How To Use Styles In Microsoft Word To Save A Lot Of Work

Jim Henderson 16-08-2009

wordMost of the discussion on styles these days is about web pages and CSS Top 5 Sites To Learn CSS Online Read More , but everyone seems to have forgotten how styles can help in Word.


I’m going to show you how to use styles in Word 2007, but if you have an older version you’ll be fine. This stuff is largely unchanged since Word for DOS, and that was too long ago to discuss. Most other word processors have similar capabilities, so don’t despair if you’re not a Word user.

An analogy is the simplest way to approach this, so come outside with me, and take a look at the fence. No, really.


Okay, you work as a painter. You have all the gear. Brushes and paint cans. Overalls. Unfortunately you don’t work for yourself though. Your boss is a nice enough guy, but there’s one thing he does that’s really annoying. He changes his mind at the last minute.

So with this fence, he has told you to paint all the normal pickets white, and the larger posts blue. You’ve put in some time, and the result is great. The boss comes flying by in his new car, takes one look at the fence, and decides the posts need to be the same red as his sports car.



So you need to sand, prepare, prime and paint all the blue posts. Three coats.

Wouldn’t it be nice if, instead of painting the posts blue, you could have tagged them all somehow to say they were the same, called them something sensible, and then just said all “˜posts’ should be blue? Then, when the guy with the Porsche came by, you could tell the system to change all the “˜posts’ to red.

That is exactly what styles do, in Word.


The simplest way to do this is to use the predefined styles.

Let’s put some text in a document to start with. No formatting. Just type it up.


On the ribbon, on the Home tab, there are a number of styles listed. The ones you can see depends on your screen resolution.



The text you have in there now is already using styles. It’s all set using the Normal style. So the first thing we want to do is to change the headings so they look different. That’s easy. Select each of the headings, and click the Heading 1 option on the ribbon.


And you will end up with something like this.



Don’t worry if yours doesn’t look quite the same. If anyone has messed with the defaults for the styles you could have some differences.

Okay, now here’s that same situation as with the fence, right? You’ve taken the document in to show your boss, and he’s told you the headings need to be red. Like his car.

To understand how much time this can save you, you need to think about a report that’s a hundred and fifty pages long, rather than the snippet you have here. If you have gone into each heading, and changed it to Cambria 14pt Blue, and now need to make each of them Arial 15pt bold, and red, you would be in for a lot of effort. With styles, all you’ve done is tag all the headings to say that they are Heading 1, and then taken the defaults as to what a Heading 1 looks like.

So to make them red, we just redefine what a Heading 1 is, and they all change.

How easy is that? Very.

Right-click the same box you used to set the style in the first place”¦


Click Modify”¦


And then change the settings as you require. You can see here I’ve made the headings just the way the boss said he wanted them. you can also see a preview of what the result will look like.

Click OK.


All fixed.

It’s worth some effort from the start to try to only use styles in your documents, so that you can quickly deal with the unexpected later. And remember that as the body text is also a style, you can change that.

So, given that your manager has a lot of power, and absolutely no sense of style, let’s apply the next set of crazy requirements.

The main text, for whatever reason, needs to be indented, blue, and italic.

Right click the Normal box:


Easy, right?


But there’s a trap. Once you know, it’s not much of a problem, but it throws people off the first time. Styles cascade. if you work with the web, that might be enough explanation, but if not, it works like this. Most of the default styles are based on the Normal style. By changing the Normal style, which you just did, you change things in other styles as well. So that’s why the red headings are now indented along with the body text, and also italic.

You can fix it a few ways. In this case the simplest is to go back and change the settings for Heading 1 style back the way you want them. Note that anything you already messed with (such as the red) isn’t touched.

We want to change the headings some more anyway, so let’s go and deal with that.

Right-click the Heading1 style. Click Modify.

Porsche-guy wants the headings be inside shaded boxes, so let’s fix the font stuff first, and then go take a look at how to do that.


Instead of clicking OK, click on the Format button.


Click Border”¦


Follow my example, or format it as you please. Click on the Shading tab.


Find a shading colour and/or pattern both you and the big guy can live with, and then click OK.

You can see an example of what your design efforts will do to the headings.


Click OK again.


Again, think about long documents, rather than something short.

