It’s a Matter of Style

In this blog I’ll cover what Styles are in Microsoft Word (from v2.0 for Windows) and cover a little bit of the cross-over to web-design (the equivalent for the web is CSS, or Cascading Style Sheets), and of course I’ll be covering why they are so important. Although I am a big fan of MS Word, I will also cover some of the Styles-related stupidities that Microsoft introduced along the way…

What are Styles?

It is a matter of some irony that the tool I am currently using to write this blog does not allow me to use ‘Styles’ directly. So, I’m going to have to blag it a bit here… Styles are a way to specify the format of some text (and often other things) without directly referencing the format itself.
Put another way, Styles de-reference the purpose of the text from its actual format.
OK. It seems to me that most users of Word are not aware of Styles at all. Even though, for as long as I can remember, the Style selection drop-down list box has sat right next to the font (typeface) and font-size drop-down boxes on the toolbar. So what most users seem to do when using Word (and other similar tools) is that they press return lots (to get to a new page, for example). They want a heading, so they type a few words and make them bold, or up-the font size, or change the font, etc. When they get to the bit where they need to type their next heading, they type a few words, make them bold, maybe change the font-size, etc etc. And in the process they will probably forget some setting or other so there will be subtle differences between one heading an another. Then one day, the user thinks to themselves, ‘Wouldn’t it be lovely if my headings were RED’ – so off they pootle turning their ‘headings’ RED one by one… and in a large document you can really believe that it likely to take quite a while! And then they miss one, or two… and so the document starts in a state of entropy… and ends that way too. In English, it’s a mess!
Now, of course, it’s quite possible to write a document without using Styles and it might look quite pretty and you might not notice much difference between various headings etc., but be assured that if your document has been formatted piecemeal without the use of Styles, then unless you are extremely consistent, there will be differences.

No matter, by not using Styles you have missed out on one of the best features to using Word!

Types of Styles

The two most common types of Style in Word are:

  • Paragraph styles;
  • Character styles.

Paragraph styles are concerned with the complete Paragraph, whereas Character styles are expected to be used within Paragraphs, and do not offer the same number of options. For a loose analogy, this Paragraph, for example, has a particular font, size, spacing etc that could all be set with a Paragraph style… but these words have had special formatting applied, which could have been achieved with a Character style if I was writing in Word.

Today I look mostly at Paragraph styles, as they are the most interesting and useful… once you get used to Paragraph styles, you will find plenty of use for Character styles too.

How to Access Styles

The Microsoft Word Styles dropdown menuWhen you have a document open, you can access the Style drop-down menu from the toolbar… typically next to the Font drop-down list box. You can also access the various underlying options for Styles under the Format | Style… menu. Broadly speaking, the drop-down list on the toolbar is to show you the Style you are currently using (and you can change the style you are using here too), whereas the menu entry (or ‘Style Sidebar’ in later versions of Word) is where you can change the underlying formatting of the Style.
The image to the right shows a blank document, with the cursor on the first (default) paragraph. The default style for paragraphs is ‘Normal’, and my mouse (though you can not see the pointer in this screen-shot) has highlighted the ‘Heading 1’ style. In this particular version of Word (Word 2000), we are also shown the approximate appearance of the style (it shows you the font size and weight etc) and it also shows you the font size, alignment and what type of style this is… notice the reverse P ‘paragraph’ marker on most of the styles, representing the fact that these are Paragraph styles, and the underlined ‘a’ on the ‘Default Paragraph Font’ entry which means it is a Character style.
The ‘CodeP’ style shown in the drop-down is one I set up for chunks of code in my documents. Note how you can see that it has a different background colour, is outlined, and is also indented… not to mention that it uses a different font!

So What Are Styles Again?

Word Styles dialog boxOK. Styles are intended for you to tag certain text with a description of their purpose in the document. Heading Styles 1, 2 and 3 (and right through to 9, if you are a legal-eagle) convey a meaning about the intent of the text to which the style is attached, and when I use the ‘CodeP’ style shown above, it conveys a meaning inasmuch as the text that I apply that style to is most-often computer code. And hey, a normal paragraph can (and perhaps should ) have the Normal style applied to it.

