Software

Three ways to expose formatting inconsistencies in a Word document

Whether you're sharing new documents or revamping old ones, these three tools can reveal troublesome formatting problems.

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Image: iStockphoto.com/Anchiy

Inconsistent formatting can flip a seemingly stable document into chaos. Whether you're sharing a document with users who don't stick to styles or you've inherited a document, you might need to fix things before inconsistencies get out of hand. Fortunately, Word provides a few easy-to-use tools that can help. In this article, we'll review the following tools:

  • Draft view
  • Style Inspector
  • Reveal Formatting

I'm using Word 2016 on a Windows 10 64-bit system, but these features are available in older versions. You can use any Word file or you can download the badly formatted demonstration .docx or .doc file.

Terminology

The safest formatting route is a style, a collection of formats saved as a single unit. Even if you don't manually apply a style, you're (always) using one—Normal is Word's default style. Figure A shows its formats. To quickly change formatting, you can apply a different style, create a new style, or modify the current style (which I don't recommend).

Figure A

2016113a.jpg
A style is a collection of formats you apply as a group.

As you work, you will often apply additional direct formats. For instance, you might bold or italicize a word or phrase. You can apply direct formatting without changing the underlying style. Throughout this article, I'll use these two terms, direct and style to distinguish between how formats are applied, because the difference matters.

In addition, formats affect different levels: paragraph, character, and linked. Paragraph styles format the entire paragraph, as you might expect. Character styles format selected text—a sentence, phrase, word, or even an individual character. Linked styles combine the two. In other words, a linked style acts like a paragraph style when a paragraph is selected and a character style when only part of a paragraph is selected. In Figure A, you can see that Normal is a paragraph style.

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Draft view

If you study the simple document shown in Figure B, you might discern some inconsistencies; determining what caused them can be difficult. Perhaps the first step to exposing potential formatting problems is to make sure styles are applied consistently.

Figure B

2016113b.jpg
This document is a mixture of styles and direct formatting.

Most of us use Draft view (on the View tab) to work with text minus the encumbrance of graphical and layout elements, such as pictures, columns, headers, page breaks, and so on. But you can also use Draft view to quickly identify the styles used throughout your document. In Figure C, you can see that Heading 2 and Normal are consistently used. If you don't see the styles listed to the left, enable this feature as follows:

  1. Click the File tab and choose Options.
  2. In the left pane, select Advanced.
  3. In the Display section, change the Style Area Pane Width In Draft And Outline Views option from 0" to something larger, such as 1".
  4. Click OK.

Figure C

2016113c.jpg
Draft view displays styles to the left.

What you can't detect is the direct formatting, but that is, in itself, a clue: If the styles are applied consistently, but you can visually detect inconsistencies, direct formatting is the most likely cause of those discrepancies.

At this point, you might turn to the Font and Font Size controls (in the Font group on the Home tab) for more information. The mystery grows as you select the different paragraphs to display their different fonts and font sizes:

  • Paragraph 1 is Calibri 11.
  • Paragraph 2 is Arial 11 (Figure D).
  • Paragraph 3 is Calibri 12.

Figure D

2016113d.jpg
Although the paragraphs are Normal style, the font and font sizes differ.

How can that be? Each paragraph uses the Normal style, but they're obviously not uniform. Direct formatting is your problem, but Draft view can't help with specifics, so let's take a closer look.

Style Inspector

Earlier, I mentioned two style types, paragraph and character. The Style Inspector (Figure E) separates the two so that direct formatting is easy to spot. To open the Inspector, click the dialog launcher for the Styles group (on the Home tab) and click the Style Inspector icon (in the middle) at the bottom of the Styles pane. (I don't know of a shortcut for displaying this pane.)

Figure E

2016113e.jpg
Display the paragraph and character attributes for the first paragraph.

With the first paragraph active, the Plus lists quickly tells us that this paragraph contains no direct formatting. Click inside the second and third paragraphs and watch the inspector update, as shown in Figure F. The verdict is in: Someone has applied direct formats to both paragraphs. The pane distinguishes between paragraph and character formats.

Figure F

2016113f.jpg
The second and third paragraphs have direct formatting.

In addition to using the pane to reveal direct formatting, you can use the icons to the right to remove the formats:

  • Reset to Normal
  • Clear paragraph formatting
  • Clear character style
  • Clear character formatting

The purpose of each option is self-explanatory, but if you've never used them, you may run into a few surprises until you become familiar with them. Clear All (at the bottom) is the most efficient choice if you want to remove all direct formatting and reset all styles to Normal.

Reveal Formatting

Our last tool is Reveal Formatting (Figure G), which you can display by pressing [Shift]+[F1] or clicking Reveal Formatting in the Style Inspector pane. You might hear the term Reveal Codes, but that's a WordPerfect reference. Reveal Formatting, while similar to WordPerfect's Reveal Codes, isn't quite the same.

Figure G

2016113g.jpg
Reveal Formatting is another way to expose direct formatting.

This tool can compare elements. For instance, Figure H shows the differences between paragraphs two and three. To accomplish this, click inside either paragraph, check the Compare To Another Section option, and then click the other paragraph. As you can see, there are a number of differences, and knowing them will help you work more efficiently to remove what you don't want. Click the hyperlinks to access settings you want to change. Checking the Distinguish Style Source option clearly exposes all direct formatting (Figure I). You can quickly see where direct formatting is usurping style attributes.

Figure H

2016113h.jpg
Compare two paragraphs.

Figure I

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Expose direct formatting.

A quick fix

Finding formatting problems is the key to fixing them and regaining stability. Often, the fix is easy. You can select each paragraph and press [Ctrl]+[Spacebar] to remove direct formatting leaving only styles in place. Direct formatting isn't bad. However, if you find you're applying the same direct format often, consider applying a character style instead.

Send me your question about Office

I answer readers' questions when I can, but there's no guarantee. Don't send files unless requested; initial requests for help that arrive with attached files will be deleted unread. You can send screenshots of your data to help clarify your question. When contacting me, be as specific as possible. For example, "Please troubleshoot my workbook and fix what's wrong" probably won't get a response, but "Can you tell me why this formula isn't returning the expected results?" might. Please mention the app and version that you're using. I'm not reimbursed by TechRepublic for my time or expertise when helping readers, nor do I ask for a fee from readers I help. You can contact me at susansalesharkins@gmail.com.

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About Susan Harkins

Susan Sales Harkins is an IT consultant, specializing in desktop solutions. Previously, she was editor in chief for The Cobb Group, the world's largest publisher of technical journals.

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