You can also create completely new styles, and assign the styles back to templates so they are always set up the way you want them, but that might have to wait until another time.

So tell me, how do you use styles in Word? How do you find them? Do you have any trouble? Clever ideas? Tell me about it in the comments.

Related topics: Microsoft Office 2007, Microsoft Word.

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  1. Martha S
    April 24, 2020 at 9:08 am

    Is there an easy way to apply styles to documents already done? I know you can make future documents look this way when modifying styles.

  2. Tracey Stewart
    November 7, 2017 at 8:19 pm

    I am a total luddite and you have explained that brilliantly, it will make my 12,000 word dissertation a tad easier! Thank you so much

    • enow agbor
      April 24, 2018 at 4:01 pm

      am so much impressed by this article, in fact I have learned a lot from it and still to learn more . thanks

  3. Abbie
    January 12, 2017 at 3:04 pm

    This was very helpful thanks!

  4. Ulu Aiono
    December 30, 2015 at 6:04 am

    Ulu Aiono | New Zealand | 30 December 2015 -- Jim thank you for the lesson. It's one of the best Christmas presents I've ever received. Perfect for me, still using Word 2007. You have explained style sheets extremely clearly and succintly.

  5. Susan D.
    May 12, 2015 at 11:28 pm

    Thank you. Nice and simple.

  6. Melinda
    August 21, 2009 at 11:20 am

    Okay, call me a bit dense. I'm working with XP so your instructions don't precisely match. I'll claim that as an excuse. I write 300-400 page novels and formatting chapter headings, scene breaks in the middle of a chapter, and body text can be a major pain. I see the advantage of using this. I'm trying to understand how to translate to XP or an earlier version. The formatting boxes are entirely different. I cannot make it work. How about a lesson for those of us who aren't don't have, or want, for that matter, Word 2007?

    • anschaung
      August 21, 2009 at 12:11 pm

      @Mark99's comment might get you on the right path -- the style tools are sitting in a tiny little box on the left side of the Word 2003 toolbar.

      • Melinda
        August 21, 2009 at 12:48 pm

        Thanks, but not the issue. I know how to get into the tools. It's learning how to use them quickly that eludes me. I'll experiment with XP and 2003 since I have both. I eventually formatted the novel last weekend using styles. Took some trial and error. It would just be nice to have simple directions and pictures to show me what to do.

        • Jim Henderson
          August 21, 2009 at 5:03 pm

          Hi Melinda.

          I'm trying to *remember* how they looked in Word XP. I'll see if I can dig up a copy, but the problem is that the likely audience for such material is pretty small, unfortunately.

          Something that migh help though. Once you define a style in most (I think all) versions of Word, you can assign a shortkey to it. So if, for instance, you need to format something as a 'Heading 1', then you go through the slightly harder work of defining it, and then to use it you just make sure you are somewhere in the paragraph, and hit the shortkey.

          Any chance of investing in a Word upgrade? :-)

        • Melinda
          August 21, 2009 at 5:43 pm

          Thanks Jim,
          I appreciate your reply. Styles show up as a right-hand sidebar in XP after you click on a tab beside the font on the toolbar. It pops up and you get style options, and it reveals the format, etc.. Haven't messed with 2003 yet.

          No upgrades for me. I had a trial version of Vista Word on my new laptop. Yuck! Not fond of it in any way so I didn't pay for it when it lapsed. Had the tech load my older 2003 which would work on a Vista system. Didn't want to learn a new program while trying to meet my deadline. I'll wait for improvements or go kicking and screaming when there aren't options.

          With the screen caps and examples you've given, I'll play around and figure it out. Something I did worked last week because it fixed my format issue. :) Now, to figure out what I did and plan so the next format will be easy. I'll try the suggestion. Thanks for your helpful articles.

  7. Mark99
    August 17, 2009 at 9:11 am

    One annoying thing is that the Style box (which in 2003 sat unlabeled at the left end of the toolbar) is not displayed at all in Word 2007 by default; so you're never totally certain what style the current text is in. (And that does matter, if you have dozens of styles or if you have people working in the file doing what anschauuung so aptly names "overrides").

    You can add the Style box to the QAT, but after a while, it fails, refusing to show more than one style in its dropdown list. That's a known bug, and a big one. Something as important as styles should work as documented. Sputter sputter fume fume...

