Microsoft Word Lesson 5: Setting Tab Stops and Show Formatting

Microsoft Word Lesson 5: Setting Tab Stops and Show FormattingIf you’ve been following along with our Word lessons, our letter is almost finished — there are just a few last things to make sure our Microsoft Word layout looks perfect and professional. For example, in this lesson we will add a “Reference” line and work with tabs.

Microsoft Word Layout: Showing and Understanding Formatting with Tabs

If you haven’t been keeping up with the previous Microsoft Word lessons, this lesson can still stand alone. However, if you want to review any of our previous steps, here are the links:

Now, without further ado, let’s get started on the final component to our finished Microsoft Word layout!

Reference Line

When you send a letter, you want your recipient to know immediately why you are writing. Your reference may be an account number or previous correspondence. Regardless of what it is, your reference line goes just above the salutation, our “Dear John.”

Open your document with Home tab>Open and click on your letter. (This should be second nature by now.) Then click just before the “D” in “Dear John:” and press enter twice. Cursor back up twice to the nice big empty space we just made. Type “Reference:” but do not hit enter yet! Just leave your cursor to the right of the colon.

View Tab and Ruler

microsoft word layout

Click on the View tab. This has commands to change our view of our document on the computer monitor. It does not have any commands which change the actual Microsoft Word layout or how the document prints on our printer.

The Layout tab controls how our document prints. Click on Layout tab to see the Page Setup, Paragraph and Arrange sections. Those are all about the paper printout.

Go back to the View tab and look at the Views, Page Movement, Show, Zoom, Window and Macros sections. Again, these have nothing to do with paper or printing. For right now, I want to make sure your Word looks like my Word. In the View tab>Show section, Ruler should be checked. If it is checked, you will see inch marks above your document, which I highlighted yellow.


Looking at the ruler, you can see those little triangle and other shapes on the 0” and 6.5” marks on the ruler. Those are your margins. If you learned to type on a typewriter, you’ll remember squeezing those little plastic guides and moving them, so you had 1” margins on the right and left. This is just like that.

If we were to change the margins after we have typed our document we would need to select “all” of it first, right? Ctrl-A to select all, then drag your right margin icon from 6.5” to 6”. Notice that your name and address moved to the left, since the center of your document changed. Move the little right margin icon back to 6.5”, and the centering will correct itself.

microsoft word layout


We have talked about the Microsoft ribbon tabs, such as File, Home, and View, but now we will be talking about the tab settings for your document. Do you see the tab button on your keyboard? This advances your cursor from tab stop to tab stop in your document. Word has automatically placed tab stops every 1/2” as soon as you create a document.

Let’s see, we left our cursor just to the right of the colon you typed after the word “Reference.” Make sure it is still there. Now look up at the ruler, and notice that the word “Reference” is longer than 1/2” so we need to set a new tab.

microsoft word layout

Click on the 1” mark on your ruler to create a left tab stop, which looks like a little “L” on your ruler. We did not select a range first, so the tab setting is only for the current line with “Reference:”

You’ve set your 1” tab stop, so with your cursor at the end of “Reference:” press the Tab key. Your cursor will jump to the 1” mark. Type the words “Account Number” and any pretend number, such as “1234567.”

Now press enter, and look at your ruler. Word still remembers our tab stop, because the formatting was saved in that line, and we pressed Enter while we were on that line. Hopefully, that will make more sense later.

Press tab again, and enter more details for our reference, such as “Reading Club.” Notice that as soon as you hit tab, your cursor jumped to the 1” spot.

Click down to the “Dear John:” line and the tab mark on the ruler disappears. Cursor back up to the two reference lines, and it is saved there in that section of our document.

Types of Tab Stops

Let’s go back to the Home tab, because we formed that habit, right? On the left of the Word screen, just below the ribbon commands, you should see the little “L” left tab icon.

microsoft word layout

Click on that “L” icon, and it changes to the Center tab icon. The words “Center Tab” appear when you hover your mouse. Click it again, and it turns into the Right tab icon, which aligns everything to the right instead of the left. One more and you’ll get an icon with a decimal point. That is a Decimal tab which aligns all your numbers on the decimal point. Click through the rest until you return to the “L” Left Tab. Just like returning to the Home tab, always return to the Left tab when setting your ruler.

Decimal Tab

Let’s add two rows of information within the body of our letter. Pretend we want to discuss our bills for the Reading Club from January and February.

Click just before the word “Sincerely,” and press Enter twice. Now cursor back up twice. Together, we will set a Left tab on the 1” mark and a Decimal tab on the 5” mark.

First, confirm that the Left tab “L” is showing on the top left. Click until you get it. Click on 1” to set that Left tab. If you miss the 1”, you can drag the Left tab back and forth along the ruler.

microsoft word layout

Now click on the Left tab “L,” past the Right tab symbol until you get to the Decimal tab. Now click the ruler on the 5” mark, and the Decimal tab will appear.

microsoft word layout

Your cursor should still be between our opening sentences and “Sincerely.” Check on the ruler and make sure there is a Left tab on 1” and Decimal tab on 5”. Ready? Press Tab once and type “January.” It will line up on the 1” mark. Press tab again and it will jump over the 5” mark. Type “$10.00.” Press Enter.

Look at the Ruler. Are the tab stops still there? Good. Now press Tab, and type “February.” It will line up with January. Now press Tab and type “5.00”. Word will line up the decimal in “$10.00” and “5.00” for you.

microsoft word layout

Show Formatting

How does Word know remember all these hidden formatting tricks? How do remember where you put a tab and where you just put in a bunch of spaces with the space bar? At first glance, you can’t see any giveaways in your Microsoft Word layout. However, there are little hidden symbols everywhere! In the Home tab>Paragraph section, click the Paragraph “¶” symbol. Suddenly, lots of little symbols are crawling all over your letter. There are arrows and “¶” everywhere, and every space between words is filled with a little dot. I’ve highlighted some in my screenshot.

microsoft word layout

Don’t worry, those symbols don’t print, and we can turn them off, but let’s have a look. The little arrows show us where we pressed “Tab” on our keyboard. Every time we pressed “Enter” Word inserted a Paragraph symbol. Every time we press the Space Bar, there is a dot. These symbols look very confusing, but as you create and edit more complex documents, they will become your friends. If your tabs stop lining up, you can simply “Show Formatting” by clicking “¶.” Turn them off by clicking it again. It is a simple on/off switch. Go ahead, turn them off.

Save and Exit

Click the diskette icon to save your document and Exit. After one more lesson, we’ll have our template and out Microsoft Word layout will be complete!


Was this series helpful in understanding how to make the perfect Microsoft Word layout for your personal and professional use? Let us know what else you want to learn in the comments!

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