Saturday, May 17, 2014

Professionally Formatting a Word Document

Chances are if you work for a company, you may occasionally need to create a document in Microsoft Word, either by taking someone else's document and using it as a template or creating your own from scratch. If you just type things in Word and haven't taken the time to learn how to do it professionally, you are doing yourself a disservice. I've seen documents at different companies that have had pretty bad formatting. They have been passed around over time between 5 or 6 people, copied, pasted, formatting has been updated and adjusted, spaces have been put in where tabs should be, bullets aren't consistent, etc.

You can significantly improve the quality of your work in MS word by putting in a few hours of practice that will pay off over the course of your career. (College students in particular, pay attention to this. The more time you spend learning this stuff now when you have more time to devote to learning, the more time you will save yourself later when you're going to work).

I've always been able to learn a few things from the "For Dummies" books, and this is no exception. (Well, the one exception is with respect to investing. There are a lot of good books on investing outside of this series.) So if you're into having a book to hold in your hands, an investment in Word 2013 For Dummies or 
Word 2010 For Dummies will pay for itself many times over.

If you don't want to use a book, there are a number of different sources/tutorials across the web, particularly on youtube, but they aren't very systematic, meaning they typically only address specific topics you might be searching for help on.

Anyway, if you want my advice, the first thing to focus on if you want to create a professional looking document is styles (link directs you to

Many people have never heard of "Styles" in Word (myself included, until a few years ago), or if you've heard of them you might have thought that they were some kind of super advanced thing you never needed to use. Let me tell you right now that you are wrong if you think that. They are actually very easy once you get used to them, and they are essential to creating a professionally formatted document. One of the key things styles allow you to do is ensure consistent formatting throughout your document. Consistency is extremely important because it helps the reader to orient themselves (and helping the reader is important- to quote Strunk and White's The Elements of Style, "you must sympathize with the reader's plight (most readers are in trouble about half the time)"). If all of the section headings look the same, the reader will always know exactly where they stand. Consistent formatting also gives the benefit of looking pleasing to the eye.

Particularly among finance and engineering types, I have noticed an inability to properly use MS Word, but no matter how good your excel models or technical drawings are, if you can't communicate them in a professional looking format, you will be doing yourself a great disservice. 

A few more tips to help you out in Word:

  1. Break your words up with pictures. Use tables, figures, diagrams, and illustrations. Though your prose may be excellent, your report will be more appealing with some figures.
  2. Consistently format these figures. If you are using reasonably sized tables, use MS Word's embedded table function to create tables. They will have the same look and feel and will vastly improve the quality of your document vs. a Frankenstein-like compilation of tables extracted from various excel documents, pdf screenshots etc. It may take time to retype a table into word, but the results are often worth the effort. Also, caption the figures consistently. (by the way, if you need to move rows around in a Word table, try this trick, it changed my life. Even if you don't need to move rows around, try this trick out because I can almost guarantee it will come in handy.)
  3. Use a cover page, particularly for longer reports. The built in cover pages are pretty awesome and you can modify them a bit if needed.
  4. Study other documents. Look around on the web and at different reports you may have on your desk right now. See what works and what doesn't. Academic papers are all usually very consistently formatted and can be used as a basic starter model. If you can get your hands on them, I really like equity analyst research reports from a finance perspective. In particular, the  bigger banks have large, well-paid editing departments that produce some good looking documents. (notice all of the tables in this Goldman report on Apple have a consistent feel).
  5. Don't go overboard. Simpler is often better. Adding a ton of page outlines, header and footer content, colored fills etc... often makes the document look worse.
  6. Learn how to match colors exactly by changing RGB values. Color Cop is an awesome, free tool you can use to exactly match colors in your document to a company logo, picture, or any other color you might find on the web.
I won't lie to you- learning all of this stuff can be a tedious, painful exercise at first. This is why many people don't bother and why it will help set you apart as someone who produces top quality, professional work. You don't have to learn it all at once, but make a consistent effort to dedicate a few hours a week to this and you will definitely notice the results.

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