I’ll admit it — I’m not a big fan of the Columns feature in Microsoft Word. Not that there’s anything wrong with it, per se. It works fine (until it doesn’t). But in a legal office environment, I usually format blocks of information with tables because they’re a bit easier to control.
But I’ve seen lots of legal professionals use columns to format things like service lists in Certificates of Service. Hey, to each her [his] own.
So if you want to use this feature in your Microsoft Word documents, here’s what you need to know:
Inserting Columns: The Basic Primer
Everything starts from the Format menu in 2002 and 2003:
In Word 2007 and 2010, this feature has been moved to the Page Layout Ribbon under Page Setup (the rest of the steps are the same in all versions):
Once you click on that, you’re taken to a dialog box that allows you to set up your columns the way you want them.
The default is one column — just a regular document. You can use one of the presets (the two-column layout is useful for the service list application I mentioned above). Or you can customize it within an inch of its life. How wide do you want each one to be? How much space between columns 1 and 2, or 2 and 3, or …? How about a line between them (like a newsletter would have)? You decide!
(If you don’t want your columns to all be the same width, be sure to uncheck the “Equal column width” checkbox at the bottom of the dialog box. That will open up more choices in formatting.)
Navigating Between Columns
This, to me, is the tricky part, and part of the reason I usually opt for tables rather than columns. With tables, moving between the cells is easy — just use the Tab key. With columns, however, there are a few tricks.
Say you’re typing in the first column of your document and you want to end that column there and start typing in the second column. To do that, you have to insert a column break. You can do that in one of two ways:
- Press SHIFT-CNTRL-ENTER simultaneously; or
- Go to the Insert menu, choose Break, and choose Column Break
In the Ribbon versions of Word, that’s found on the Page Layout tab:
Personally, I’d go with Option 1 (assuming I remember the key combination in the heat of the moment).
Once you’ve inserted a column break, your cursor is in the next column, ready for you to type. When you insert a column break in your last column (the one farthest to the right), the cursor will go to the first column on the next page.
Viewing Column Boundaries
To me, it’s tough to work with columns (or tables, for that matter) if I can’t really see them. To turn on the column boundaries so you can see your columns laid out on the page, click Tools, Options, then go to the View tab and check the box next to Text Boundaries:
In the Ribbon-based versions of Word (2007 and up), go to the File tab and click Options, then click Advanced and check the box next to “show text boundaries”:
When Columns Are Only Part of Your Document
But what if you want to insert a two- or three-column block of text into the middle of a one-column, normal document?
If you go back to the Format Columns dialog box, you’ll notice a drop-down at the bottom of the box:
If you choose “This Point Forward,” that will allow you to insert columns at the point your cursor is sitting in. Once you’ve inserted your columnar data, then go back to the Format Columns dialog box and choose the One Column format (being careful to once again choose “This Point Forward” in that bottom drop-down), and your document will return to the single-column format without disturbing the multi-column insertion you’ve just worked so hard on.
Elsewhere, we get into how to insert Tables (which, as I mentioned earlier, I personally prefer), and you can decide from there which feature helps you in each situation.
How do you see yourself using Columns in your documents?