Microsoft has long produced software with a belt-and-braces approach, offering a choice of ways to perform a particular task.

For example, in Word, you’ll find a smorgasbord of methods for cutting, copying and pasting text. There’s the usual cut, copy and paste via keystroke, menu or toolbar. There’s also the Office Clipboard, which is like copy-and-paste on steroids. Then there’s the often-overlooked spike, which sits halfway between the other two methods in terms of power.

The spike lets you quickly reorganize snippets of text and graphics. You grab the snippets from different locations in your document, place them one by one on the spike, then use the Insert From Spike command to paste them as a block into your document.

The spike didn’t qualify for inclusion in Word’s menus or toolbars, but you can easily access it using the keyboard: Ctrl+F3 cuts the selected text and places it on the spike; Ctrl+Shift+F3 copies the entire contents of the spike into the document at the current location.

So if you’re working on a masterpiece such as this:

Oil, that is. Black gold. Texas tea.
A poor mountaineer, barely kept his family fed,
When up through the ground came a bubblin’ crude.
Then one day he was shootin’ at some food
Come listen to a story ’bout a man named Jed

and decide a little rearranging would improve its readability, select the fifth line and press Ctrl+F3; then line 2 and press Ctrl+F3; line 4, Ctrl+F3; line 3, Ctrl+F3; line 1, Ctrl+F3; and finally press Ctrl+Shift+F3 to paste the newly arranged result:

Come listen to a story ’bout a man named Jed
A poor mountaineer, barely kept his family fed,
Then one day he was shootin’ at some food
When up through the ground came a bubblin’ crude.
Oil, that is. Black gold. Texas tea.

Of course, the spike really comes into its own when you’re writing something a little more weighty and need to rearrange entire paragraphs or sections to create the best flow.

Spike’s idiosyncracies

There are several things worth noting about the spike.

  • First, the spike uses a separate area of memory from the Windows and Office clipboards. So you can press Ctrl+C to copy an item to the clipboard, then subsequently press Ctrl+F3 to cut an item to the spike, and the contents of the clipboard will remain untouched. When you press Ctrl+V the contents of the clipboard will be pasted into the document; when you press Ctrl+Shift+F3 the contents of the spike will be inserted.
  • While the Windows Clipboard can hold a single item at a time and the Office Clipboard can hold 24, the spike has a voracious appetite and is happy to accommodate thousands of items.
  • When you insert the contents of the spike into the document using the Insert From Spike command (Ctrl+Shift+F3), the spike is emptied. This contrasts with the behavior of the clipboard, where the contents remain available for pasting and re-pasting until you replace the contents by cutting or copying another item. If you’d prefer to keep the contents of the spike intact while pasting it into your document, it helps to know that when you cut the first item to the spike, in the background Word creates an AutoText entry called ‘spike’; the entry is deleted after you press Ctrl+Shift+F3. So if, instead of pressing Ctrl+Shift+F3 to insert the spike, you instead type spike and press F3, Word performs the usual AutoText actions instead: it copies the contents of the ‘spike’ AutoText entry without deleting it.
  • The spike is shared by any documents you have open. You can spike an item from the first document, switch to the second and spike three items there, switch back to the first document and insert all four items.
  • Things get a little tricky when you try to add the contents of a table to the spike. If you select the table and then press Ctrl+F3, the only thing that gets spiked is the contents of the table’s first cell. This is because Word stops ‘spiking’ when it hits the first paragraph mark, and, because it treats the end-of-cell marker as a paragraph mark, it copies that first cell’s contents then stops. To get around this, make sure you select the entire table plus the paragraph mark following the table. It may help to click the Show/Hide button on the toolbar so you can quickly spot the paragraph mark.

Avoiding blank lines

You may find it useful to switch off Smart Paragraph Selection in order to avoid creating blank lines between each of the items on the spike.

With Smart Paragraph Selection enabled, it’s impossible to select a paragraph without grabbing that final paragraph mark as well. If you spike the series of lines from our previous example with Smart Paragraph Selection enabled, you’ll end up with this:

Come listen to a story ’bout a man named Jed

A poor mountaineer, barely kept his family fed,

Then one day he was shootin’ at some food

When up through the ground came a bubblin’ crude.

Oil, that is. Black gold. Texas tea.

If you switch Smart Paragraph Selection off, you can select a paragraph minus the paragraph mark by dragging carefully to the text end; you can still grab the paragraph mark if you want to by dragging past the “end” of your paragraph to include the mark. You can also grab a paragraph complete with its paragraph mark by placing the cursor in the left-hand margin and dragging down.

To turn Smart Paragraph Selection off, in Word 2007 click the Office Button -> Word Options -> Advanced and deselect Use Smart Paragraph Selection. In Word 2003, click Tools -> Word Options -> Edit tab and deselect Use Smart Paragraph Selection.