The art of styles

All modern word processors employ the concept of styles, named collections of format attributes that you can apply to text. Styles make formatting documents easier and more consistent, so why do many people still avoid them? If you need to write a long or complex document and make it look good, that’s when you need styles. Imagine reading a document whose section headings were sometimes Arial 16pt bold and sometimes Bodoni MT Black 18pt – you’d naturally assume headings formatted the second way were more important than the others, when all that really happened was the author changed their mind halfway through and couldn’t be bothered to go back and manually correct the earlier headings. When you have a long or complex document, there might be tens or hundreds of things to alter, but if every heading is tagged with the same style all you need do is redefine that style and every one will be correctly formatted.

The art of styles

Formatting words or paragraphs with a style is easy: select the text and click on the required style in the Styles Gallery in Word 2007 or Styles Task Pane (2003 and 2007). If you use the Styles Gallery, you’ll see a live preview of what the change will look like as you hover over each style. The Styles Task Pane shows whether a style applies to characters (a), paragraphs () or to both. Take care when applying a paragraph style that you’ve selected the whole paragraph, for reasons I’ll go into below. You can apply a paragraph style to a single paragraph without selecting any text – merely put the insertion point in the paragraph and click on the style.

Redefining a style is easy too: right-click on the style in the Styles Task Pane or Gallery and choose “Modify…” to alter the style’s font, size, colour, justification, borders and so on. Easier still, select the paragraph or text and directly apply to it those format attributes, then once you’re happy with the result right-click the style in the Task Pane or Gallery and choose “Update to Match Selection”. All text in that style will instantly be redrawn to reflect your changes.

To create a new style, select some text that’s exactly or nearly the way you want it to look, then click the New Style button at the bottom (2007) or top (2003) of the Styles Task Pane. In the New Style dialog, give the style a name, adjust its formatting and specify which style it’s derived from and which style should be used for the next paragraph. Alternatively, use the “Save Selection as New Quick Style” option in the Styles Gallery drop-down, which offers a quick way to create a style (a “Modify…” button in the small dialog gives you full control). You can store a new style either in the current document or in the template associated with that document. Storing it in the template makes it available to every document created from this template (if you didn’t create the document from a specified template, it will be based on the default template or normal.dotm in Word 2007).

The Styles Task Pane shows some or all of the styles currently available. You can choose to show just the styles used in the current document or all the styles that exist, used or not. The full list includes hundreds of built-in styles used to format tables of contents, indexes and similar, so it’s pretty long. You can also make the Task Pane show all variations on the styles in your document where you’ve directly altered the format of characters or paragraphs (this is referred to as “Available Formatting” or “Formatting in Use” in Word 2003. In Word 2007, checkboxes in the Task Pane’s Options dialog allow you to “select formatting to show as styles” to do the same thing). Seeing an entry like “Heading 1 + Verdana” gives you the opportunity to do some rationalisation by either updating the original Heading 1 style to use Verdana or naming a new style using that font.

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