If you’re about to begin a new course of study at college or university, you’ve got a lot to contend with that’s unrelated to the learning you’re supposed to be inwardly digesting. For example, a good understanding of how to use word-processing software is central to your ability to produce the high-quality written submissions on which your grades depend.

Word-processing programs are extremely complex, and it’s been suggested that 80 percent of us use fewer than 20 percent of the functionality in our chosen application. This doesn’t mean that 80 percent of word-processor features are unused, of course.

A plethora of features is aimed at many different types of users. For students, some functions are more important to grasp than others.

The basics, such as setting up page sizes and choosing appropriate fonts, go hand in hand with more complex matters, such as inserting citations and creating an index. For longer documents such as a dissertation. You will also need to produce a detailed table of contents.

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It’s important to get a handle on the various style-and spellchecking options offered - depending on the course you’re studying, a single mistake here could result in a 25 percent reduction in your overall grade. Even if your lecturers are a little more laid-back than ours were, no-one enjoys reading an essay that’s riddled with typos.

In the following workshop we discuss some features you can implement to show off your work in the best possible light. Structure and consistent formatting are your friends.

Free office software

We’ve used Microsoft Word, but other mainstream word processors feature similar functionality - check their help files for details.

With a good grasp of the basics, you’ll be able to concentrate your efforts on the quality of content rather than presentation. A good-looking essay won’t bag you a first-class degree, but it will make a good first impression.

Create professional-looking documents in Microsoft Word

Step 1. Begin by specifying how much of each page is to be printed. Page margins are important: you can squeeze more text on to a page with narrow margins, but go too far and it’ll be difficult to read. Word has several defaults you can personalise. Choose the ‘Page Layout’ ribbon and click ‘Margins’.

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Step 2. Click on any of the preconfigured options to apply page margins to your document. Alternatively, choose ‘Custom Margins’ if you want to alter the dimensions for individual margins and apply them to various sections of a document. To make a custom setting the default, simply click ‘Set As Default’.

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Step 3. Use Styles and Themes to manipulate the overall look of a document. Styles affect attributes such as the font, colour and size of selected text. Themes differ in that they apply these attributes across an entire document. Launch Word and write a few words. Click Home, select the text, then apply a style to it.

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Step 4. Rather than manually change individual style elements within a document, you can apply a theme. Word uses the ‘Office’ theme by default. Click ‘Page Layout’, then choose Themes. Hold the mouse cursor over the various themes to preview its effect. You can alter the colours, fonts and effects, and save your own custom themes.

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Step 5. Text copied from a second document may have different formatting. Decide whether you want to retain that formatting, or have Word automatically format the text to match your document. Press Ctrl, C to copy the text, then right-click where you want it to appear. Choose ‘Paste Options’ and select the relevant option.

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Step 6. You can insert an image by dragging-and-dropping it from Windows Explorer. However, it’s a good idea to first edit the image – in Paint, if you have no other editing software. You can resize an image within the document by clicking it and dragging. Use the green button above the image to rotate it.

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Step 7. To add a caption click References, then click the image and choose ‘Insert Caption’. Your image is given a Figure number, although you can change the numbering style. Enter the text for your caption and decide whether you want it to appear above or below the image. Click Ok when you’re happy with the results.

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Step 8. Microsoft Word has a range of features that make it easy to reference and acknowledge external sources. You can choose between references, citations and the automatic creation of a bibliography. To choose one, simply click References and make your selection.

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Step 9. To insert a citation, place the cursor where you want it to appear and choose ‘Insert Citation’. Create a source by filling in the form that pops up; what fields it includes depends on the citation style. A shortcut will appear on the page in brackets, and Word will automatically renumber references within a document.

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Step 10. When you’ve finished creating a document, you can instruct Office 2010 to automatically generate a bibliography. Place the cursor at the end of your document. Click ‘Bibliography’, then select ‘Insert Bibliography’. The bibliography will appear on the page at whichever point you left the cursor.

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Step 11. Proofreading your document is essential. Word 2010 offers several tools for checking spelling and grammar. It also has a thesaurus. Instruct Word to check spelling and grammar as you type: click File, Proofing and select ‘Check spelling as you type’ and ‘Check grammar as you type’.

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Step 12. Set up AutoCorrect for those words you never seem to be able to spell correctly. Go to File, Proofing and select ‘AutoCorrect Options’. You can alter some generic settings, configure specific words and spell out abbreviations. You could instruct Word to replace ‘IMHO’ with ‘in my humble opinion’, for example.

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Step 13. Word highlights what it thinks are grammatical errors with a green line. You can’t trust it to always get this right, and sometimes you need to follow your instincts, but it can be useful in spotting genuine mistakes. You can tweak its settings, too: head to File, Proofing, ‘Spelling and Grammar’ and choose Settings.

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Step 14. The thesaurus can provide inspiration to help you get the precise meaning you want. Right-click a word that’s troubling you and choose Synonyms. Click a word in the list or choose Thesaurus for more options. You can also install a custom dictionary, which is useful if you’re working in a different language.

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