It’s going to be a long night.

You’re compiling a big document—maybe it’s a report for your annual department meeting or a series of book chapters from your coauthors. Each file contains section titles, subheadings, footnotes, numbered lists, and, of course, body text.

As you import text from the different contributors, your document begins to looks like a hodgepodge. Nothing is consistent. There are multiple fonts. Numbering sequences are out of order. Headings are a rainbow of colors. It’s a mess.

If you’re like most users, you’ll format each item individually—a painstaking process known as direct formatting. You’ll probably redo the whole document several times before you’re happy with the results.

If you used Word styles, however, you could format every occurrence of each item with a single click—and effortlessly experiment with different options until you find the one you like. Numbered items would always be ordered correctly.

So how do you do all of this in a fraction of the time direct formatting would require? This article will show you.

Microsoft Word Styles Simplify Formatting

Microsoft Word is an amazingly robust set of tools, but few people ever use more than one or two of its powerful functions.

For many users, the icons that dot the ribbon at the top of each document are more intimidating than a complex math equation. Word styles—those little snippets of text formatting peering at you from the top of the page—can be especially mystifying.

But they don’t have to be. Styles are simply sets of formatting instructions—and you can customize them however you’d like. Whether you know it or not, everything in your document is formatted as a style.

“Normal” Style

In any new Word document, every paragraph is, by default, assigned a style called Normal.

Remember that a paragraph is one or more lines—with or without text—that end in ¶, a symbol called a pilcrow. To view the pilcrows at the end of paragraphs, select the ¶ symbol in the Paragraph group of the Home tab on the Word ribbon.

Pilcrow symbol in Word

Whenever you start typing in a new document, you are using the Normal style with whatever font, font size, line spacing, indentation, text alignment, and other elements that have been defined for that style.

No matter how you change these text and layout elements via direct formatting (e.g., increasing the font size, altering line spacing, changing colors) the text will still be designated as Normal style.

Built-In Word Styles

In addition to Normal, Word has dozens of other built-in styles that are used to identify headings, footnotes, hyperlinks, comments, lists, and other parts of the document. These built-in styles are part of every new Word document.

There are three types of styles:

Paragraph styles contain line and paragraph formatting specifications such as font, indentation, alignment, and line spacing that apply to everything in a paragraph.

Character styles apply font-based formatting to selected words or letters without affecting the rest of the paragraph.  

Linked styles can function as either character or paragraph styles.

You can create new styles or modify existing styles to suit your preferences.

The Word Styles Panel

To see all the available styles, create a new, blank Word document. Once the file opens, the document view should show the Home tab of the Word ribbon.

Along the bottom of the ribbon, you’ll see a number of groups, each with a More button in its right-hand corner. The Styles group is close to the middle of the ribbon; above it is the Quick Styles gallery.

Styles Panel in Word

Select the More button in the Styles group to open the Styles pane. Notice that even though there is no text in the document, the Styles pane is already populated. Paragraph styles are marked with a pilcrow (¶), character styles with the letter “a,” and linked styles with both symbols.

Styles panel Word

The list shows multiple types of styles: headings, bullet lists, hyperlinks, table text.

To change the number, types, and order of styles displayed, select the Options button at the bottom of the Styles pane to open the Style Pane Options dialog box. Use the dropdown arrows to choose how styles are displayed, then select OK to confirm your changes.

Style Pane Options - In Use
Styles Pane Options - As Recommended

To see the full list of built-in styles, choose All styles/Alphabetical. This list will be very long.

To see the styles available in the document you’re working on, choose In current document/Alphabetical. This list will be shorter, but you won’t see every possible option.

Applying Styles and Creating New Styles

The best way to become familiar with Word styles and all they offer is to practice using them.

Here are the opening lines of a familiar document, minus formatting:

The Constitution of the United States

The Bill of Rights & All Amendments

Preamble

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Copy and paste this text into a new Word document.

Now try experimenting with different styles to see what happens.

  • Change a paragraph style by placing the cursor in the paragraph and selecting a style from the Quick Styles gallery or Styles pane.
  • Apply a character style to a selected word or group of words.
  • Modify a style with different formatting. (See the instructions below for more details.)
  • Create a new style using the A+ button at the bottom of the Styles pane. (Microsoft’s support page Customize or create new styles in Word provides step-by-step instructions.)
Add New Style

Why Use Styles?

