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Have you ever wondered how to see exactly how many blank lines your Microsoft Word document has between the fifth and sixth paragraph? Maybe you’d like to see your document in a more structural way—where the tabs are, whether there are any double spaces in a section of writing. Perhaps your short story has a strange spot in it where the writing suddenly jumps to the top of the next page. The hidden paragraph marks button could be just what you need.
If this describes you, that strange looking little symbol—the one that looks like reversed uppercase P—just might be your new best friend. It has a name. It is a pilcrow. But to the average MS Word user, it’s more likely to be known as the paragraph button.
If you mouse over the icon, the tooltip label will say Show/Hide. That’s because its purpose is to show and hide the non-printing characters in your document. Those are line returns, paragraph endings, spaces between characters, tabs, page breaks, section breaks, and more.
This feature is also available in Microsoft Word alternatives such as LibreOffice, OpenOffice, and others and should work similarly in all those apps. (Note: These instructions are based on Microsoft 365 Word, but should be similar in the past several versions.)
Paragraph symbol as seen in Microsoft Word
If you want to see paragraphs marks, etc. in your document temporarily, you’ll want to use the Show/Hide icon in the ribbon of the Home tab.
You’ll find it under the Home tab of the ribbon. Look in the third set of icons from the left—the same set of icons we used above to set line spacing. You’ll see an icon that looks like a reversed uppercase P, the pilcrow.
When you click that icon, you’ll see a variety of marks inserted into your document. Those marks will include new paragraphs, spaces, and tabs, line breaks, page breaks, etc..
Turn on paragraph marks permanently in MS Word
You can also set Microsoft Word to always display paragraph, space, and tab marks. When the feature is turned on, you will see the marks in any document you work on, but they won’t be present in the printed document.
I personally see marks being on full-time as a major distraction, but you may find them useful. Some editors insist on working with them on. If you want or need to have them on all the time, here’s how to turn them on.
To show paragraph marks in Microsoft Word for Windows:
• Open the File menu at the very top left.
• In the left section of the menu, look toward the bottom for Options.
• In the Options screen, choose Display from the left side menu.
• On the options page that opens, one section will be labeled, “Always show these formatting marks on the screen.” You can check tab, space, paragraph marks, and a few others.
• Alternatively, you can select “Show all formatting marks.”
Keep in mind that this setting will cause every document you write in Microsoft Word to display those marks. To change them, just uncheck what you don’t want to be displayed.
To show paragraph marks on in Microsoft Word for Mac:
• Click Word in the top menu.
• From the Word menu, choose Preferences.
• Choose the View icon.
• In the section labeled “Show non-printing characters,” you’ll see all the same options as were available in the MS Word for Windows instructions above.
The only difference is the arrangement and instead of “Show all formatting marks” as in the Windows version, the first box in the Mac version is simply labeled “All.”
How to delete extra lines, line breaks, and page breaks.
My personal preference is show the hidden characters only when I have an issue I’m trying to resolve such as an unexplained extra blank line. I also use them in long-form fiction writing to adjust page breaks when needed. It’s much easier to see exactly where the page break was inserted when you can see the hidden page break marks.
You can delete a page break very easily with the hidden marks displayed. Page breaks are easily recognized because they are actually represented by the words Page Break with a dotted line on either side that looks similar to this:
Delete the page break by placing the cursor before it and deleting forward or placing the cursor after it and deleting it normally.
Use the same method to delete unwanted line breaks, spaces, and more. Just place your cursor after the offending mark and use the delete key. You may also place the cursor before the mark you want to delete and delete forward. (To delete forward on a Mac keyboard, hold the fn key while you hit the delete key.)
One word of caution: Don’t go crazy deleting the hidden marks. They are there for a reason. They can show you exactly where an errant line break is and allow you to fix it. But if you look at the marks, don’t understand their function, and go through your document deleting all those weird looking marks, you can totally wreck the presentation of your work. Those marks, in addition to being a visual indicator, also hold information that is vital to how MS Word, or whatever app you are using, formats your work.
You’ll find more Microsoft Word tips here.