From the Archives: Tabs and Indents

e-StyleKeeping columns of text aligned can be a challenge. Proportional fonts make it impossible to use the spacebar to straighten a line. It might look perfect on the screen, but all over the place when you print it. Take heart! Forget the spacebar and put your word processor’s tools to work for you. Here’s how.

Let’s start with indented paragraphs. By taking advantage of the styles feature in your word processor, you can have indented paragraphs without lifting a finger. In Microsoft Word, most paragraphs are automatically styled with the “Normal” style. A few quick modifications will automatically indent each paragraph and add a bit of white space between each paragraph to provide even more definition. To get started, open your styles palette (Word 2003: click the Styles and Formatting button in the formatting toolbar; Word 2008: open the Styles pane in the Formatting Palette). Select the Normal style then choose the Modify Style command.

A window similar to this (this example uses Word 2008 for Mac) appears showing the current settings for the Normal style. At the bottom of the pane, choose the Paragraph option from the Format menu.

On the Indents and Spacing section of the Paragraph pane, I’ve chosen First Line from the Special menu and set a measurement for how much I want each first line indented. Notice too that in the Spacing section, I’ve added a 12 point space after each paragraph. I’m using a 12 point font so this is the equivalent of one blank line. In the Preview area, you can see what your format changes will look like before you commit to them. Once you press the OK button, your style is updated and everything in your document styled with that style will also be updated. An example of my results are displayed here. Now, every time I press Return to end a paragraph, a blank line will be added and the new paragraph indented for me automatically.


While tabs are no longer needed to indent paragraphs, they do still have many uses. Most word processing applications offer multiple tab types: left, center, right and decimal. Word offers what they call a bar tab which will draw a vertical bar at the tab stop. This can be used to draw boxes or tables, but there are other options available that are much easier to manage. Below are examples of the left tab, center tab, right tab with dotted leader and the decimal tab. Notice that the leader only functions from the next closest tab – in this case the center tab.

You are probably asking, “Isn’t the decimal tab the nearest tab?” Not in this case because the tab wasn’t added until I moved down to the line where it actually appears. Tab settings take effect at the point of the cursor when you set the tab. If you set tabs before you start typing your document, those tabs will be in effect throughout the document. You can set a new tab at any point while you’re typing and it will be functional from there on down. When dealing with text that has already be typed, you must first select all the content that will be affected by the new tabs before you set them.

Tabs and indents are easy to use once you know how they work. Take a few minutes to experiment with these features and you’ll soon find they become second nature.

2 thoughts on “From the Archives: Tabs and Indents

  1. I really appreciate all the “how-to” articles,” I keep them in a special go-to folder that I can always learn from. For someone who just learned to put pictures on my pages, I have a lot to learn. But you can teach old dogs new tricks and thank goodness for grandchildren.


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