Styles ideally should not be named as a description of the styling involved. They should be named after their purpose in the document… and for the most part, you will be able to see this if you look up the full list of available styles in a default Word installation. The image to the right shows the contents of the Style dialog (from the Format menu) when All Styles has been selected in the drop-down list highlighted. Notice how (although it is impossible to totally dereference the formatting in the name) most of the names apply to the purpose of a piece of text. So, for example, ‘TOC 1’ is a paragraph style that should be used in Tables Of Contents to list Heading 1’s. ‘Strong’ is a character style that is used to emphasise a set of characters.

So Why are Styles Helpful?

There are lots of reasons! Here are a few:

  • You can change the formatting of a Style, and all the pieces of text in a document that are tagged with that style will have their appearance changed wholesale. In other words, you can quickly change the appearance of your document whilst ensuring that it is consistent;
  • Some of the default styles have embedded meanings. For example, ‘Heading 1’ has an ‘Outline Level’ that defaults to 1, and ‘Heading 2’ defaults to an Outline Level of 2, where the Normal style has an outline level of ‘Body text’…
  • …and Outline Levels are immensely useful when working in Outline View (View | Outline menu entry);
  • Correct use of Heading Styles will lead to easy production of Table Of Contents. A TOC produced by Word allows you to navigate the document quickly and easily by Ctrl + Clicking the relevant line of the TOC, to quickly jump to a section you want to read or work on (not to mention being rather helpful in a printed document);
  • Correct use of Heading Styles (amongst others) give you all sorts of automated numbering options for your sections and / or chapters;
  • Heading Styles (in addition to other sorts of styles) are also frequently used if you wish to set up references such as: See section ‘A Quick Note on Word 2002’ below
    Or, in the context of a printed document perhaps something like: See blah on page 26.
  • It is generally considered to be the case that having a document with a limited number of font types, sizes and colours will tend to enhance the overall look of the document. If you use Styles properly and carefully, you are far more likely to produce a document that has this appeal;
  • You can search for Styles, and later versions of Word even allow you to select ‘all text with similar formatting’ (for those documents which do not have styles used properly);
  • A good set of styles will leave you thinking more about what you are writing, than spending time thinking about how to format it;
  • A good set of styles (in conjunction with document templates) means that you will ‘automatically’ be writing a document in ‘house style’, or will enable the design of the document to be adjusted later by a specialist, or later by you as necessary;
  • A good set of styles will help you avoid extremely questionable practices of using empty paragraphs to space out your document…
  • …using blank paragraphs can lead to all sort of issues, like a page starting with a blank paragraph (meaning it does not appear to match the next page). It can also mean that you lose other possible benefits of Word layout control, like Widow / Orphan control, and ‘Keep With next’ functionality;
  • A good set of styles will encourage you to follow a house style (or, of course, your own style). For example, in a document that features a lot of Quotes, you might set up a Quotes style (to hold the actual quote), and a Quote Info style (to hold info about the author or origin of the quote). These styles can then be connected so that you:
    • Go to a new paragraph where you are going to type your quote;
    • Select the Quote style, and type the quote, pressing return when you have finished;
    • The system can then be set up so it automatically puts you into the Quote Info style… so you are reminded that now is a great time to enter those details…
    • …so you type the details of the quote, and press return…
    • …which could put you back in Normal style again ready to type your body text!
  • Spell-checking options can be tied to Styles. So for example, my CodeP style mentioned earlier switches off spell-checking, as spell-checking a computer language is likely to lead to lots of annoying squiggly red underlines!

General Hints on Using Styles

Once you have started to use styles, you are well on your way to improving your use of the powerful tool that is Microsoft Word. Check out the options available to you under the Format | Styles… menu (or Format | Styles and Formatting… on versions past 2002). In particular, note that you select ‘Modify’ on a style, and then ‘Format’ to change various format characteristics for a style… the most useful of which are:

  • Font – to change font typeface, size and colour and underlining;
  • Paragraph – look at the ‘Indents and Spacing’ tab to change Alignment, Indentation and Spacing (Before and After the paragraph – these are the most useful options to replace those nasty empty paragraphs you’ve been using to space out documents so far!). Look at the Line and Page Breaks tab to see options like ‘Widow / Orphan control’, ‘Keep with next’, ‘Page Break before’ etc. In particular, ‘Page break before’ is a very useful option for your major Heading styles, and minor headings will probably benefit from ‘Keep With Next’ so that you do not have a heading at the bottom of one page, and the first line of text on the next page!
  • Borders – to change the borders and shading for a paragraph – particularly useful to ‘highlight’ or separate certain text from the rest of the body text. Again, perfect for my CodeP style, or for the Quotes style I’ve been mentioning;
  • Numbering – gain access to Bullet and Numbering options, suitable for bulleted or numbered lists, and also automated numbering for your Heading styles;
  • Language – to control what, if any, spelling and grammar checks are done on this text.

