My top Word tips


  • Edit and use the heading styles from the outset as this will save you so much time and effort.
  • Caption all of your objects in your document, but whatever you do avoid doing it manually.
  • Cross-referencing is a good way of referring to figures and tables in your text so familiarise yourself with this feature.
  • If you’ve got a large document, a table of contents is a must. But to insert one you must first apply heading styles to all of your main headings.
  • Shortcuts are priceless so learn them early on to make your task as efficient as possible.

Microsoft Word is undoubtedly one of the most well-known word-processing software out there. It’s been around since 1983 and I don’t see it going anywhere any time soon. You can find this app in every home and business around the world, but do we really know how powerful it truly is? I’ve been using MS Word for most of my life, I used it to write many coursework, dissertations and even these blogs. I’m going to share with you some handy tips that I’ve learnt over the years that can help you get the most out of Word and make your document-writing time a lot less stressful. I’ll be referring to the MS Word that comes with Microsoft Office Home and Student 2016. Let’s begin.

Image of the Microsoft Word ribbon tabs
The MS Word ribbon tabs contain countless commands so take some time to explore and experiment with each one.


Styles make documents. I didn’t learn this straight away. When I was a novice, I simply typed some text and pressed the return key to start the next paragraph. There’s nothing wrong with that, but what about headings and subheadings? There’s more to it than typing a heading and then increasing the font size and highlighting the text and selecting ‘Bold’.

But let’s start with the basics. When you open MS Word, you’re presented with a blank page and at the very top are a series of ribbon tabs: File, Home, Insert, Design, Layout, etc. Click on the Home tab for example, and you’ll see a bunch of commands grouped into different sections: Clipboard, Font, Paragraph, Styles and Editing. In the Styles box, you can see all of the various styles including Normal, No Space, Heading 1, Heading 2, Heading 3, Title, etc. You can see more styles by expanding the Styles box, just click on the arrow icon on the bottom right-hand corner or you can simply click on the downward-facing arrow to scroll through all of the options.

You can edit each heading in the Styles section to have whatever font, font size, font effects, etc. that you well please. This is how you do it:

  1. Hover your cursor over the heading that you want to edit e.g. Heading 1 and right-click.
  2. A menu box should appear, click on ‘Modify…’.
  3. Now a dialogue box appears where you can begin to edit your heading style to match your preferences. For beginners, everything you need should be on this dialogue box but take your time to explore some of the menus and options.
  4. Once you’re done, click ‘Ok’ and the dialogue box closes and automatically saves the changes.
  5. To apply your new style to the text, simply highlight the text you want to apply the style to and then click on the style in the Style sections, in this case, Heading 1. That’s it.

Using headings from the Styles section is a great way to break up the text for your readers into manageable chunks. Whenever I’m writing a scientific manuscript, I’ll go through each of the styles I think I’m going to use and edit them to suit my needs using the above steps. For my manuscript title, I’d use the Title style. For each individual chapter like the abstract, introduction, methods, etc. I’d use Heading 1. If I want to break these chapters down into subsections using subheadings, I’d then use Heading 2.

I recommend going through the above steps for other styles you’re likely to use like Normal, Heading 2, Heading 3 and Captions.


Captions are important. They’re that short line of text that describes what’s going on in a figure or a table.

Suppose you have an image in your document that you want to caption. Rather than inserting regular text to serve as the caption, you can add a caption by right-clicking on the image to make a menu appear. On this menu, click on ‘Insert Caption…’ to reveal a dialogue box. In this dialogue box under ‘Options’, there is a ‘Label’ dropdown menu where you can select the type of object you want to caption such as a figure or table. Now you can either type the text into the box under ‘Caption’ in the dialogue box and click ‘Ok’ to insert the caption to your figure/table. Alternatively, once you’ve got the caption dialogue box up you can simply click ‘Ok’ and Figure 1 will appear below your image, for example. Then you can insert the caption text next to the label in the main body text.

