Document Changes Format

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Why does the appearance (or layout) of my document change when I open it on a different machine?

Here's a typical question from a Word user:

I created a document on my home computer and formatted it just the way I wanted it. When I took it to work and opened it there, it had completely changed. All the page breaks were in different places and my graphics were out of place. How can I make my document stay the way I want it?

Because Word is a WYSIWYG application, it will always try to represent on screen the result you will get if you print on the printer that is currently selected. Unless you have changed the active printer in Word, this will be the printer set as the Windows default.

Changing printer drivers will almost always change the layout at least slightly and sometimes radically. So what causes a change in printer driver?

  •   If you have several printers installed, you may notice a change in the layout when you switch from one to another.

  •  If you download an updated driver for a printer, there may be slight differences.

  •   If you upgrade to a different operating system, the printer driver (for the same printer) will be a different one.

  •  If you send a document to someone who has a different printer installed, your document may not appear to the recipient the way it did to you.

  •  And of course, as mentioned above, if you move the document from one computer to another (home to work), you may see differences.

There are a number of ways to minimize the changes that can occur when you change printers or drivers:

Don't use hard page breaks! Using hard page breaks (Ctrl+Enter) just makes matters worse. For example, suppose you have inserted a page break at the end of every page. If the copy that fits on one page using one printer then runs just one line over using a different one, you’ll end up with alternate pages containing only a single line of text and a page break, thereby doubling the length of the document.

Instead, use style and paragraph formatting to keep text together. Judicious use of “Keep with next,” “Keep lines together,” and “Page break before” formatting will keep important sections together. These settings are found on the Line and Page Breaks tab of the Paragraph dialog, accessed from the Format menu (or shortcut menu) in Word 2003 and earlier; in Word 2007 and above, use the “dialog launcher” arrow in the bottom right corner of the Paragraph group on the Home or Page Layout tab of the Ribbon or the Paragraph… entry on the shortcut (right-click) menu.

There is also a Compatibility Option, “Use printer metrics to lay out document,” that may make a difference. In Word 2003 and earlier, find this check box at Tools | Options | Compatibility. In Word 2007 and 2010, go to Office Button | Word Options | Advanced, scroll to the very bottom, and click on the + beside “Layout Options.” This option is not available in Word 2013 and 2016.

What works best to preserve the look of your document, however, is to select the printer on which you will ultimately be printing the document (even if it is not connected to the printer where you're editing). Then you will know exactly where the page breaks will fall. Of course, that won't help if you need to email the document to others—but the other suggestions will.

If you are emailing the document to others and preserving the page layout is critical, one solution is to email your document in Adobe PDF format. In Word 2003 and earlier, you will need to have Adobe Acrobat or one of its cheaper clones (CutePDF and PrimoPDF are free downloads that are frequently recommended); for Word 2007, you can download the free Save as PDF add-in from Microsoft. Word 2010 and above have PDF authoring built in.

This article copyright © 2003, 2016 by Suzanne S. Barnhill.