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Using Parallel Columns

Please Note: This article is written for users of the following Microsoft Word versions: 97, 2000, 2002, and 2003. If you are using a later version (Word 2007 or later), this tip may not work for you. For a version of this tip written specifically for later versions of Word, click here: Using Parallel Columns.

Those coming to Word from WordPerfect may long for a way to create parallel columns, as could be done in WordPerfect. Those who never used WordPerfect, of course, may not even know what is meant by the phrase "parallel columns." In WordPerfect there are two types of columns you can create: newspaper columns and parallel columns. The difference between the two is how they behave in relation to a printed page.

WordPerfect's newspaper columns are essentially the same as the columns feature in Word. For instance, imagine that you have a two-column layout in a three-page document. Text begins in the first column of the first page. When the text reaches the bottom margin of the first page, the text continues at the top of the second column on the first page. When the bottom of that column is reached, text begins at the top of the first column on the second page, and so on. Columns are filled left to right, page by page. This is the same way that text "flows" in a newspaper, so WordPerfect referred to this layout as newspaper columns.

The parallel columns behavior is different, however. In a layout with two parallel columns, covering the same three pages, text would not wrap from the first column to the second on each page. Essentially, the columns are independent from each other, and are nothing more than a way to present side-by-side (parallel) text. When the bottom of the first column is reached on the first page, WordPerfect continues with the text at the top of the first column on the second page.

There is no equivalent to this in the Word world. Those who have been with Word since the DOS days may remember the old side-by-side paragraphs that could be used. This was, perhaps, the closest to WordPerfect's parallel columns. (Side-by-side paragraphs were a great feature in Word for DOS. I know of at least one user—me—who regularly misses the feature.)

The only workaround for this in Word is to use tables to emulate parallel columns. (In fact, if you import into Word a WordPerfect document that contains parallel columns, Word converts them to a table.) All you need to do is create a single-row table with either two or three columns. (If you use a three-column table, the center column can be used for white space between the outside columns.) Simply start typing in the left-most and right-most columns. Your table depth will expand, as necessary, even across multiple pages.

The only drawback with the table approach is that Word assumes you want a border around your table. You will need to remove the border from the table using any number of methods described in other issues of WordTips. You may also need to play with the table layout so that your columns are the desired width and that they appear "proper" in relation to the other text in your document.

Another potential drawback is if your single-row table runs a large number of pages in length. If your table fits on two, three, or even five pages, you should be fine. If it is longer than that, then you need to make sure you break the table into multiple rows, as appropriate for your content, otherwise your document could become unstable. (WordPerfect users shouldn't be too smug about Word's instability with large, single-row tables. A quick search through WordPerfect's Knowledge Base shows instability problems with excessively long parallel columns, as well.)

If you know that the content of your parallel columns will fit on a single page, you can also use text boxes. Simply place your text boxes side-by-side and place the text in them that you want. You can format the text boxes to appear as you desire. If your content runs multiple pages, you can also use linked text boxes to flow the text properly from one page to another.

Another way to emulate parallel columns is to use the regular columns feature of Word. This approach will only work if the content in the columns will fit on a single page. All you need to do is place the second-column content right after the first-column content. You can then separate the content by a column break (press Shift+Ctrl+Enter).

WordTips is your source for cost-effective Microsoft Word training. (Microsoft Word is the most popular word processing software in the world.) This tip (1309) applies to Microsoft Word 97, 2000, 2002, and 2003. You can find a version of this tip for the ribbon interface of Word (Word 2007 and later) here: Using Parallel Columns.

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Comments for this tip:

neil    02 Oct 2016, 20:43
Yay! I found an easy way to create 2 totally independent, continuous columns perfectly.
So, have come back here to share:

