While the complexity is built upon basic elements, the importance of the single fundamental part sometimes gets lost once the complex structure is in place.

Lately, I have met assistants who are probably very efficient at event management or capable of representing their Executive in M&A negotiations or handle complex business and personal agendas.

However, some of them have no clue how to format a document to make it readable, structured, and easy to print. And some others are stupefied when expected to create a simple finance sheet. All this while stating “Proficient MS Office skills “in their resumes.

Here are 13 essential skills for working with documents every EA should master fluently.

1. Formatting space between paragraphs and titles

Paragraph spacing is used to separate the paragraphs from each other (and headings and subheadings, for that matter).

Whenever a return is used to create it (i.e. you insert two returns before starting typing the next paragraph), it can lead to troubles with the document afterwards. For example, suppose you print the copy later on a page size different to initially used. In that case, the paragraphs, headings and subheadings might move, changing the formatting structure and making the document less readable. Another possible outcome is that the spaces will not look equal in the final version.

2. Page and section break

The page break separates content between pages. The section break splits the document into sections, allowing the creator to apply different formatting to each section, including variable headers and footers.

Suppose you use the return to insert page breaks. Your document formatting might get messed up when you remove or add another paragraph somewhere in the text, change margin setup or simply font size.

3. Aligning elements on the page

Whenever you need to align several text elements on the page or introduce paragraph indent, you might feel tempted to use the space bar.

The problem with this method is that each letter takes a different space on the page, so the structure you create is seldom aligned. Another problem is that the alignment is lost each time you change the font, size, line spacing, or other document formatting elements. Tabs have a pre-defined length (which can also be adjusted for your specific needs). The alignment will not be affected by the formatting changes in the future.

4. Table of contents

Whenever your document gets extended over few overseeable pages or covers several topics, it is helpful to create a table of contents to easily access the necessary information. You want to use the automated version of the table of contents offered by MS Word. It is easily adjustable, and the layout is always aligned.

5. Setting margins

I believe this is one of the most overlooked features in MS Word. Margins can be set wide or narrow, and id directly affects the amount of text you can squeeze into one page.

One tip you would want to keep in mind – avoid narrow margins if there is a chance the document you are preparing might be printed and bound.

6. Printability

And this, in my opinion, is the second most neglected feature when creating text documents.

More often than not, I receive documents I am supposed to print for my Executive, and – I spend time adjusting the formatting instead.

In addition to setting proper margins, try testing whether your document is printable before announcing it done and sending it to the recipient.

It is worth mentioning that the narrow margins combined with the inappropriate line and paragraph spacing settings and unreadable font size can turn 6-pager into 2-pager in no time.

7. Write first, format later

First of all, you concentrate on what you write and minimise the possibility of mistakes in the document. Second – once you are done, you see the whole amount of text in the paper and evaluate what font size and line and paragraph spaces are most suitable. Third – when you format while writing, you risk messing up formatting, which costs you extra time in the end.

8. Page numbers

You would be surprised how many people are not aware of the “different first-page” function or how to use it properly. Word will set the page numbers for you nicely and quickly; just decide where you want to put them – on top or at the bottom of your page.

9. Word count

This built-in function comes in handy when preparing texts for social media or tenders, which might limit you to a certain amount of words in your application. It also does tell you how many pages, characters and paragraphs your text has.

10. Proofing tool

To err is human, and typos are done even by the best of us. Using a proofreading tool will minimise the number of mistakes and typos. The result will be so much more enjoyable.

11. Track changes

Whenever you review, correct, or proofread a document, track changes. Thus the person who receives the version after you can see both the original and the adjusted text. It is simply polite, highly appreciated by lawyers and makes your work visible.

If, like me, you are working with several versions of the documents (and your collaborators don’t track changes), here is an excellent way how to compare several versions.

12. Templates

Working with documentation means you work with tons of different types of documents. However, some are most frequent, like thank you notes, cover letters, HR documents, and agreements. It does not take much time to turn some of these into templates to be used in the future. With some skill, you will have a document with highlighted editable positions to ensure you never forget to change that date or that subject line again.

Built-in templates are highly useful, as well. Take a look whenever you are looking for a template for minutes, travel schedule or business lunch menu – it is all there.

13. Touch-typing

I believe mastering touch-typing is a huge benefit. Not necessarily should it be 10 fingers (here is research that shows that the same results are achieved with less than 10, and I personally use 8). But the efficiency of the output and quality of the texts will increase dramatically. It is also a great way to show off 🙂

Hope you find this helpful, and stay tuned for further posts on Excel and PDF editors.

Disclaimer: I generally refer to MS Word built-in features in the above examples for the ease of reference. However, same or similar features are available in Google Docs and Pages to a certain extent.

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