A quick way to adjust all of your styles is to use the Format | Theme… menu option. However, these themes seem (to me) to be focused on web pages for some reason, rather than printed output. You can also access different Styles by selecting File | New and choosing a template like ‘Contemporary Letter’. However, I am always reluctant to use these as I prefer to keep my style separate from Microsoft’s, and many seem cheesy to me.
Start in a new document, and copy some basic text in that represents a cross-section of the sort of thing you normally write. Start by ensuring that most of your ‘body text’ is in style ‘Normal’. Then, if you like, play around with the Normal style, and see how all associated text changes! You may also note that some text that is not the ‘Normal’ style changes, even though you only changed the one style. This is because styles can inherit from each other, overriding certain features. For example, in my basic Word setup, ‘Normal indent’ is listed as:

  • “Normal + Indent: Left 1.27cm”

This means that if I change almost any setting on the Normal style, Normal Indent will inherit that change, in font, size, or whatever.
So, Normal should be the base-style for most ‘body text’ styles.
Now look at some of your text that could or should be a major heading. Try assigning ‘Heading 1’ to some, ‘Heading 2’ to others, and perhaps also ‘Heading 3’ etc. You will probably find that Heading 1 is based on Normal too, but the list of things that it overrides is probably much longer than that for Normal Indent. Try changing the font colour, or adding an underline (or even a ‘border’ ABOVE the paragraph which can make for a great separator). Note how your changes this time will probably be far more limited. Although my experience in this regard is limited, I think you will find that Heading 2 and 3 etc are based on Normal… not as I think, the Heading style one up in the hierarchy. e.g. I believe that Heading 2 should be based on Heading 1, Heading 3 should be based on Heading 2, etc. For example, if you want to change the font for all your headings, changing the font on Heading 1 will cascade to all the other headings, using my suggestion (though of course, there would be times when the current setup might be beneficial!).
Start by Setting up Normal, and at least the top-three Heading styles. If you write a lot of documents including program code, consider creating a paragraph CodeP style, and possibly also a CodeC style which is similar but is a Character style. If you write technical documentation, I hope you are not reading this because you know it already(!), but you can set up character styles for ‘Menu Item’, ‘Key press’ etc., so that it is easy to indicate in text, with character styles, the meaning of a keystroke combination like ‘Ctrl + Enter’. I’d love to do it here, but right now I’d have to start hard-coding some CSS! Make sure that the Spacing on the style formatting is set so that you do not have to enter blank paragraphs to have an appealing and clear layout. Consider auto-numbering options for those headings.
You will probably find quite quickly that you may need to add or modify styles for lists (bulleted or numbered), entries for e.g. Table Headings, and so forth… and depending on the type of documents you write, maybe it will make sense to create ‘Quote’ or ‘Author’ type styles too, or maybe to adjust the Caption style to use for image or table captions. Once you have a set of styles that is ‘working’ for you, consider saving them into the ‘’ template using the Style Organizer, so that every time you open a default New document, you pick up the styles automatically. If you regularly use the normal template, then changes you make there will propagate to all of your documents that use it, so as you update formatting for Table Of Contents entries, for example, then these will be available to you in other documents using However, for this very reason you may prefer to try and set up a template for your own letters, with one set of styles, perhaps one for ‘work’ or company letters, and then another for specific types of documents, and so on.

A Quick Note on Word 2002

The Styles pane in Word 2002Word 2002 offered some quite dramatic changes in the handling of Styles from Word 2000. When selecting the Format | Styles and Formatting… menu, instead of a stand-alone dialog, a separate window pane would open, and example of which is shown right.
When the ‘Formatting in Use’ or ‘Available formatting’ options are selected in the drop-down list at the bottom of the pane, it shows you all the formatting options that exist in the document. This particular document has been partially tidied up (in terms of the use of styles), but not entirely. This tool palette is now immensely rich in terms of helping you tidy-up documents. For example, if I right-click the ‘Heading 2 + 11pt’ option the top context menu option tells me ‘Select all 1 instance(s)’. Now, this tells me one very important thing: I have used this formatting in just one place, in a 60-page long document, which seems like it it probably incorrect. Sure enough, on selecting that option I rather oddly find a single character in a paragraph with this setting… adjusting the character to Heading 2 clears this particular item from the list of ‘Available Formatting’.

