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Why hanging indents are beautiful things

Okay, The Guru has a confession to make: I used to be afraid of hanging indents.

This, of course, is silly. Of all the things in the world there are to be afraid of — snakes, heights, public speaking, thermonuclear war, global economic meltdowns — hanging indents are pretty innocuous. But I did, until fairly recently, go through a period where I avoided doing hanging indents because I kept getting confused by them. (More on that later.)

Some of you are asking, “What is a hanging indent?” It’s a style of paragraph indentation that has the first line flush with the left margin but indents all of the subsequent lines in the paragraph, like so:


(If you had to write term papers in APA Style in college, you recognize the format.)

Now you’re asking, “So what’s so scary about a hanging indent?” and “Why should I care about ’em?” Let me explain.

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How to set tabs (without tearing your hair out)

It ought to be pretty simple, really. Even though Microsoft Word, by default, sets left tabs every half inch (at least in the U.S. version – elsewhere may vary), sometimes you need something different. Even if only for a particular part of your document. So, how on earth do you set tabs in Microsoft Word?

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When a tab is not just a tab, part 1: decimal tabs

We all know what a tab is, right?  It’s that key near the upper left-hand corner of the keyboard we press to indent the first line of a paragraph.

Sometimes, though, simply moving the cursor over half an inch isn’t what we want.

Take, for example, something like this:

Those numbers look okay — they seem to line up pretty well.  But how did this person get this result?  Let’s turn on Show/Hide (that paragraph symbol on the Home tab in the Paragraph section) to see the codes:

Ah, I see.  This person used Left Tabs (the default tabs you get when you hit the Tab key) to move the cursor to the left (signified by the left-pointing arrows above), then hit the space bar (the dots above) to get the numbers to line up.

But how well do they really line up?  Let’s turn on the gridlines (found on the View tab) to see:

Oooooh. Those numbers (and decimals) don’t line up so well after all.  But what else can you do?

Decimal tabs!

Click here to learn how to set up decimal tabs …

Indenting paragraphs

While Word does some default paragraph formatting for you, you may want to change the formatting to suit a particular need. For example, you may need to double-indent a section of text to quote case law for a brief.

First, let’s talk about basic indentation (which can be done from the Formatting toolbar), then we’ll go over more advanced indentation (like double-indents for quotes).

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