    • Jim Henderson
      August 17, 2009 at 2:08 pm

      I'm not entirely certain that I'm understanding you correctly, but the style boxes on the ribbon, shown in the article above, light up if the text you are on is formatted with that style. That is, when you click on some H1 text, the H1 boxes changes colour.

      I sympathise with your sputter though. :-)

      • Mark99
        August 17, 2009 at 4:23 pm

        Hi Jim. Yes, the boxes light up, but that's not very helpful if, as in our firm, you have 8-10 other custom styles that also need to be monitored/verified. Further, I'd wager that, in most setups, Headings 1 thru 3 are quite obvious to the eye, so lighting up those big boxes is more of an extravagant show than a useful tool. Even to spot the (for us) uncommon overrides of those 3 styles, the lighting on those boxes isn't terribly useful unless the most likely blooper in an override is mismatched color.

        • Jim Henderson
          August 18, 2009 at 2:51 am

          Thanks Mark.

          No argument there. None. Let's hope for some improvement in the much more configurable ribbon in the next version.

    • PhoenixofMT
      April 24, 2015 at 6:22 pm

      Click the little arrow in the bottom right corner or hit Alt+Ctrl+Shift+S to bring up the styles list box. You can drag it around the screen or dock it to the edge of the window.

  8. Rudolph
    August 17, 2009 at 8:01 am

    You did hear about the concept of using links to let the user navigate to the section that is most relevant for him, right?

    OpenOffice 3.1: Press F11, rightclick on the style you want to edit. Choose Edit..

    TextMaker 2008: Choose the Format Menu, click on Paragraph Style, left click on the style you want to edit. Click on Edit...

    Google Docs: Choose the Edit Menu, click on Edit CSS and read up on how to use Cascading Style Sheets to define and format styles.

    • Jim Henderson
      August 17, 2009 at 2:06 pm

      Thanks for the additional info.

  9. Rudolph
    August 17, 2009 at 4:49 am

    This feature is not specific to Microsoft Word. You can do it in practically ALL the MANY word processing applications available in the world. Why the author needs to focus on only one of these applications is beyond me.

    • anschaung
      August 17, 2009 at 7:09 am

      Maybe because the description of MS Word styles alone takes up 10 pages?

    • Jim Henderson
      August 17, 2009 at 2:05 pm

      Well, I did mention that all of this information is relevant to a whole bunch of word processors, but I wanted to focus on this one purely because of the size of the user base.

  10. Charax
    August 16, 2009 at 10:26 pm

    It's worth noting that you can save your Quick Style Sets by going to Quick Styles->Style Set->Save Quick Style Set which will save it as a .dotx file. Package this up with the fonts you're using and you have a quick way of sharing the same Quick Styles over a workgroup.

    • Jim Henderson
      August 17, 2009 at 1:57 am

      Yep. Great tip. Thanks.

  11. anschauuung
    August 16, 2009 at 9:46 pm

    Great post.

    The problem I run into frequently is that I'll put together a document using nothing but styles, and then some coworker goes in and make modifications using nothing but "overrides" -- e.g. selecting a bunch of text and setting it to 'bold' directly. Just a few such modifications and the whole idea of syles gets thoroughly bungled.

    I use styles a lot myself, but they won't be very useful for public/collaborative documents until they're easier than the overrides to use.

    • Jim Henderson
      August 17, 2009 at 1:57 am

      Oh, yeah, that drives me bananas. I'm not sure there's a cure, other than education. Perhaps send the documents with a link to this post? :-)

      • addpoint
        August 17, 2009 at 5:16 am

        You could either limit formatting to a selection of styles by protecting the document, or mark the messed up sections and press Ctrl+Space to remove all extra formatting.

  12. kelly
    August 16, 2009 at 6:20 pm

    thanks for that! i often make study workbooks for my students, and formatting is the most time consuming part! this should make it easier. i knew it was there, just didn't really know how to go about it.

    • Jim Henderson
      August 17, 2009 at 1:56 am

      It's definitely something you'll find more use for as you go. Enjoy.

  13. Rylan Holey
    August 16, 2009 at 6:20 pm


    I find one of the best uses of styles is to create the contents page with the click of a button

    • Jim Henderson
      August 17, 2009 at 1:55 am

      Thanks. And agreed, though I find their uses all over the place.