Word: Adding Structure to Documents (Intermediate)

If you’ve ever filled out a form in Word, you’ve likely encountered form content that moved all over the page when you tried to fill it in. I’ve tried using forms that were so difficult I resorted to printing them out and filling them in with a typewriter. But that was back when a typewriter was standard office equipment. These days, I simply recreate the form so I can fill it in electronically. Yes, you read that correctly, I simply recreate the form. Creating a fill-in-the-blanks form in Word that can be filled out electronically is actually pretty simple once you learn the form creation tips and tricks in this blog post.

Learning the Concepts

Before we dive into form creation, there are a couple concepts that need to be understood first. The first concept is a Word document is a container without structure. It’s similar to a large storage cabinet that has no shelves or other means to keep it organized. For most documents, this is exactly what we want. As we add and remove content, we want the document to automatically reflow. But when it comes to filling out a form, we want everything surrounding what we’re filling in to remain stationary. In order to accomplish that, we need to add structure to the document. Just like how shelves and containers are used in a storage cabinet to keep everything in a dedicated place.

The second concept is all characters use both horizontal and vertical space even though they may not print. For example, each time the spacebar or tab key is pressed a character is inserted. These characters are no different from those that print. In fact, they’re called nonprinting characters and, like characters that print, they require a specific amount of space.

TipTo view nonprinting characters, press CTRL+Shift+8 or click the button with a paragraph symbol ( ¶ ) on the Home tab, in the Paragraph group.

Another common character that’s used to create fill-in-the-blank “lines” is the underscore. As noted above, every character uses horizontal and vertical space. Even though space above an underscore appears empty, it requires vertical space. If we can’t type over the top portions of characters we can see, like the letter M, then we can’t type over the top portion of an underscore. And if you’ve ever tried to type on a “line” that was created using the underscore you quickly discovered the “line” moved and you couldn’t type on top of it.

Adding Structure

The best way to add structure to a document is to use a table. You may think of a table as a fixed bordered grid of columns and rows that are typically used for lists of data. But that’s not the case when it comes to using tables for form development, or for any document that needs structure for that matter. Tables are also used as a layout tool with the border formatting removed and are called borderless tables. They’re used to position content on a page, such as to prevent data in a form from moving all over the page when it’s filled in later. When you first create a table it will have printed borders, but those are easily removed. And while working in the document, you’ll be able to see nonprinting dashed table gridlines.

TipTo turn the table gridlines on or off , use the Gridlines button in the Tables group on the Table Tools Layout tool tab.

To insert a table, follow these steps:

  1. On the Insert Tab, click Table.
  2. Do one of the following:
    • Drag through the desired rows and columns using the grid.
    • If your form is an odd shape, click Draw Table. First draw the desired table height and width, then draw the desired columns and rows. Press the ESC key when you’re finished drawing the table.

As previously noted, when you first create your table it will have formatted borders. To remove the border formatting from a table, select the table and on the Table Tools Design tab, click Borders, and then click No Border. If you want to add “lines” to your form, add a bottom border to the table cell. To quickly add them, on the Table Tools Design tab, in the Borders group, click Border Painter and then click the bottom border of each cell that needs a line. To turn off the Border Painter, press the ESC key.

If you’re creating a fill-in-the-blanks form, make sure there is a separate cell for each “line” of the form that will be filled in later. As an example, if the form needs to look something like this:

Customer Name:  _________________
Address:  _______________________

You need to create a two column by two row table. Place the Customer Name and Address labels in separate table rows and leave an empty cell to the right of each label with a bottom cell border for data entry, as shown below. (The dashed lines are the table gridlines and do not print.)


Here’s a more advanced form, also with the table gridlines displayed.

Tips for using the table tools on the Table Tools Layout tab

  • To create table cells that are not uniform use the Merge and Split tools. For example, if one table row needs 4 columns and another needs 6 table columns you can split table cells into additional columns. Or, if the first row is one large column, such as for a centered form title, you can select all of the cells in the row and merge them. (In the above form example, all of the cells for Attendance Record were merged into a single cell.)
  • To allow your table to automatically increase or decrease in width if the page margins or width of the paper is changed, in the Cell Size group, click AutoFit and then click AutoFit Window. This option sets the width of the table and columns to a percentage measurement instead of an inches or centimeters measurement. I use this option whenever I need to create a form for both Letter and A4 paper size. I start with the Letter size form. When it’s complete, I change the paper size to A4 and save it as a different file. Very little, if any, additional editing is required since the table automatically resizes.
  • To add additional rows or columns, use the Insert options in the Rows & Columns group.

TipIf you’re using Word 2013 or Word 2016, to add new rows or columns, point to the left of the table between two rows or above the table between two columns. Watch for the on-screen rinsertion indicator to appear, and then click the indicator to insert a new row or column.

  • If creating a fill-in-the-blanks form, set the alignment of all table cells to the bottom. The Align Bottom Left, Align Bottom Center, or Align Bottom Right alignment options are in the Alignment group.
  • To prevent data from being moved down the page if a the Enter key is pressed, which is fairly common in fill-in-the-blank forms, set the row height to an exact measurement. To do so, select the table rows, in the Table group, click Properties, on the Row tab, select the Specify Height option, in the size box, type 12 pt or 24 pt, and then from the drop down for Row Height Is, select Exactly. You can use any row height. I use 12 pts (0.17”) for single spaced forms and 24 pts (0.33”) for double spaced forms. Note that this will not prevent the usage of the Enter key, it only prevents the form data from becoming misaligned, since the table row will not increase in height.

Additional tips when using Word tables for layout

  • If there is no additional text after the table, use a 1pt font size for the paragraph mark following the table and remove all spacing before and after the paragraph mark. This is to prevent the extra paragraph mark from creating a blank page.
  • You can resize the width of cell without changing the width of the cells above or below it. An example of cells that need different widths is the previous Customer Name and Address example. The Customer Name cell would be wider than the Address cell. To resize a single cell, place your mouse pointer in the bottom left corner of the cell, watch for a diagonal black arrow to display, and click to select the cell. Then drag the right edge of the column to resize it.

You can use borderless tables for a variety of layout needs. Whenever you need to keep content together or in a specific location, consider using a table. Just the other day I used a small table with two rows for a floating picture and caption. I placed the picture in one row and the caption in the other. This way, if the table is moved, the picture and caption will stay together. Other layout examples are parallel side-by-side columns, newsletters, resumes, brochures, flyers, cover pages—anything that needs structure, needs to be in a table.

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