Cascading Style Sheets

Cascading Style Sheets are the equivalent to Word Style sheets, but in web-design, and of course they are a standard independent from Microsoft (though I am sure MS have contributed to the standard). CSS offers many of the benefits mentioned here to web-design that Word users have in the form of Styles, although they are further-reaching in many respects, as you can tie a style individual html tags (e.g. <img>, <p>, <td>, <strong> etc), to ‘classes’ of text (e.g. ‘<p class=”myStyleName”>Text</p>), and also id’s and simply way too many things to list here. Although I will say that one marvelous feature is the ability to change style-sheets depending on the output method… so whilst you might want a big-old sidebar menu to show up when someone is browsing your site, if you can remove that when the user prints the page, that is very useful.

Microsoft Quirkiness

Over the years, since Word v2.0 for Windows, many changes have happened to Word and Styles, not all of which have been great! For example, if you type a line in bold type in Word 2000, it may (probably) convert it to some sort of Heading of TOC style! It seems to try and find a closest match style to the text you have just typed, and use that. However, I see this as being damaging to the real power of styles. Of course, it can probably be turned off through using Tools | AutoCorrect… | AutoFormat As You Type settings, but I was concerned that this actually provided an obstacle to understanding styles, not an assistant. For example, for the option ‘Define Styles Based on your formatting’ the hint text says something along the lines of “Creates new paragraph styles based on the manual formatting you apply to paragraphs… for a consistent look to your document”. The trouble is, it has not done anything to enhance your knowledge of the very existence of Styles, and in fact, will probably end up hindering your understanding as much of your text ends up with apparently arbitrary (and often incorrectly) named styles. e.g. I have seen documents where text that should have been ‘Normal’ style somehow became subsumed by ‘TOC 1’ style – but that style is intended for use in Tables of Contents!
As noted earlier. Word 2002 corrected (in my view) some of these issues – or at least, did not impose them in quite the same way (or perhaps I am mistaken, perhaps I learnt to turn the annoying options off pretty quickly!) Whichever way, the idea of showing ‘Formatting in Use’ and ‘Available formatting’ options in the Styles window pane did at least demonstrate to you just how many styles of formatting you were using, and make it much easier to tidy these up if you wanted to. And of course, for those users who didn’t want to, well, they either wouldn’t know about the facility in the first place, or they would be able to apply similar types of formatting to text without using styles, and without cutting and pasting styles.

In my view using styles correctly opens up so many other features of Word that they really should be used correctly. Yet neither of the options above does anything to actively inform users of them.

Although the idea will horrify many, I would think that the dreaded paperclip / einstein / dog assistant would be far better saying:

  • “It looks like you are trying to create a Heading! Would you like to learn about Styles that make this easy?”


  • “It looks like you are writing a letter! …”

After all, you will probably be able to complete a letter without Microsoft’s help… but will you ever know about Styles unless you are:

  1. Told by someone;
  2. Inquisitve enough (and have time on your hands) to think “What’s that for?”

Coincidentally, one feature that would be nice to have in Word Styles that is not (apparently) possible currently, is the ability to make certain attributes of a style relative to the base style. For example, it might be nice to be able to say that Heading 2 should use a font 2-points smaller than that used by the base class, Heading 1. Or perhaps, 75% of the size. In contrast, this can be achived in CSS for web pages.


The software that I originally wrote this on did not give me direct / easy access even to html’s equivalent to Word’s Heading tags of <h1>, <h2> etc. [and I am just learning WordPress that I have moved the blog to] So, instead of changing all the above ‘heading’ styles in one fell-swoop using CSS or whatever, if I want to change them to Headings, or change their appearance, I have to do them individually, or most certainly switch to raw html view to do that. Whilst that would not be impossible for me, I do not recall off hand how I set up the stylesheet in this application, which does not use the stylesheet in editing… so overall, and in comparison:
Styles in Word are a key feature. Take a little time to understand them! Love them, cuddle up to them on cool winter nights and know, deep in your soul, Styles are your friend.

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