Microsoft Word Basics

Let's begin by going over the interface for word processing software.

The Main Application Window

A Desktop Publishing program would be styled more like PowerPoint: a blank workspace, where everything—including text—is an object which can be moved independently. That means the beginning view in such a program would be similar to PowerPoint: you begin with a view of the whole sheet.

Microsoft Word, however, as a word processing application, treats the text as the immovable foundation of the document. When you open the document window, you see a starting point for the text, at top left. In this context, the overall view of the whole document is not as important, so you don't see the whole sheet. Instead, you see the whole width of a line of text, because that is your workspace.

Therefore, this is the view that you see in Word 2016:

Ever since its creation, Microsoft Word had a specific layout: a menu bar, under that were toolbars, and then the workspace. In 2007, Microsoft changed the layout of its apps when it introduced the Ribbon. Aside from that, not much changed.

These are the key points of the Word window layout:

  1. Quick Access Toolbar: If you have special tools you use all the time, you can add them to this toolbar, which can be placed above or below the Ribbon. This toolbar was more significant in 2007, when the Ribbon could not be edited. Today, you can add your own special Ribbon tabs with your preferred set of tools, so this toolbar is more of an afterthought today.
  2. Ribbon: Just like in PowerPoint, most of the tools you need are in this hybrid menu/toolbar. The commands not available can usually be accessed in dialog boxes which can be opened from the Ribbon.
  3. Ruler: Gives you easy access to margins, indents, and measurements. Triple-click the gray part in the margins to see the Page Setup dialog box.
  4. Status Bar: Shows what's happening in the document: how many pages, which page you're on; how many words; spell-checking status.
  5. Views: The "Print Layout" view is the essential view. There is a "Read" view which shows you two pages without any controls, but few people use that. There is also a "Web Layout" view if you want to use Word as a web page editor. (Hint: NEVER use Word to make web pages; it's horrible!)
The Ruler

If you cannot see the ruler, go to the View tab in the Ribbon; a button for the ruler will be towards the left, in the "Show" group.

The ruler in Microsoft Word is an important tool. It can be used to set paragraph indents, and as a guide for using the tab key. The parts:

The gray areas on the left and right show the margins. If you double-click in these areas, you can see the Page Setup dialog box. The edge between the white areas in the middle of the ruler, and the margins, is hidden behind the indent buttons. If the indent buttons are moved, you can change the margins by clicking and dragging on the gray/white borders.

The cursor will always be below the white area, never in the margins.

There is a compound button on the border of the left margin. These are the indent buttons, which can be very useful.

The first button is the first-line indent. This causes the first line of any affected paragraph to begin to the right of the left margin. A half-inch first-line indent is used to show the beginning of paragraphs in academic essays. Using this instead of the tab key is better, because the indent format can be picked up automatically in new paragraphs.

The second button is the hanging indent. This is used to move all lines except the first line to the right. This is used either to make numbered or bulleted lists, or to create citations in a works cited list. It is used in the works cited list because the list is arranged by the author's last name; with a hanging indent, the last name sticks out and so is easier to find.

The third button is the full left indent. This moves the entire paragraph's left side. When you move this button, the first-line and hanging indent buttons move with it, even when they are separate.

Here are examples of no indent, first-line indent, and hanging indent:

Other Window Features

Split Screen

Sometimes you may need to see two separate areas of a document at the same time. For example, when writing an essay, the introduction and the conclusion are often related or coordinated; seeing them together could help to write them better.

To split the screen, go to the View tab in the Ribbon, and click on "Split."

This will create two parts of the screen, one on top of the other. You can click in either one, and scroll them independently.

You can drag the center bar up or down to resize the panes. Double-click on the center bar to leave split-screen mode.

The Status Bar

Very simply, the status bar tells you where you are in the document, how many words you have typed, and whether or not there is spell-checking to perform.

Here are the basic readings in that area:

  1. Page x of y: How many pages, and which page you are currently viewing;
  2. x of y words: Word count—how many words are in the document. If you have selected no text, that is the only number shown. If you selected text, it will tell you how many of the total words you have selected.
  3. Spell check: If there are no spelling or grammar alerts, you will see a small book icon with a check mark; if there are possible errors, you will see an "X" mark.
Word Processing Terms

Terms Used in Word Processing

Computers look at the world differently than we do. When we look at text, we see units of meaning. When a computer looks at text, it sees numbers, mathematical values. As a result, some computer terms are defined slightly differently than normal human terms. Here are a few you should remember:


A character is any letter, number or symbol—essentially, anything you type. For example, "k" is a character. So is any digit, symbol, punctuation mark, or whitespace.


A word is a group of characters, separated by a space and/or punctuation on both sides.


A sentence is a group of words followed by a period, ?, or !.


A line is simply a row of characters / words. You can select a line, but it is not a special separate entity.


Every time you hit the "Enter" key, you begin a new paragraph. The computer sometimes shows you this with the character "".

Each paragraph is separate from each other paragraph. For example, if you select only one paragraph and make a change in the paragraph style, the other paragraphs will not be changed. This is very important when you make changes in indents and tabs, which we will study later.


