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.
I’ve been teaching university courses and grading student essays for twenty years. A lot of students need help with their writing, and I really enjoy working with students on their essays. But I’ve noticed that there’s a curious mismatch between the kind of advice I usually find myself giving, when I start working with students, and what students are commonly taught in writing classes.
In a writing class, the curriculum usually starts with grammar, sentence structure, elements of style, and moves up to paragraphs and paragraph structure, and then toward the end of the course, gets to essays and different essay types. So they start from the smallest units of writing and scale up to the larger units.
For me, from the standpoint of a teacher trying to help students write better essays, this gets things entirely backward.
In this video I’m going to explain exactly what I mean by this, and why the most efficient way to improve your essay writing is to fix the problems with the the largest unit first — the problems with essay structure.
The 80-20 Rule
There’s a rule known as the 80-20 rule that originated in economics but is commonly taught in management and business. It states that, in many different situations, roughly 80 percent of the effects arise from 20 percent of the causes.
In business, it might imply that 80 percent of your sales come from 20 percent of your customers. Or, 80 percent of your company’s profits come from 20 percent of the time your staff spend. 80 percent of customer complaints come from 20 percent of your customers.
The exact percentages aren’t important, the point is that certain inputs have a disproportionate influence on outputs, and knowing what those inputs are can be very important if you’re looking to diagnosis problems in your organization or optimize performance.
An 80-20 Rule for Essay Writing
I want you to consider what an 80-20 analysis would look like when applied to essay writing.
When I get an essay from a student that has problems, I’ve got some choice when it comes to deciding what sort of feedback would be most helpful.
Most essays have a mixture of problems — there are problems with spelling, word choice, grammar, sentence structure, paragraph structure, and so on, all the way up to overall essay structure and organization. I could start anywhere. I could fill up the pages with red marks just focusing on grammar and style issues alone.
But that’s not what I do, and it’s not what any good instructor or editor should do. I want to make the most efficient use of my time and the student’s time. So I’ll focus on fixing the problems that have the greatest impact on the overall success of the essay.
And that’s not spelling and grammar.
What I need to focus on is essay STRUCTURE, essay ORGANIZATION. Fixing problems with structure will fix the majority of the problems with your essay, and make the greatest contribution to improving the grade on your essay.
Let me say that again. Fixing problems with overall essay structure will fix 80% or more of the problems with your essay.
In an 80-20 analysis, this would be the input that makes the greatest contribution to the overall success of the essay. Again, don’t take the exact percentages seriously, they’re just to illustrate a point, which is that structural issues have a disproportionate impact on the the success of an essay.
Why Fixing Problems with Structure Fixes Most of Your Essay Writing Problems
Why is this?
We have to remember that the primary goal of an essay assignment isn’t to write beautiful sentences or even beautiful paragraphs.
The goal is to communicate a main idea, a thesis, and to use the essay format to organize ideas in the most effective way to successfully communicate that main idea.
An essay’s success or failure is primarily a function of the organization and flow of ideas, at the highest level of organization, at the level of the essay taken as a whole, not at the level of individual sentences or individual paragraphs.
The priority of structure in essay writing is familiar to anyone who has graded papers. I’lll repeat what I said before — when a student hands in a draft of a paper that is poorly written, it almost always has a mix of spelling, grammar, sentence structure and organizational problems. If I wanted to I could start identifying every grammar and stylistic problem, and I could write a long document with editorial tips on grammar and style issues alone.
But I don’t do any of that.
What I do is make a few comments about the overall organization of the paper and invite the student in to talk about them. Often I don’t even bother commenting on the spelling and grammar and style issues.
Why? Because that’s not the priority. That’s not the part that is most important to the success of the paper. Even if all the spelling and vocabulary and grammar and sentence structure problems are fixed, if the organizational parts aren’t fixed, I’ll never give this paper a top grade. No instructor would.
So we, as instructors and editors and graders, focus on the most important feedback first, which is structural. Once that’s fixed it would make sense to look closer at style issues, on a second or third draft.
But even on second or third drafts, most of the constructive feedback your teachers give you will still be feedback about structure, because (a) it can take several tries to fix the structural problems, and (b) it’s only at the structural level where you can move a paper from being merely good to excellent.
So, the take-away is that not all the skill sets that are important for good writing are equally important.
In essay writing in particular, there is a HUGE asymmetry — structural and organizational factors are far more important in determining whether an essay is successful or not, than spelling and vocabulary and grammar.
It follows, then, that a program of instruction that aims to improve people’s essay writing should focus on principles of structure and organization at the essay level.
And that’s I’m trying to do in this course — I have relatively little to say about grammar and style and usage, except when it relates to structural and organizational features at the essay level.
Now, maybe some of you watching this will think that none of this is surprising.
But the principle that I’ve tried to articulate here, about the priority of structure in essay writing, is for the most part, completely unfamiliar to students entering college.
I can’t speak for the way that essay writing is taught in high school (when it’s taught at all), but the fact is that in my 20 years of experience working with students on their writing, I have yet to encounter a student who recognized this principle, prior to receiving some formal instruction specifically about it.
Let me say this again. What I would regard as the single most important principle of essay writing — the one that is most important for successful essay writing — is unfamiliar to most of the students entering college.
This is disturbing to me, as a teacher.
Now, this isn’t to say that there aren’t good writers among the students who enter college, because there are.
But I’m convinced that in most cases these students became good writers in spite of their formal training in essay writing, rather than because of it. They’ve picked up their skills through extensive reading and assimilation and modeling, rather than through formal instruction.
And that’s great, that’s wonderful, but the fact is that it’s something you only see in a fraction of students. There are many more students who could benefit from some formal instruction in structural principles for successful essay writing, but who have never been exposed to them.
So, in the next video we’ll get started doing just that.