This may seem slow and complicated at first, but once you understand how easy it is to work with styles, you’ll be ready to join the twenty-first century. Take a look at this list of benefits:

Styles Offer Ease and Consistency

  1. Styles apply multiple types of formatting with one click.
  2. You don’t have to remember point sizes, line spacing, or text colors.
  3. When you modify an existing style, your changes are applied immediately to all text tagged with that style.
  4. Numbered items are updated automatically.
  5. Your document looks clean and professional.

Styles Are Speedy and Efficient

You can format multiple sections of the document at once. This is much faster and more efficient than changing every element individually.

Styles Improve Document Navigation

Heading styles allow you to display the document outline within the file. This is especially helpful in long documents; it also lets you drag and drop headings to rearrange sections of text.

  1. Open the Navigation Pane by selecting Find from the Editing group of the Home tab (or typing CTRL-F).
Find Navigation

2. Select Headings to show the document structure.

Navigation Pane

3. Select any heading to display that section of text.

How to Format or Change Styles

If you use styles consistently, you can change the characteristics of all text formatted in that style simply by editing its properties.

For an example, here’s how you could change all Heading 1 text in your document (currently formatted as 24 pt Times New Roman, in blue).

  1. Open the Quick Styles gallery by selecting the dropdown arrow in the bottom right corner.
  2. Place your cursor over the Heading 1 style; this will outline the style with a gray box. It will also reflect the Heading 1 style in your document text. (Don’t worry—this is not a permanent change.)
  3. With your cursor still over the style name, right-click to bring up the Style menu.
  4. Select Modify to bring up the Modify Style pane.
Select style to update

Make any changes you wish. Once you select OK, all text in the document styled as Heading 1 will reflect the changes you specified in the Modify Style pane.

Change style elements

Alternatively, you can also change one Heading 1 to reflect the new formatting you want, then apply it to all other text styled as Heading 1.

  1. Reformat the text, and place your cursor in the heading.
Select one instance of Heading 1

2. Next, highlight the style that you want to change.

3. Right-click to bring up the Style menu, and select Update Heading 1 to Match Selection.

4. Using the screenshots shown in this example, this will update the Heading 1 format from Times Roman 24 pt blue to Calibri Light 24 pt black, and simultaneously reformat all text in the document styled as Heading 1.

Create a Table of Contents Using Styles

Text styled with headings can be used to generate a table of contents that can be updated automatically as the text and document structure changes.

This screenshot shows the table of contents created from the headings shown in the Navigation Pane at left. (If you want more information, you can find it in our article on creating a table of contents in Word.)

Create Table of Contents from Navigation Pane

Create Numbered Headings

Heading styles can be modified to generate outline level numbering. Both headings and page numbers can be updated as the document evolves. Numbered headings will also be listed in tables of contents generated from these styles. Here’s a web page that provides details on numbered headings.

Streamline Your Files

Direct formatting makes files bloated and unwieldy. Each change that you make individually—bold, italic, indent, size, font color—is a separate command. Word stores each of these commands in the pilcrow that ends each paragraph. The longer the document, the more changes are stored in the pilcrow, and the more unresponsive the file becomes.

This is especially common when the file is edited by multiple people: Layers of changes, along with the existing styles on different computers, may cause formatting commands to contradict each other or cause the file to crash repeatedly.

Formatting a paragraph with a style, on the other hand, adds only one command to the pilcrow, no matter how many formatting elements are contained in that style.

Saving Styles for Later Use

Once you’ve mastered the art of applying, creating, and modifying styles, you’ll probably want to save at least some of your changes so you don’t have to reinvent the wheel in every document.

There’s a quick way to do that, too.

Let’s go back to the Modify Style dialog box, which allows you to alter existing styles. A nearly identical box is available for any new styles you create using the A+ button at the bottom of the Styles pane.

Modify style dialog
Create New Style from Formatting

Notice the two radio buttons near the bottom of the panel.

Only in this document, which is selected by default, means that the changes you make here will apply only to the styles in this document. They will stay in the document until (or unless) they are changed.

New documents based on this template will apply changes to the template on which the document is based. Unless you know how to create and work with templates, you are more than likely using the Normal template. This means that the style formats you create here will be available in every subsequent document you create.

Word Styles Are a Powerful Tool

Styles in Microsoft Word can be valuable allies if you use them correctly and consistently.

Once you have set up a handful of styles you use regularly, applying them is even simpler than using direct formatting.

If you learned a lot from this tutorial, check out our other Word tutorials:

How to Make a Table of Contents in Word

How to Write an Appendix

How to Make a (Really Good) Book Index in Word

How to Create a Glossary in Word

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Amy Loerch