How to Add and Format Columns in Microsoft Word

Magazine showing columns on a table with coffee

In Microsoft Word, you can insert and format columns to structure your document. This is great for creating a newsletter, brochure, or magazine style layout. This guide shows you all the hidden tweaks for managing columns in Word.

Tip: if you're working with a larger piece of text, add a table of contents and page numbers to your Word document.

How to Add Columns in Word

You can add columns to your Word document before or after you insert your text. Apply the columns to the whole document or a specific portion, like a paragraph or section.

Add Columns to the Entire Document

If you already have content in your document, you’ll see it shift when you apply the column layout. This is helpful to determine how many columns would work best.

  1. Place your cursor at the start of the document. Go to the "Layout" tab, and open the "Columns" drop-down menu in the Page Setup section of the ribbon.
Layout tab Columns button in Word
  1. Choose whether you want two or three columns. One column is the default.
Column options in Word
  1. Alternatively, choose left or right when the document has two uneven columns.
Left and Right column layouts

As you continue to add text and other elements to the document, you’ll see that the columns carry over to the additional pages.

Add Columns to Part of the Document

If you only want to add columns to a portion of the document, this is also an option. It allows you to condense part of the text, like a paragraph, into its own block.

  1. Select the text that you want to turn into columns.
Selected text for columns in Word
  1. Go to the "Layout" tab, open the "Columns" menu, and choose two, three, left, or right, as described above. Alternatively, select "More Columns," then choose "Selected text" in the "Apply to" drop-down box.
Selected Text in the Apply To dropdown
  1. The existing content will be formatted into columns.
Selected text to columns in Word

Add Columns to a Section of the Document

If you format your document with section breaks, you can change one of those sections to use a column format.

  1. Place your cursor in the section you want to change.
Cursor in a section for columns
  1. On the "Layout" tab, open the "Columns" drop-down menu, and choose the number of columns or alignment. Alternatively, choose "More Columns," then select "This section" in the "Apply to" drop-down box.
This Section in the Apply To dropdown
  1. That section will be formatted with columns.
Section columns in Word

Any content you add to the section will be in a column format, but the rest of the sections remain intact.

Note: to present data in a structured manner, create a table in Word.

How to Customize Columns in Word

The nice thing about columns in Word is that you can customize how they appear. You may want different column sizes or a line between the columns.

  1. Go to the "Layout" tab, open the "Columns" menu, and select "More Columns."
More Columns in the Columns menu
  1. The "Presets" at the top are the same layouts as the "Columns" drop-down menu. Choose one of these, and make adjustments to it if you would like. Alternatively, insert a number in the "Number of columns" box for more than three columns.
Column presets and number option
  1. By default, all columns are the same width. To make your columns different sizes, uncheck the box for "Equal column width" in the "Width and Spacing" section, then adjust the measurements for "Width" (column size) and "Spacing" (space between the columns) of each column to be your desired size.
Column Width and Spacing settings
  1. To add lines between the columns, check the box near the top on the right for "Line between."
Line between columns check box
  1. Use the "Apply to" drop-down box to choose where to apply the column layout: this section, this point forward, or the whole document. Optionally, check the box for "Start new column."
Apply To dropdown for columns in Word
  1. Click "OK" when you finish to see your new layout.
Three columns with lines in Word

How to Use Column Breaks in Word

When you add columns to your document, you may notice that the columns don’t break where you want them to. For example, near the end of a page. To remedy this, add manual column breaks.

Add a Column Break

Add a column break in just a few steps.

  1. Place your cursor at the start of the line where you want to insert the break.
Cursor position for a column break
  1. Go to the "Layout" tab, open the "Breaks" drop-down menu, and choose "Column" below "Page Breaks."
Column in the Word Breaks menu
  1. The content will move to keep your text or other items together in that column.
Column break in Word
  1. If you want to view the actual column break marker, go to the "Home" tab, and select the "Show/Hide" button in the "Paragraph" section.
Show Hide button to display a Column Break in Word

Remove a Column Break

If you later decide the column break doesn’t work for you, you can remove it.

  1. Place your cursor at the start of the line where you initially inserted the column break. If necessary, turn on the "Show/Hide" button on the "Home" tab to be sure you’re in the right spot.
Show a Column Break in Word
  1. Press Backspace on Windows or Delete on Mac to remove the column break.
Removed Column Break in Word

Tip: add a background to your Word document to change its entire look.

How to Work With Images in Columns

One additional element to consider when formatting your document with columns is images. When you insert a picture in a column, that image scales down to fit within the column boundaries.

Image in a column in Word

However, if you resize the image by dragging a corner or edge, it will be cut off.

Image cut off by columns in Word

If you want to use a full-size image that spans across the columns instead, remove the column formatting from the image itself.

  1. Select the image, go to the "Layout" tab, open the "Columns" menu, and choose "one."
Image selected and One in the Columns menu
  1. You will have room to resize your image.
Room created for an image in a column layout
  1. Drag to resize your image to see it span across the columns.
Resized image for a column layout

Note that when you do this, the content that was originally above the image in the column stays above the image, with the remainder below. You can also select the image and use the "Wrap Text" menu on the "Picture Format" tab to choose how to place the text around the image.

How to Remove Columns in Word

If after you add columns to your document, a portion, or a section, you decide to remove them, you can simply return the document to a one-column layout.

  1. Place your cursor at the start of the document, or select the portion or section. Go to the "Layout" tab, open the "Columns" menu, and choose "one."
One in the Columns menu
  1. Your columns will vanish, and your document will return to its original layout.
Word document with columns removed

Tip: before you head off to the printer, convert your Word document into a PDF. This preserves formatting, regardless of who opens the file.

Frequently Asked Questions

Are there keyboard shortcuts to add column breaks in Word?

If you want to save time and not use the menu and ribbon, use keyboard shortcuts to add column breaks in Word instead.

On Windows, press Ctrl + Shift + Enter, and on Mac, press Command + Shift + Return.

How do I insert a section break in Word?

Section breaks come in four forms in Word. Use a Next Page, Continuous, Even Page, or Odd Page section break.

Place your cursor where you want the break, go to the "Layout" tab, and open the "Breaks" drop-down menu. You’ll see the types below "Section Breaks" with their descriptions.

Can I insert placeholder text to test column layouts in Word?

If you want to use placeholders to test column layouts before adding your actual content, use a few different commands, depending on the text you want. Check out our how-to for ways to insert dummy text in Word.

Image Credit: Pixabay. All screenshots by Sandy Writtenhouse.

Sandy Writtenhouse
Sandy Writtenhouse

With her BS in Information Technology, Sandy worked for many years in the IT industry as a Project Manager, Department Manager, and PMO Lead. She wanted to help others learn how technology can enrich business and personal lives and has shared her suggestions and how-tos across thousands of articles.

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