A section allows for document-level changes to be applied between paragraphs or pages. For example, changing from one-column text and multiple-column text on one page requires new sections. Another example would be changing paper size or paper orientation between pages; this also requires sections.


When you type something in MS Word and then save it, it is called a "document."


This is the style of the characters you type. Times New Roman is the standard font in academic writing.

There are several types of fonts:

  • serif — there are small "serifs" at the end of lines; for example, Times New Roman and Garamond;
  • sans serif — the letters are very plain; for example, Arial and Helvetica;
  • script — looks like handwriting; for example, Comic Sans and Signature;
  • display — used for special stylized titles, such as Algerian and Papyrus, and
  • dingbat — pictures instead of characters; examples are Wingdings and Webdings.

What's a Serif?

A serif is a bump, tab, curl, or line placed at the end of a stroke in a character. For example:

See examples of these types on this page.

Each category is used in a different manner.

  • Serif fonts are used for normal paragraph text, especially in print.
  • SansSerif fonts are used for important text—warnings and instructions, for example. Sometimes snas-serif text is preferred for web page paragraph text.
  • Script (cursive) fonts are used where handwrtiting is called for.
  • Display fonts are used for titles on posters or other places (you will recognize many of them from movie posters).
  • Dingbat fonts are used for placing drawings in text, or easily using such simple one-color images; for example, Lakeland College uses a special dingbat font to add its logo and seal in documents.


"Points" is the standard measurement for font sizes. 12 is standard for regular text. The MLA format requires all text to be 12 point, in a serif font such as Times New Roman.


Selecting Text

The Cursor

It is important to know that the cursor changes appearance according to where it is. When you usually use the cursor, it is an arrow pointing up and to the left. When You are using MS Word, and the cursor is over the text you are typing, the cursor changes shape and looks like a capital-letter "I" (this is called the "I-beam"). But when you move the cursor to the left of the text (beyond the left magin), it changes to an arrow pointing up and to the right.

 Normal cursor:    Over-the-text cursor:    Left-of-margin cursor:  
Using the Mouse

There are many different ways to select text in MS Word. You can click, double-click and triple-click. You can do this inside the text, or you can do it to the left of the margin. You can click-and-drag, drag-and-drop, and combine mouse moves with keyboard keys


"Click and Drag" means that you click the left mouse button and hold it down, then you move the mouse to another location, then you let go of the button. This mouse action is used to "pick up" something on the computer screen and "carry" it to another location. Usually you use "click and drag" to move icons on the desktop.

In Microsoft Word, you can use "click and drag" to move selected text. After you have typed a lot of text, you may want to move one word from one sentence into another. First, you select the word. Then, click and drag the word to a new location, and let go of the mouse button. The word will disappear from the original location, and then appear in the new location. You can do this with any text of any size.


"Drag-and-Drop" means that you click-and-drag on something, until you have brought it to a special place where you want it. You then let go of the mouse button, then the item goes to the place you brought it to.


Here are a list of text-selection maneuvers:

single-click (over the text) places the cursor
double-click (over the text) selects a word
triple-click (over the text) selects a paragraph
single-click (to the left of the text) selects a line
double-click (to the left of the text) selects a paragraph
triple-click (to the left of the text) selects all text in the document
click and drag (over the text) selects text between click and let-go
double-click and drag (over the text) selects text word-by-word
triple-click and drag (over the text) selects text paragraph-by-paragraph
click and drag (to the left of the text) selects text line-by-line
double-click and drag (to the left of the text) selects text paragraph-by-paragraph
CTRL + A selects all text in document
CTRL + click selects sentence
CTRL + click and drag selects text sentence-by-sentence
ALT + click and drag selects rectangle of text
SHIFT + click selects text between original cursor position and new click
SHIFT + arrow keys selects more text character-by-character or line-by-line, in the direction of the arrow
CTRL + click and drag + click and drag + ... selects non-contiguous text (MS Word versions 2003 and later)

In order to practice them, let's use a special Easter Egg:

If you start on a new line and type the text above ( =rand() ) and then hit the Enter key, you will be rewarded with three paragraphs of sample text. If you want different amounts of text, try typing this:

In this case:

the first number is the number of paragraphs you want, and
the second number is the number of sentences for each paragraph.

This will let you easily create a lot of text, with which you can practice the text selection moves listed above.

Terms to Know

rulerthe measure tool near the top of the window
marginblank space around the borders of a document
indentwhen text is shifted inwards from the margin
first-line indentwhen the first line of text only in a paragraph is indented
hanging indentwhen all lines except the first line of text in a paragraph are indented
status bara bar at the bottom of the window showing the page numbering, word count, spellcheck, and view options for the document.
characterone glyph (letter, number, punctuation, symbol, etc.), including whitespace characters (space, tab, enter)
linea string of characters extending horizontally
sectiona part of the text where all formatting can be interrupted, including document-level formatting such as paper size, margins, and page orientation
serifa shape of some sort at the end of a stroke in a character
scripta font similar to handwriting or cursive
click-and-dragwhen you click on something, hold down the mouse button, and move to a new location
drag-and-dropwhen you click and drag on a selected object and move it, then let go
the "rand" functionan Easter Egg which can create meaningless filler text.

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