Tips for Using Microsoft Word to Write Essays

The purpose of this article is to provide some guidance for undergraduates—particularly for first-year students—who aren’t familiar with the different functions of Microsoft Word that they can use for writing their essays at uni. Knowing these shortcuts and tips will make your formatting neater and your overall presentation more professional, and save you time!


Indent paragraphs by going to the ‘Home’ tab then the ‘Paragraph’ menu (not by using the space bar or tab key). Under ‘Indentation’ select ‘First line’. It will automatically set it to 1.27 cm.

Page Breaks

Insert a page break by pressing Ctrl + Enter (or go to the ‘Insert’ tab and select ‘Page break’) rather than using the space bar to do it. Using the Enter key will often result in the new page not beginning where you want it to if any other changes are made to the document later.


Insert a footnote by going to the ‘References’ tab and then selecting ‘Insert Footnote’. Doing it any other way will result in footnotes that aren’t linked or formatted correctly.

Set Language

Go to the ‘Review’ tab and then the ‘Language’ group. Select the drop-down menu under ‘Language’ and click on ‘Set Proofing Language’. Here, you can change the language that the Spelling & Grammar checker will use to ‘English (Australia)’.

This will help you to pick up some (but not all) American spellings that should be corrected to Australian when doing your spell check. It is best to set your language again at the very end by selecting all your text and then setting the language immediately before doing the spell check (because sometimes Word will ‘automatically detect’ your language and change it back to American while you are writing your essay).

For more information about using Word to proofread your document, see our articles ‘How to Use MS Word for Proofreading’ and ‘Grammar & more—Understanding Your Grammar Checker Options’.

Word Count

To check your word count, highlight the text you want to check (your essay not including your bibliography or reference list), then go to ‘Review’ and click on ‘Word Count’ in the ‘Proofing’ group. Untick the box to ‘Include textboxes, footnotes and endnotes’. This way you will know your total word count, not including your references.


Don’t use any fancy formatting for headings or cover pages, especially nothing that uses a coloured font, borders or underlining. It isn’t necessary and doesn’t follow standard university formatting guidelines. For more information about standard university formatting guidelines, see our article ‘How should I format my university essay’.

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