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July/August 2020

Tech From the Trenches

How to Fix Formatting Problems in Microsoft Word

Barron K. Henley

See if this sounds familiar. You’re editing a Microsoft Word document but the formatting keeps shifting even though you’re not overtly doing anything to cause the changes. As an example, I recently received an email from a lawyer with a Word document attached. The email read, “I need to finalize the attached brief, but I can’t figure out how to keep the font/formatting from randomly changing on me. HELPPPPPPPPPPP!” The document in question suffered from a very common defect that affects many Word documents. I thought I’d use this column to explain the source of the problem and how to fix it.

Cause of the Problem.

The random format shifting is caused when a document’s default formatting disagrees with new formatting that has been layered on top of the default. The annoying issue with a document’s default formatting is that it won’t leave you alone. While you’re editing, it will keep revealing itself and percolating to the surface. That’s what causes the shifting. Surprisingly, this type of latent defect is present in easily 70 percent of the documents lawyers have emailed to me when they ask for help.

This formatting disagreement arises because most Word users aren’t even aware that every document comes with built-in default formatting; and even if they are aware of this, they don’t know how to change it. For example, assume a Word user opens an old document and saves it as a new file name so it can be used as a template. Assume further that the document exhibits the Arial font, 11 point and left paragraph alignment. However, the user wants Times New Roman, 12 point and justified paragraph alignment. Almost every user of Word will try to adjust the formatting by first selecting the document, picking a new font and point size from the ribbon and clicking the justified paragraph alignment button. This may be surprising, but that has been the wrong way to change formatting in a Word document since forever. Selecting text and layering new formatting on top (this is called direct formatting in Word vernacular) does nothing to affect the underlying defaults already present in the document. In this example, if the defaults are 11-point Arial, left alignment, those formatting attributes will keep appearing while the document is being edited even though new formatting was painted on top of it.


When a new, blank Word document is created, the formatting standards of the user’s installation of Word are buried in the document like DNA. Of course, the vast majority of new documents in a law practice are created from existing documents previously drafted for other clients or cases. Old documents are opened, saved as a new file name and modified for the present use. However, all those documents at one point came from a blank document. Think about the origins of the documents you work with in your own practice. They could be decades old, and you may have no idea who originally created them. If a document was created in Word 97, then its defaults were probably Times New Roman, 10 point, single line spacing, left alignment with no extra space between paragraphs. In Word 2000-2003, the font point size was increased to 12. If the document was created in Word 2007 or more current, then the default font was Calibri, 12 point, left alignment, with line spacing of slightly greater than single and automatic paragraph spacing enabled. I’m still waiting to meet a lawyer who likes the formatting defaults in Word since 2007.

Where the Default Formatting Is Stored.

Another architectural issue all users should understand about Word is where these formatting defaults are stored. When a blank document is created in Word, that document is based upon a template called normal.dotm. This happens without any overt indications to the user. So, every user of desktop Word, Windows or Mac, has that file on their computers buried in a folder no reasonable user would ever find. For example, on my computer, it’s in C:\Users\[logonname]\AppData\Roaming\Microsoft\Templates. On a Windows machine, the AppData subfolder is hidden by default so you might not be able to see it even if you know what you’re looking for.

How to Ascertain Your Document’s Default Formatting.

If you’re going to use an existing document as the foundation for a new document, you want to identify the default formatting before you do anything else. To the extent the defaults differ from what you want to see in the document, then you want to get them in alignment with one another. There are a couple of ways to determine the default, but my preferred method involves a discussion of styles, and there isn’t space in this column for that discussion. However, I’ll write a future column that fully explains Word’s styles feature and why it’s so important. To keep things simple here, we’ll use a different method. Select two consecutive paragraphs in the document you just opened, and then click the Clear All Formatting button. In both Windows and Mac, the button is on the home ribbon; it has the letter A on it with a little rectangle that looks like an eraser. This will reveal your document’s default formatting. If the font, paragraph alignment, distance between paragraphs, line spacing or anything else changes to something you don’t want, then you need to modify your defaults.

How to Modify Your Default Formatting.

I’m going to explain how to change the default formatting for the document you’re editing or for both the document you’re editing plus all future blank documents. Here again, my preferred method would involve directly modifying styles in the document, but due to space considerations, I’ll explain an alternative method. Right click anywhere in your document (you don’t have to select anything first) and choose Font from the menu that appears. Change the settings to whatever you would like for your document and click the Default button at the bottom of the dialog. At that point, you’ll get a dialog asking whether you want to set

the default for “This document only?” or “All documents based on the Normal.dotm template?” If you only want to modify this document, choose the first option; and if you want to modify this document plus all future blank documents, choose the second option. Next, right click again and this time choose Paragraph from the menu that appears. Make whatever changes you want to the paragraph formatting, click the Set As Default button at the bottom of the dialog and proceed as described for the font settings (change the defaults for the document you’re editing or for all future documents as well).

The problematic default settings for Word 2007 and more recent versions are in the paragraph formatting dialog. On the Indents and Spacing tab, you’ll see that under the Spacing section, the “After” setting is 8 pt and the Line Spacing is 1.08. You want the default spacing to be 0 pt and the line spacing to be single. For clarity, 12

points is a full blank line between paragraphs and 6 points is a half. I can’t imagine who at Microsoft thought it would be a good idea to make the default paragraph spacing 66.7 percent of a blank line and the default line spacing 8 percent bigger than single spacing, but they have tormented legal users for a solid 13 years with that bad decision. Unfortunately, fixing your normal.dotm template will have no effect on all the documents you’ve already created. They must be opened and fixed one at a time.


If you start a new document from an existing one, check the defaults before you do anything else. If they disagree with what you want, fix that before you proceed and you’ll find your formatting a lot easier to control.

Barron K. Henley


Barron K. Henley is a lawyer and founding partner of Affinity Consulting Group, a legal technology consulting firm focused on automating and streamlining law firms and legal departments. Henley heads Affinity's document assembly/automation and software training departments, and he teaches CLE classes throughout the United States and Canada covering a wide variety of topics related to law practice management, technology and ethics.

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