Screen Shot of Paragraph Tab in Ms Word

Can a good page be designed with Microsoft Word?

If you work with Adobe InDesign every day, this blog post may not interest you, especially if you are part of the design gentry offended by a question that contains both “design” and “Microsoft Word” coming from the commons. Alas, there is much to lament about MS WORD, especially the make-more-work problems. However…

While it does not have the elegance and workhorse qualities of InDesign, one can still get a very well-designed page out of MS Word. A word processing application that now includes some ability to control the look of the page, Word is probably the most popular software for writing documents, used by editors, bricklayers, doctors, waiters, shoe shine entrepreneurs, kids in school, and writers (and are we not ALL writers now?) Some designers may craft their letters in InDesign, but many of us still use Word for letters, design briefs, agendas, teaching outlines, etc.

Metal Type Letterpress Random Letters
Old Metal Letterpress Letters. Photograph by Chris Boswell. iStockPhoto.

Are there design strategies that don’t work well in Word, such as grids, text wrap, rulers, and web writing? Yes, but since so many of us all over the world are using Word as our frequent go-to writing tool, why not use it to the peak of what it is capable and get our words in Word to look better than what the default offers us?

Line Spacing (aka Leading) in Word

In typography, leading (pronounced ledding, rhymes with heading) refers to the distance between the baseline of one line of type and the next. The term comes from the days when typesetters placed by hand thin strips of lead into the presses to increase the vertical distance between lines of type. The term is still used in page layout software such as InDesign. In word processing software, it is usually called line spacing.

For a good annotated image of what metal leading looks like, see James Felici’s photograph where the strip of added lead is flagged in yellow. His article, Just Say “No” to Automatic Leading, is a an excellent explanation of why to eschew the default leading suggestion. Also, if my explanations here are not clear or you want more information, a quick reading of his article may clarify things for you.

Leading is generally measured from baseline to baseline and expressed in points. Changing the leading affects appearance and readability. For example, lines of type jammed closely together or too far apart can be difficult to read, and typefaces with long ascenders and descenders generally read better with increased leading.

Paragraph with tight leading


Paragraph with expanded leading

So, even if it is just a quick snail-mail thank you letter to your grandmother, consider paying attention to leading in order to improve readability of your message. Sometimes the default will work fine. Other times, you may want manual control. To get manual control of line spacing in Word, go to the drop-down menu for Format > Paragraph > Indents and Spacing, and you will find the panel where you can control line spacing and other parameters.

If you are changing the leading for text already in the Word document, remember to select (highlight) all the text that you want changed. 

Change the line spacing to “Exactly” and determine the point size for leading. A good start is to add 2 points to the text size. So if your text size is 11, try setting the “Line Spacing” at 13 or 14 points.

The dialogue boxes for “Spacing” indicate how much white space will be “Before” the paragraph and how much space “After.” A good start for paragraphs set at 11 points and not indented is to enter zero for “Before” the start of the paragraph and 6 points for “After” the paragraph.

If you are indenting paragraphs, you may want to also set “After” to zero.

Paragraph Dialogue Box In Word
Paragraph dialogue box In MS Word Go to Format > Paragraph
Your Choice

Your choice of typeface family, letter spacing, text alignment, background color, text color, line length, and written copy—all of these choices will affect the line spacing requirements. While you can find mathematical rules to follow (typesetters, printers, and writers have been looking at these issues since before the 1400s and Gutenberg’s press), setting good line spacing (the best for readability) is matter of aesthetic judgement and personal reading preferences, based on who our potential readers will be as well as history: what we know about how people of different times, cultures, and alphabets read texts.

Chart of Handy Leading Rules

  1. Craig, James. Basic Typography: A Design Manual. Formerly Phototypesetting: A Design Manual. New York: Watson-Guptill, 1990.
  2. Craig, James and Irene Korol Scala. Designing with Type: A Basic Course in Typography (5th ed). New York Watson-Guptill, 2006.
  3. Felici, James.  Just Say “No” to Automatic Leading. Creative  Accessed April 26. 2015.
  4. Haley, Alex. Point Size Is Different from X-Height. Fontology at Accessed April 26, 2015.
  5. Scocca, Tom. Death to Word: It’s Time to Give Up on Microsoft’s Word Processor. Accessed April 26, 2015.
  6. Wilson, Mark. Why Microsoft Word Really Sucks: It Was Invented in a Paper-Powered World… Will Word 15 Turn Things Around? Accessed April 26, 2015.

© 2015 Barbara Kristaponis

2 thoughts on “Between the Lines with Word

  1. For more detailed instructions for line spacing in MS Word, you could try : and other on-line tutorials. There are a lot of excellent step-by-step instructions online but be sure to check the version. If your version of MS Office is older than 2010, be sure to google for that version as there were major changes once the “ribbon” was introduced. Hope this is helpful.


  2. i wanted to get into the practical details and explanations of what to do rather than details about typesetting. perhaps if that part came later after i read about how to go about changes and what the effect would be…in general the instructions seemed glossed over and the typography information emphasized–suspect this is what interests you more…


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