markup somewhere to tell it what to do, with coding outside the document to tell it what the markup did.


From: Mike Sokolov (Mar 02 2017, at 03:25)

Now if only you could elucidate this too: how to operate a text editor that produces lines with line breaks (and double lines for paragraphs) (like emacs tends to), and then import that text into word, or markdown editors, in such a way as to avoid having to manually remove all the line endings,I will forever dying your praises.


From: J. King (Mar 02 2017, at 07:25)

Similar to Tom Magliery I have in the past used Prince (in combination with my favourite text editor of the day) to style documents for printing.

Word's style facility is for the birds. It's less useful than level -one- of CSS; when I tried to learn Word styles (having extensive experience with CSS), I was so frustrated by my inability to cascade rules (and inspect how rules are applied) that I quickly gave up.

I wish it were not so: asking people to learn HTML (or XML) and CSS just to lay out a document properly is a tall order---but so is asking them to use Word styles, because they suck terribly.

I'm going to sound like a really old fart, now, but even Word's styles, if combined with format inspection like WordPerfect had way back in the DOS days, would be acceptable. The combination of poor expressiveness, poor user interface, and dismal control, though, makes what we have in Word, in 2017, useless. Unless Word does have format inspection and I've never found it, after a decade of searching and even trying to get familiar with the Word DOM?


From: Paul Boddie (Mar 03 2017, at 14:41)

Maybe Microsoft Word's style features will eventually catch up with the Impression document processing software I used on the Acorn Archimedes back in the early 1990s.


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