How to Use Styles in Word Processing

Anyone can churn out documents in a word processor, such as Microsoft Word, but those documents frequently need drastic reformatting when they are copied or reused in a different context. (This reformatting is especially true when converting Word to HTML!) Learn how to use the built-in styles of your word processor to build a flexible document that will convert easily into different formats.


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    Consider Writer, Microsoft Word, Abiword or Google Docs.
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    Start by determining how your document is structured. Generally, it will have one (or more) main sections with corresponding titles (headings). Each main section will have subsections (again, with corresponding titles, also known as subheadings) that go into greater detail. (If you are starting your document from scratch, preparing an outline of headings and subheadings is an excellent way to organize your thoughts!)
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    Find the Styles Task Pane in your word processor. In MS Word, click on the Format menu and select Styles and Formatting; most versions of Word will use a similar command. In lieu of the task pane, you might also use the Styles toolbar; it is a drop-down field in most Word configurations that displays "Normal" by default. In click Format then Styles and Formatting (or press F11)
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    Apply the appropriate style to each section and subsection heading, according to its importance or level of detail (as you analyzed in step 1 above). In the title(s) of your main section(s), place the mouse cursor and select "Heading 1" from the Styles toolbar or task pane. Notice that the paragraph is converted to a large, bold typeface.
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    Apply styles to the next level of detail in the outline: apply the style "Heading 2" to the second level of headings! Notice that the Heading 2 copy is not quite as large or bold as the Heading 1 copy.
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    Repeat as necessary, going down to the desired level of detail. Unless you are writing detailed technical, scientific or legal documents, you will probably not need to go farther than "Heading 3". (As a practical matter, few people can follow a discussion that uses more than four or five levels of headings. If your document needs more than four levels of headings, consider breaking the document up into multiple documents.)
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    If you are including bullet points or numbered lists, do yourself and your coworkers a favor and avoid using the bullet/numbering buttons in the toolbars. Instead, use the Styles toolbar or task pane and apply the styles "List Bullet" and/or "List Number". You can avoid having to insert bullet characters or numbers that way, and the software will usually even retain and update your numbering as you edit your copy.
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    View your logically constructed document! This is a clean, tight document that will go through most automated document converters and come out looking as good as when it went in.


  • In OpenOffice you can navigate and explore the structure of your document using the Navigator Window (dockable into a toolbar) by pressing F5.
  • The Styles toolbar is opened by toggling it via F11 in OpenOffice.
  • Be aware that you have only applied styles to the section titles of your document. The body of your document will still be in Normal style.
  • For best results, don't add extra blank lines between paragraphs. You can add that extra blank space to the Normal style (see MS Word's Help, "Modify a Style"). This is done adding margin space to the top (or bottom) of your styles.
  • Having an outline formed in this form will help you automatize the creation and maintenance of a table of contents (TOC) for your entire document.
  • To get a better picture of the overall organization of your document, try using Normal view or Outline view (available in MS Word 2003 from the View menu).


  • To avoid cluttering your document with an endless list of style names, and the visual incoherence that it usually brings, try using your defined styles throughout the document, and add a new style when you will use it in other sections, as well. Local modifications, or exceptions to styled formatting, can be achieved on a case by case basis.
  • Use Headings for the logical structure of your document. Other styles will be ignored when using the automated TOC function.
  • Examples and screen shots are taken from Microsoft Word 2003. Your word processing software may look different.

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Categories: Word Processors