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Removing Unwanted Characters and Space in Microsoft® Word Documents

How to remove and replace characters in a document, including those originally intended for setting layout and formatting.

Last updated on 2020-07-28 by David Wallis.


Re-formatting to improve layout of a document by adjusting “white space” is a chore. That includes replacing characters used by the author instead of properly applying suitable formatting. But so often it’s necessary to make such changes in order to improve the appearance and serviceability of existing documents, particularly those knocked up without much thought and care, or without full understanding of the proper use of Word.

I receive as attachments to emails contracts, NDAs and other documents that require I fill them in and email them back. The majority of these attachments are Word documents, in which, when I try to input, the formatting breaks down and I have to spend time tidying things up.

Here’s the final section of an NDA, as a typical example:

Sample NDA

This is what happens when I fill in this section:

Sample NDA Signatures

The deterioration of the layout is the result of poor construction, part of which is due to the use of repeated underscore characters; and to inconsistent tab settings. We can see the tabs in the original when the non-printing characters are displayed:

Sample NDA Signatures

Also exposed are the empty paragraphs, ¶, used to introduce white space between lines of text. I guess the NDA was originally intended for printing out and manual completion by the recipient. A pity the author did not rework it for use as a editable document: in its current form the document is likely to create an unfavourable impression im the mind of any recipient.

On this web page I’m focusing on removal of unwanted formatting and characters. If there’s enough interest, I’ll add pages on techniques for restructuring documents like the one illustrated above, and on creating properly structured documents afresh.

Removing Repeated Characters

Unfortunately, some authors type the same character repeatedly in order to position text. In this example spaces — from the keyboard’s space bar and appearing as mid-line dots — have been used:

Replace Spaces

Consider replacing the all the space characters in each group of them with a tab to achieve this:

Spaces Replaced with Tab

Adjusting the position of tabs will restore the layout:

Spaces Replaced with Tab

One way of achieving the replacement by applying Word’s Find and Replace, using codes ^w for Find what and ^t for Replace with:

Find and Replace Full Stops

Exercise caution over which Replace button you click: Replace All will run its magic across the document as a whole, possibly causing unanticipated results.

Where you find the codes like ^w and ^t, I explain in the next section.

Character Search Codes

You’ll find the characters you can search for and replace in Find and Replace when you click more >> and then Special:

Special Find and Replace

Removal and Replacement of Characters and Combinations of Characters

You use Find and Replace to replace characters or remove them altogether. In the following examples don’t include the quotation marks, and , in your Find and Replace values.

To replace each underscore character with two spaces:

Find = “_”
Replace = “  ”

To replace a full stop followed by two spaces with a full stop followed by a single space:

Find = “.  ”
Replace = “. ”

Empty paragraphs intended to produce white space between paragraphs of text, appear in the document as one paragraph marker, ¶, immediately followed by another, like this:

Empty Paragraphs

To get rid of an empty paragraph, replace two paragraph markers with one:

Find = “^p^p”
Replace = “^p”

Space Between Paragraphs

Despite it being over 30 years since Microsoft launched Word, you’ll still come across many documents in which an empty paragraph is used to create space between paragraphs.

In the previous section I explained how to remove empty paragraphs. If you’ve gone to the trouble of doing this, but want to restore the space, then please don’t be tempted to return to that bad old habit of two carriage returns. Instead have a read of Using Styles to Control White Space Between Headings and Paragraphs.

Keyboard Shortcuts

These are shortcuts that you might find useful:

Ctrl+H opens the Search and Replace dialog box.

F5 opens the Search and Replace dialog box with its Go To tab active.

Ctrl+Alt+Z toggles around the four previous place in which you edited the document.

Ctrl+Click with the insertion pointer anywhere in a sentence to select that sentence.

Double Click anywhere in a word to select that word.

Triple Click anywhere in a paragraph to select that paragraph.

Shift+End extends your selection to the end of the line.

Shift+Home extends your selection to the beginning of the line.

Ctrl+UpArrow moves to the beginning of the current paragraph and subsequently to the beginning of the previous paragraph.

Ctrl+DownArrow moves to the beginning of the next paragraph.

Ctrl+Delete (A) when insertion pointer is within a word, deletes the rest of that word; (B) if a word is selected, then deletes that word, just as would Delete on its own; (C) when insertion pointer is between words, deletes the next word.

Ctrl+Backspace (A) when insertion pointer is within a word, deletes the characters in that word leading up to the pointer's position; (B) when insertion pointer is between words, deletes the word to the left.

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