1) Create document in Open Office
2) Create a 2-celled table
3) Save file as MS Word document
4) Open in MS Word
5) Celebration dance :)
Jorge    22 Sep 2016, 06:09
Thanks, for the clear and easy to understand solution. It worked well
Conrad Gren    08 Jul 2016, 11:02
I create documents that need parallel columns that are at least 80 pages in length. So far, the only software I have found that can handle this is WordPerfect. If there is something else out there, would be glad to know what it is.
YinYang7667    26 Jun 2015, 11:02
Thank God that I am not the only one having this "problem". My work around this problem was that I made two text boxes next to each other in OneNote. When I finished translating the text, I copied the text to Word or deleted the part that I didn't need and saving the file as a Word document. At least that way I have both texts "open" at the same time. It's not the most efficient way but I find it better that making a table, since you can format, a little bit, the individual text boxes. Let me know if this helps or if you want a screen shot on how I did it.
R.B.S.    07 Jan 2015, 08:54
I absolutely HATED Word coming from WordPerfect. I was told that Word will never be able to do what WordPerfect is able to do because of the way it is constructed. So what? Construct a different program. Since most companies use Word these days I had no choice but to learn it. Reading all the above, why bother using Word for parallel columns, might as well use Excel.
toni    26 Jul 2014, 17:45
I was using a professional word processing program for 15 years and got away from Word for home use. If I won the lottery, one of the first things I'd buy is that program. In the meantime I'm stumbling around in Word trying to make it do things it apparently can not do.
awyatt    26 Jul 2014, 10:26
Alexey: You gave great, simple instructions for inserting a section that contains multiple columns, but you didn't address the topic: using parallel columns. Those are a COMPLETELY different type of column than your instructions address.

Alexey Abraham    26 Jul 2014, 04:15
The issue is VERY simple, but SO MUCH text just misguides.

1) insert SECTION break
(see http://office.microsoft.com/en-in/word-help/insert-a-section-break-HA010031073.aspx )
2)insert content
3) insert SECTION break
4) select content and 'Page Layout'-> 'Columns'-> select whatever you need

joe    28 Sep 2013, 20:16
Sidebars anchored to paragraphs can work even better than parallel columns. There used to be relatively simple so-called desktop publishing programs that may have been able to do that. You had to anchor each sidebar frame to the desired paragraph.

Probably the best way is to buy a special program for writing television scripts.
Jane Johnson    17 Jun 2013, 08:40
This worked perfect for what I was needing. Thanks!
Jorge    22 Feb 2013, 11:56
Parallel columns is an essential need for parallel texts showing documents in two languages. Very common in legal and commercial contexts. It's a shame Word doesn't have this feature.
Mozharul Hoque    02 Feb 2013, 16:09
Let us face the facts of life. Apple may be better - best, but is second to Microsoft; Miracle of marketing.
WordPerfect is a much better word processor than MSWord in many aspects - Parallel Column being one. What about imbedded formatting codes! That was heavenly. Have you ever tried using MSWord to put on a single line a few word left justified, next a few words center justified and then a few words right justified? You can not. In WordPerfect, it a child's play.
Richard    08 Oct 2012, 11:03
This would be an invaluable feature in Word. I need it all the time and end of using Excel to achieve it, but it is not a perfect solution.


howard    04 Aug 2012, 07:11
thanks very much for this article, i was quite bewildered at the difficulty of getting the "parallel columns" effect. ( i am working on a translation )
Tacit    02 Mar 2012, 13:45
I offer an additional "tip". For a two column format, only one of the columns needs to be in a Table. The other column can be just as usual on the page, with a wider margin on the side where the Table column is to be.

For example, if DocA is your "main" text, it can be created as usual with an ordinary page layout, but with a wide margin on the right. Then a single column Table is created and positioned over the blank space on the right; and the text of the "secondary" DocB is created/pasted into that table.

I am disappointed that parallel columns (and even more complex layouts - like multiple footnote "levels") are not available in Word. I "need" such complex layouts for the work I do in translation and textual commentary. But there you go...

Christopher    18 Jan 2012, 17:39
Yay! I helped!
Rade    17 Jan 2012, 08:09
The simple procedure you explaind on 30 Dec 2011, 01:55, seems to be working perfectly well. Thanks.
Christopher    30 Dec 2011, 01:55
Hey! You can do it!

Suppose you're setting up a resume. In one column you want your job title, and in the second you want the description.

Create the new Continuous Section Break where you want the columns to start. Set up two columns, sized the way you want.

Fill in the job title, then create a Column Break. Fill in the description and then create another Continuous Section Break.

This creates a new column directly under your first, with the same settings as the previous one. You just continue like that until you're through.

You can even put the line between, and it will be continuous all the way down. Of course, you have to do it for each set of columns, but still.

It can be done!

And there are no tables to pop around and give trouble with new pages.

Yay me!
Christopher    30 Dec 2011, 01:34
I've just spent several hours trying to create parallel columns in Word 2007. I've been using this inferior wordprocessing application for years now and it never fails to surprise me the things it is incapable of doing that WordPerfect could do back in the early '90s.

Anyhow, thanks for letting me know that the remarkably simple task I'm trying to accomplish can't be done. I'd already tried the table trick, but tables don't act the same as columns and can often slip around. I suppose I'll have to get used to it, though.


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