wolves - Image Source (c) Ian Murphy 2/1/2013What is a soft return? It conjures up some lovely images of warm duvets and soft beds to crawl into and sleep.

I’m afraid it’s not that at all. I’m talking about the use of a soft return in a Word document to be able to layout text in the way you’d like to.

So what is a soft return in Word?

It controls where a line of text ends but does not mean that the paragraph ends there. It is a very useful tool when constructing lists and using tabulation. You therefore create a tabbed list of many lines but in effect this is still one paragraph of text.

How to create a new paragraph

When you type a line of text and need to create a new paragraph you simply press the Return Key on your keyboard.

  • Select the Show/ Hide tool on the home tab.

Paragraph Mark

This will reveal all non-printing characters that help to layout your work.

This tool is very useful when editing a file created by someone else, as you can easily see how they created it and what features they used to lay the document out.

Here is an example of a piece of text laid out in a specific way.

Odd spaces in document

Can you understand why there are such large spaces between words? Or why a paragraph has started almost half way across the page? No! but if you turn on the non-printing characters you will quickly see and therefore know what to edit or change.

non porinting characters revealed

  1. At the end of the first line of text you can see a paragraph mark which denotes the end of the first paragraph.
  2. On the second line you can see that the spacebar has been used several times to distance words from each other.
  3. On the third line you can see arrows which are tab stops spacing out the words again.
  4. In the third paragraph you do not see a paragraph mark but a bent arrow. This is the symbol for a soft return. There is another following the first. Then several tab stops before the text continues in the same paragraph but a good way in from the left margin.

If we were to leave this document as it was, it would look odd. If we used styles to change the look of headings in the document we could end up with a real mess as a result.

bad formatting

For example, you can see that by using the Heading two (H2) style for the third paragraph, the whole paragraph is formatted because the soft return is there.

If you have a long list that traverses several pages, using the soft return at the end of each line, rather than the paragraph mark, would make formatting the whole paragraph of several pages quite simple.


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