Using and formatting columns in Microsoft Word

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I'll admit it — I'm not a big fan of adding columns in Microsoft Word.  Not that there's anything wrong with columns, per se.  Columns work fine (until they don't).  But in a legal office environment, I usually format blocks of information with tables because they're a bit easier to control.

That said, I have seen lots of legal professionals insert multiple columns in Microsoft Word to format things like service lists in Certificates of Service.  Hey, to each her [his] own.

So if you want to format text with columns in Microsoft Word documents, here's what you need to know:

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Inserting columns: the basic primer

Everything starts from the Layout tab (known as Page Layout in versions 2007-2010) on the Ribbon:

Word 2007

Word 2019

Click on More Columns, and you're taken to a dialog box that allows you to set up your columns exactly 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. Width?  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.  Then, you'll be able to customize the width of each column separately.)

Word 2019

Navigating between columns

Once you've set up your columns, you come to the tricky part. This is part of the reason I usually opt for tables rather than columns.  If you use tables, moving between the cells is easy — just use the Tab key.  To insert a column, however, you need to know 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 insert a column break in one of two ways:

  • Press CTRL-SHIFT-ENTER  simultaneously; or
  • Go to the Layout tab, click Breaks, and choose Column

Word 2010

Word 2016

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, go to the File tab (or click the Office button in version 2007) and click Options, then go to Advanced and check the box next to Show text boundaries:

When columns are only part of your document

But what if only part of your document consists of multiple columns?

If you go back to the Columns dialog box (via Layout > Columns > More Columns), 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.

But what if you want to insert a two- or three- (or more-) column block of text into the middle of a one-column, normal document?

You may want to use a slightly different procedure, depending on whether you're creating a brand-new document or you're inserting a multi-column layout into the middle of an existing single-column document. You're using the same dialog box, but if you're editing an existing document and placing a multi-column layout in the middle, you'll need to take a couple of extra precautions to ensure you don't inadvertently create a formatting nightmare.

Inserting multi-columns into a new document

Let's say you're typing along in a brand-new document and decide that the next bit of text needs to be in two (or more) columns. There's no text after the point where your cursor is right now, so you can switch back to single-column format once you get done inserting the multi-column section.

If you go back to the Columns dialog box (via Layout > Columns > More Columns), 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.

Inserting columns into the middle of an existing document

If you're editing an existing document and you want to insert a multi-column layout somewhere in the middle of text you've already got typed, the "this point forward" method may result in a temporary and fixable but still infuriating mess. 

Here's how to avoid it: Insert section breaks before and after the point at which you want to insert your columns:

... then in Apply to:, choose This section instead:

Here's a video demonstration:

Video: Inserting a column into the middle of an existing document (without creating a mess)

How do you see yourself using Columns in your documents?

How do you see yourself using columns in your documents?

About the author 

Deborah Savadra

I spend an inordinate amount of my time playing with computers and attempting to explain technology to lawyers and law office staff. It's not always easy, but someone's got to do it.

  1. Kudos for focusing on exactly the right questions on using Word in a law practice, and thank you for such simple explanations.

  2. Hi found it confusing as the mac is different for text boundaries.

    in page layout Word menu/ prefs/ view/ text boundaries

    ggod luck
    john

  3. I’d like to have a 2 column page where I use the columns to contain “to do” lists. However, once column 1 of page 1 is filled to the bottom, any additional text begins at the top of column 2 of page 1. I’d prefer that it continue in column 1 on page 2. How do I do this?

    1. In that situation, I’d actually be inclined to use tables rather than columns, since it would give you better control over pagination, etc. (Coincidentally, I’ve got a post on Tables in the works for next week, but in the meantime you can go to http://office.microsoft.com/en-us/word-help/tables-i-create-and-format-basic-tables-RZ001200716.aspx (version 2003) or http://office.microsoft.com/en-us/word-help/insert-or-create-a-table-HA010034300.aspx (versions 2007-2010) for Microsoft training on basic table formatting.)

  4. what about word 2010 that is what I am interested in. No one uses those anymore but 2010 please send new things so I can teach a class

  5. how would I insert a line of text under a three column’s while keeping all the information on one page?

      1. Insert a continuous section break (on the Page Layout tab under Breaks) at the end of the third column, then change the layout to a one-column layout to type your single line.

  6. Hello,
    I created three columns in my resume but I cant seem to go on with my resume because I do not know how to navigate away from the column. Please help. Thanks

    1. Place your cursor after the end of the last column, then go to the Page Layout tab and, under Columns, change it back to a single column but be sure to change the Apply To drop-down to “This Point Forward” so it doesn’t mess up the three-column layout above.

      Columns dialog box

      1. Hi, This was so long ago, hopefully I get a response! =/
        But I have a similar question in reverse.
        I created three columns in my resume but I can’t seem to go to the top to make my title (name/email/number). I tried using what you said by selecting Single column and “This point forward” But the everything just gets pushed down to the first column =(

        Thank you!

        1. You’re somehow not getting your title text above the first column. Trash the columns, then do the title text, then BE CAREFUL WHERE YOU PLACE YOUR CURSOR when you start the columns. (Personally, I’d use a table for what you’re doing anyway.)

  7. Hi,
    I’m not able to get the single spacing to truly be single spacing, I select “single spacing” but there is still 1.5 (it looks like) spacing between the lines in my column two. Also, part of my text disappears and it’s a guessing game trying to figure out where he end of the line is located since I can’t see the text so that I try to advance it out to where it can be seen. How do I address this? Finally when you say
    “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:”

    This is great but where is the “tools” button you’re referring to? I’m using word 2007 and I’ve searched under all tabs and I cannot find it.
    Thanks

    1. @Terry:

      (1) The “single spacing” problem could be any number of things. I would suggest going to the Paragraph Format dialog box (click the “launcher” arrow in the lower right-hand corner of the Paragraph section of the Home tab) and checking not only the line spacing, but also the “between paragraph” spacing:

      Word paragraph dialog box

      (2) Sorry — I failed to update the instructions for the ribbon-based versions of Word for that instruction! To get to what used to be Tools | Options, click the Office Button (in the upper left-hand corner of your Word window) and go to Advanced:

      Text boundaries

  8. Hey, thanks for the brief, yet useful explanation.

    I am making a document, and I want page 1 to consist of only one column while the rest of the pages consist of two. When I am at the top of page two and switch the number of columns to two, page 1 changes as well. Can anyone help me with that?

    1. Be sure that when you switch to two columns, you choose ‘this point forward’ rather than ‘entire document’ in the dialog box.

  9. How come when I go and create my columns, they aren’t showing up on my document? I am creating an inventory listing and need 5 columns.

  10. So I created a resume on an app from my phone which created a pdf document. I used a converter to make it a word document. On the skills portion of my resume, I intended to make a 3 column section. However, it is 3 sections but going down the page. I cannot for the life of me, reformat it to be 3 columns without the rest of the resume going bonkers. Any ideas? Please?? I love this resume and am not sure how else to go about it.

    1. Turn on Show/Hide (the button that looks like a paragraph symbol in the middle of the Home tab) and check to see that the breaks that were inserted were column breaks and not page/section breaks.

    1. It sounds like there’s a section break below that fourth line that ends the column setup in the middle of the page, which is forcing all subsequent text into column #2. What do you see when you turn on Show/Hide (the paragraph symbol button in the middle of the Home tab)?

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