Microsoft Word nightmares, and how you can fix them

Here are five common Word disasters that can ruin a good night's sleep--and what you can do to fix them. The advice below works in both Word 2007 and Word 2010.

Microsoft Word can keep you up all night, and not only because you've got writer's block. You change the font, and Word changes it back. The columns don't line up. The program freezes up, taking your work with it. Here are five common Word disasters that can ruin a good night's sleep--and what you can do to fix them. The advice below works in both Word 2007 and Word 2010.

1. Word fails to load

You load your word processor, and it either freezes up or closes down.

Chances are that your Normal template (normal.dotm) has been corrupted. Replacing it with a backup or letting Word recreate it from scratch will probably get things working again.

The first thing that you'll need to do is to open the Template folder. This will probably do the trick: with Word closed, click Start (or Start, Run in Windows XP), and then type %appdata%\microsoft\templates, and press Enter.

If you've customised Word considerably – changing styles or writing macros – a restored backup is your best bet. Windows 7 users may be able to do this even if they haven't been consciously backing up. Right-click the file Normal.dotx (or Normal.dotm) and select Restore previous versions. Try restoring one of the versions that comes up and see if it helps.

If a backup doesn’t help, rename the Normal.dotm file. It doesn't matter what you name it. ‘Abnormal’ will do. When you relaunch Word, it will create a new Normal.dotm file containing Microsoft's default settings.

Depending on how corrupt your Normal template is, you may still be able to load it after Word is up. In Word, click the Office orb (Word 2007) or the File ribbon tab (Word 2010), and click New. Select My templates, then Abnormal (or whatever you named the file).

If the new document you just created doesn't crash Word, you can continue to use Abnormal.

2. Word crashed – and took my work with it

Like every other computer program ever written, Word occasionally crashes. So does Windows, which takes Word down with it. And hardware can crash too, taking both down. But how much will you actually lose and how can you lessen this disaster?

Word saves your documents in two ways. Use them both wisely, and you'll minimise the loss when disaster hits.

First, there's manual file-saving – press Ctrl-s and save the file. Do it when you get up to stretch, when you pause for a thought, or when you write a good sentence. There, I just did it.

But since saving this way depends on your work habits, it's not entirely reliable (no offense intended). Luckily, Word has AutoRecover.

If you're using Word 2007, click the Office orb, then Word Options. Word 2010 users click the File ribbon tab, then Options in the left pane. Click Save in the left pane. Make sure ‘Save AutoRecover every n minutes’ is checked.

You can change the number of minutes between autorecover saves: I prefer 5 to the default 10. Word 2010 users should also check ‘Keep the last autosaved version’ if it's not already checked.

At the set intervals, AutoRecover saves your document. When you close a document or exit Word properly, the file is deleted. That's important to remember – these files are temporary and are no substitute for the file that you save manually.

But should Word, Windows, or your hardware crash, you'll be glad it's still there. Bring up Word, without loading a document, and a document recovery pane on the left will let you pick between the last AutoRecover and the last regular Save. Pick the one saved last.

3. My columns don't line up

Ever try to lay out a page where the text on the left has to line up vertically with the text on the right? For instance, a résumé, where the word Experience in the left column lines up with the top of several paragraphs listing past jobs.

Most people try to set up this type of layout either with tabs or with Word's Columns feature. Both approaches guarantee needless busywork and headaches. You can spend an hour getting everything laid out perfectly, then realize that you need to add one sentence, throwing everything off.

The solution: Use a table.

On the Insert ribbon, pull down the Table icon and select your preferred number of columns/one row.

This will make the table appear, but you don't want it to look like a table.

Two more ribbons will appear, in a section called "Table Tools." Click this section's Design tab. Pull down the Table Styles panel by clicking the line and arrow icon in its lower-right corner, and select Clear.

If the table disappears entirely, click the Layout ribbon in the Table Tools section, then click View Guidelines to see the table (it won't print).

You can drag the vertical line separating columns to make each the right size.

Navigating the table is simplest using Tab to jump from column to column and row to row. Pressing Enter will insert a new line in the current row.

4. The default font will not die

You don't like Word's out-of-the-box default font – it may be 11-point Calibri--so you change it. The next time you start a new document, it's 11-point Calibri.

The trick is knowing where to change the font once and for all. Make the change in the Normal template, and it will stick.

Start a new document. On the Home tab, in the Styles section, right-click the Normal box and select Modify. Change the font in this dialog box, then click New documents based on this template before clicking OK.

If you use other templates, you may have to change the default font in those templates, as well.

5. You need to reformat these paragraphs – but not those

You created a document in 12-point Bookman Old Style. To make the subheadings stand out, they're also bold and underlined. But your boss wants them in 14-point bolded Arial. You could go through the entire document and change them manually, but that's a real pain.

If you use styles wisely – so that all your subheadings are Heading 2, for example – you've got multiple changes covered.

Go to one of the subheadings – it doesn't matter which one. Select the paragraph, and change the formatting in whatever way you wish. Then right-click the paragraph, select Styles, then Update style name to Match Selection. For instance, if your subheadings use the Heading 2 style, you'd select Styles, then Update Heading 2 to Match Selection.

If you didn't use styles to begin with, things are more difficult. (And you'll probably use styles from now on.) You need to replace the formatting that currently defines subheadings with a style. You can do this with Find and Replace.

Press Ctrl-h for the Find and Replace dialog box. Leave both the 'Find what' and 'Replace with' fields blank. If there's a More button in the lower left corner, click it.

Click the Format pull-down menu button. Select the options for the formatting that currently distinguish the headers. For instance, with our bold-and-underlined example, select Format, Font. For Font style, select Bold.

For the Underline style, select the appropriate option. With the cursor in the 'Replace with' field, click Format, then Style. Select the appropriate style, such as Heading 2, then click Replace All.

Now that your subheaders have their own unique style, you can use the instructions described above to change them, and only them.

When you're processing words, you shouldn't have to worry about things like formatting and protecting your files. You should be free to concentrate on the really difficult parts of the job, like coming up with a good closing paragraph.

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Lincoln Specter

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