4 tips for writing well structured & simple to navigate Microsoft Word documents

It struck me recently when collaborating on documents that we all go about creating documents differently and there’s some great time saving features Word has to make navigating and restructuring your document fast and simple that you might be missing out on.

Often when I start writing a document I try to break the document down into the sections I think it will need. What are going to be my main sections, and then how will I break each of those sections up? I don’t worry too much about getting it right first go, it’s more about getting the ideas out of my head and onto the screen. With these tips you’ll find it really simple to continually restructure your document as it takes shape.

Tip #1 Using heading styles

Using the built-in heading styles is fundamental to structuring your document into sections (and sub-sections) so that Word “understands” the hierarchy of your structure.

You can use the Styles group in the ribbon to assign the built in heading styles, which are called Heading 1, Heading 2, Heading 3, Heading 4 …)

My preferred approach however is the keyboard shortcut – just use CTRL+ALT+<the number corresponding to heading level>.

For example if you want to apply Heading 1 style, put your cursor on the line and press CTRL+ALT+1, for Heading 2 style it’s CTRL+ALT+2

Also don’t use Heading 1 for the title of your document, use the Title style instead.

Tip #2 Viewing your document structure

Once you’ve got a few headings in your document you will be able to see the structure taking shape by showing the Navigation Pane. The Navigation Pane can be opened from the ribbon or keyboard shortcut CTRL+F

The Navigation Pane “understands” those built-in heading styles and shows the headings in a hierarchical manner. Each level of heading is shown indented below its parent heading. The pane allows you to expand/collapse the structure and even set how many levels deep you want to view in the Navigation pane. All this adds up to an experience where you can see the whole structure of your document at all times while you are working on different parts of the document (even as it starts to get quite large). I find this really helps keep you focused on the section you are currently writing as you have instant visibility as to where that section fits within the hierarchy of the whole document.

Tip #3 Navigating quickly around a large document

Here’s where the Navigation Pane starts to really shine. Not only does it give you an ever present visualisation of your document structure, it’s also interactive. Simply click on any level heading and you are immediately taken to that place in your document. This is the fastest way I’ve found to jump around your document and get to the place you want to be – your mouse wheel will thank you.

Tip #4 Rearranging your document structure

Time for that Navigation Pane to flex it’s muscles even further. It makes restructuring the headings (sections) of your document super simple. Once you start writing content for one of your sections you start to think that section would make more sense higher up in the document. No sweat, just drag and drop that section in the Navigation Pane – as if by magic, the whole section (heading and all the content) is moved for you.

Directly in the Navigation Pane you can also Promote/Demote headings (i.e. change their level).

Now we have the tools to quickly and easily restructure the document as it organically takes shape.

By using these tips I find that I put more focus and thought into the structure of my documents, which results in me being about to write the actual content faster and with less procrastinating (because I know where it fits in the larger story I’m trying to tell). All that thinking and focus on structure also has a huge benefit – it increases the clarity of your document and makes it far more readable.

I hope these tips help you write incredible documents!


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