Image of the Microsoft Word caption dialogue box
Use captions to tell your readers what they are looking at in a concise description.

Another way to access the caption dialogue box is by clicking on the References ribbon tab. Go over to the Captions section and click on ‘Insert Caption’, et voila.

The great thing about captioning your figures and tables this way is if you have a rather large document containing several figures, for example, and you decide to reorder or delete these items Word will automatically resequence the label text. So, if you have dozens of figures and tables, you won’t have to go through each caption label and renumber as Word has kindly done this for you.

You can also edit the caption in the same way as your heading styles. Simply go to the Styles section on the Home ribbon tab and scroll to the very end of the Styles list until you reach the Caption style. Now, just follow the above steps to make any changes to the caption text.


This feature is something that was not immediately obvious to me but is immensely useful when typing large documents. It works like this: say for example you want to refer to a figure in your text. You could simply type “Figure 2 shows the following…”, but what if you decide to delete Figure 1? Now Figure 2 becomes the new Figure 1. Sure, you could just renumber the figure reference in the main body text, but what if you have countless figures and pages to sift through? This is where cross-referencing comes into play.

To insert a cross-reference, click on the References ribbon tab and go over to the Captions section. At the bottom right-hand corner of the ‘Insert Caption’ icon is the ‘Insert cross-reference’ icon (the icon looks like one page on top of another with a red line on either page with an arrow pointing from the page on top to the page beneath). Click on the ‘Insert cross-reference’ icon and a dialogue box will appear. In this dialogue box, you can select the reference type e.g., figure, table, etc. so take your time to explore all of the different options. If you select ‘Figure’ as your reference type, you can then go to the ‘Insert reference to:’ dropdown menu and choose whether you want to insert the entire caption; only label and number; only caption text; page number; or above/below.

Personally, I always go for only label and number as this will add the figure label and number to the main body text. Once, everything is set you can click ‘Insert’ which will automatically close the dialogue box and insert the cross-reference in the main body text as a hyperlink.

Image of the cross-referencing command in Microsoft Word
It’s rare that I see cross-referencing used in a Word document, but it’s a versatile command that is hugely underutilised.

Table of contents

If you’re compiling a rather large document then you’ll need a table of contents to help guide your readers. It also gives a preview to the reader so they know exactly what’s ahead of them. You can add one of these quite easily with Word without having to input one manually which is highly ill-advised. It’s important that you have applied heading styles like Heading 1, Heading 2, etc. to your main headings. If you haven’t done this, you won’t be able to generate a table of contents the easy way.

To insert the table of contents, click on the References ribbon tab, go to the Table of Contents section. Click on the ‘Table of Contents’ icon and you’ll see some generic table of content choices, pick one and it will appear in the main body text. You can insert the table of contents anywhere, but it’s best placed towards the beginning of your document.

Image of the table of contents command in Microsoft Word
A table of contents is a great way to summarise the contents of your document and can be inserted with relative ease.

Handy shortcuts

I wish I knew these shortcuts 20 years ago because it would have made my life so much easier. Shortcuts will allow you to execute a command without having to sift through the various ribbon tabs. Rather, you can press a combination of keys on your keyboard to execute a command. Here are some of my essential shortcuts for Window users:

ShortcutWhat does it do
Ctrl+CCopies the highlighted content
Ctrl+XCuts the highlighted content
Ctrl+VPastes the content that you have copied/cut
Ctrl+ZUndoes previous action (this is a lifesaver)
Ctrl+YRedoes previous action
Ctrl+FOpens a navigation box where you can search certain keywords in your document
Ctrl+ASelect everything in your document

For more handy shortcuts, visit this link.

What do you think?

Do you think I’ve missed something? Do you need proofreading, editing, course designing, grant proposal writing or consultancy services? I’d love to hear from you, so get in touch

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Naser Al-Mufachi
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