Changing Styles - Who's in Control of your Formatting?

Changing Styles - Who's in Control of your Formatting?

Let me ask you a question: “Who’s document is this?” And another one: “Who’s copy of Word is this?”  

I thought so. Which means the formatting should be decided by…  You got it!

In Working with Multi-Level Lists in Word we explained how to set up Word so that styles are easy to apply. This topic is all about making the styles jump up and sing and dance the way you want your document formatted.

I am reminded of the blog post produced by an old and good friend of mine, former MVP Clive Huggan: “Bend Word to Your Will”. Sadly, way out of date for modern versions of Word, but the sentiment is more important than ever!

I am going to approach this in three “layers” 

First I’ll give you enough to produce a normal corporate document (this article).

Then we’ll fill in some of the power tips (next time).

And finally we’ll get down and dirty with the really intricate stuff (probably several topics later).

There are two schools of thought on using styles in Word

Use the built-in styles

I use the pre-existing built-in styles as far as possible. Not only because it’s so much less work, but also because that’s what other users‘ expect. If you format your document with the commonly-used standard styles, everyone else will know how to use them and thus be able to work on your document without breaking it!

Create your own style-set

The other school of thought holds that you should create your own style-set, with unique names, and avoid using the built-in styles. I strongly recommend against this technique.

Not only will any form of numbering be very fragile and go wrong constantly, but copying and pasting between documents can lead to endless surprises; and not in a good way.

In contrast,  when you copy material from one document and paste it into another, where you have used the built-in styles, the text you paste will instantly and automatically adopt the formatting of the destination document. This is almost always what you want; because the formatting is “right” in the document you have created, and “wrong for you” in a document someone else did. 

Almost all corporate documents can be formatted with just six styles:

  1. Heading 1

  2. Heading 2

  3. Heading 3

  4. Body Text

  5. List Bullet

  6. List Number.

All other styles will be automatically applied by Word, so I will disregard them for now, to keep this article short.

Modifying a Style

There are two ways:

  1. by example, and

  2. by specification.

I almost always use the latter, because I’ve had 40 years practice at this. You may decide to start with the first, because it’s easiest.

By Example:

  • Take any paragraph of text

  • Format it the way you would like all paragraphs like that to be

  • Select the paragraph

  • Then right-click the style name you wish to use for it in the Styles chunk

  • And choose “Update to match selection.”

It’s that simple. You can then apply that style to all paragraphs of that type, and they will all be perfectly consistent, from one end of the document to the other.

By Specification:

The way I almost always use gives you more to learn at first, but gives you much more direct control and enables you to set some hidden options that you will use.

  1. First, apply your chosen style to some paragraphs of the appropriate kind. Disregard the formatting, just apply the style.

  2. Now, in the Styles chunk, right-click the style name and choose “Modify”.

  3. Voila! You now have direct access to almost all of the formatting properties that exist.

In this topic, I will concentrate only on setting the most common properties. I will make some recommendations for how to set each (based on far too many years of doing this for a living…) and tell you why I chose those settings. However: remember; it is your document! Your way is the only way that is correct, all others are wrong!

The Modify Styles Dialog

Follow me along as I discuss the red numbers:


Set the Style for following paragraph.

  1. Normally, set this to the same name as the style.

  2. The exception is for Heading styles, where you want the following style to be Body Text.


Specify the font name.

  1. Readers born after 1970 expect a sans-serif font.

  2. Older readers will be happier with a serif font for body copy.


Specify a font size: 11 points is a good size for corporate documents.

  1. If you set much smaller, readers will struggle to read it.

  2. If you set much larger, printing becomes expensive.


Bold for headings, italic for captions, underline never!

  1. OK, there are exceptions to never underline, but I can’t think of one. Readers read English by the shape of entire phrases. If you underline, you ‘cut off’ one edge of the text; making the text hard to read, and annoying the reader.


Set the colour to Automatic if you want black.

  1. That’s an instruction to the printer to “create black however you normally would.”

  2. Any other colour is expensive to print, because the printer makes it as “process colour”. Thus “Black” results in the printer blasting away with every ink cartridge it has (except black!) producing a dull dark green on most printers, and horrific ink consumption.


Set a justification style.

  1. Almost always, set “Left Justified” for English.

  2. Full justification (even left and right margins) looks ugly and it’s very hard to read (again, because English readers read by the shape of phrases, full justification changes the phrases so the brain has to slow down and do a lot more work to read word-by-word).


Check Add to Template to store the changes you just made in the document template, so you do not have to do all this work again for the next document.

  1. Templates is a big subject, we’ll get there: for now, “Add to template”.


Check Add to Quick Style List to have this style appear in your styles chunk.

  1. Uncheck it for styles you will not be using frequently. For example, the TOC 1 to 9 series of styles is applied automatically by the TOC generator, you will never need to apply them manually, so leave them off the styles chunk to make room for the ones you do want.


Automatically update. Ensure this is off! We’ll discuss what it does next time.

Now, click the Format button and choose Paragraph. We need to add some spacing to “chunk” the text into mind-sized bites. In the following picture, again, follow the red bouncing ball:


Set an indentation of 0 for normal text, or 1 or 2 cm (about half or ¾ of an inch) if you are creating a book with out-dented headings.


Turn Automatically adjust… off unless you intend to use it (you don’t!).


Set Special to 0 unless you want an indented first line (e.g. book paragraphs). To set book paragraphs, use a First Line indent of 0.75 cm (about half an inch).


Set spacing Before to two-and-a-half times the font size for headings, 0 for most other styles. This creates a pleasing white space above each heading, again, assisting the reader to chunk the text into mind-sized bites.


If you have set 0 indentation before, set space After to 10 points for all styles. That’s a pleasing ¾ of a line. If you have set a first line indent, set this to 0.


Set Line spacing to Single for now. I will discuss alternatives in a future article.


Set “Don’t add space between…” to OFF except for bullets or numbering. This document is done that way: it chunks the list paragraphs closer together so the reader can see they form part of a block.


OK your way out, and then you’re done (for that style).

For most documents, you really need only six to eight styles, so that’s all you have to set up. And if you check “Add to template” you get to keep all the settings you made for any future documents you create.

We’ll go deeper into this subject in the next topic.

This blog post has been graciously provided by our new Contributor at Large:
John McGhie. 

Among other fine accomplishments, John is a Microsoft MVP (Word, Mac Word) and a Consultant Technical Writer at McGhie Information Engineering Pty Ltd in Sydney, Australia. 

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