Follow these rules and stop wrestling with indents in your Word documents.
Just about every Word user knows that the paragraph indents in your documents can mysteriously end up a
tad different than you want them to be. Fixing them should be easy—right? Well, it is, if you know what to do.
Many of us still longingly look back and recall the days of Reveal Codes in WordPerfect 5.1. With a few clicks you could easily diagnose and fix just about any formatting problem in your documents. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case in Microsoft Word.
One of the most common formatting quandaries encountered by Word users comes when changing paragraph indents. This is something that I have to relearn just about every time I deal with the darn things. Now, one would think it wouldn’t be that complicated, but moving those little triangles on the horizontal ruler back and forth is more confusing than it looks. So in this issue, let’s look at various ways to place your paragraph indents accurately.
The Rules of the Indent Game
There are three ways you can change paragraph indents. One is by clicking on toolbar buttons. Another is by moving the aforementioned triangles on the horizontal ruler. The horizontal ruler appears just below your toolbars. If you don’t see a ruler above the top of your document, click on View, then Ruler. While not exactly Reveal Codes, it can be useful to help you see where you are adjusting your indent settings.
The third way to make your changes is by using the Paragraph format dialog box. Click on Format, then Paragraph, and then the Indents and Spacing tab to view the dialog box that lets you change indent settings. You can set your indents with more precision in this box, and there are other paragraph format settings you can change there as well.
One last thing before we review the different kinds of indents. Please remember that when you change indents as described in the following, you will only change the indents for the paragraph where your cursor is currently placed. Of course, you can also change multiple paragraphs simultaneously by selecting the desired paragraphs before you make your changes.
If you want to change indents for the entire document, select all the text in the document before making your changes by pressing Ctrl+A, or clicking on Edit, then Select All. (And yes, you can also set and change document indents with Styles, but that is a topic for another day.)
Time then to review how you create and change the five different types of indents in Word: left, right, first line, hanging and negative.
Left and Right Indents
There are several ways to change the left indent of an entire paragraph. First, click anywhere in the paragraph. Then, on the ruler, click and hold the Left Indent marker (it’s the little rectangle under the two triangles on the left side of the ruler) and move it to the right, to the desired position. This action also moves the First Line and Hanging Indent markers.
Alternatively, on the Formatting toolbar, you can click the Increase Indent button, or conversely, click the Decrease Indent button to decrease the left indent. These buttons move the indent by one tab stop.
Lastly, you can also change the left indent by using the Tab key—just place the cursor at the front of any line
except the first line and hit Tab. Pressing Backspace or Shift+Tab will decrease the indent.
When citing a passage from a case or using a lengthier quote from a publication, you may want to indent the entire right side of a paragraph as well, to signal to readers that the text is an extract. To do this on the ruler, drag the Right Indent marker (it’s the little triangle on the right side of the ruler) to the left, into the position where you want it to be.
Most people create a first-line indent by hitting Tab once at the start of the first line in a paragraph. And as you would expect, it jumps the start of the first line to the first tab stop. But note: Pressing the Tab key two or more times leaves the first-line indent but also creates a left indent of the entire paragraph.
An alternate method for creating a first-line indent is by clicking on the First Line Indent marker on the left side of your ruler (it’s the top triangle that points down) and dragging it to the right. It moves independently of the Left and Hanging Indent markers.
The Hanging Indent
In a hanging indent, all lines except the first line of the paragraph are indented. To format a paragraph in this style, drag the Hanging Indent marker on the ruler’s left side (it’s the little triangle that points up) to the right. It moves the Left Indent marker, but not the First Line Indent marker.
The Negative Indent
You can also move a paragraph into the left margin. To do this, click anywhere within the paragraph you want to change, then drag the Left Indent marker (the little rectangle at the ruler’s bottom left) into the desired position in the margin.
Getting Out of a Mess
If you end up with a bigger mess than you started with, don’t panic. Remember that you can always move backwards through your changes by selecting Edit and then Undo, or by pressing Ctrl+Z multiple times.
So see, changing paragraph indents isn’t really rocket science—at least not if you have this month’s Tips Tear-Out taped up in front of you. I already have a copy taped to my monitor.