Avoid a few pitfalls when changing an existing Word style

Changing an existing style is easy, but how will your document respond? How will existing or future documents respond? Learn what to expect and avoid pitfalls when changing styles.

Word styles help you create and maintain consistently formatted text in a document. Once you're familiar with style basics, you can create consistent documents efficiently. In addition, you can maintain your choices and make changes easier. Everyone's happy, until someone wants to change one of your styles. There's no need for angst - the process is easy!

The long route

You can open the Modify Style dialog to make changes to a style. First, locate the style in the Styles gallery in the Styles group on the Home tab. In Word 2003, click Styles and Formatting on the Formatting toolbar to open the Styles and Formatting task pane. Then, do the following:

  1. Right-click the style, and choose Modify.
  2. Make the appropriate changes. Don't forget about the Format button in the bottom-left corner. Clicking this button opens more formatting options.
  3. If you're making a permanent change for all new documents, check the New Documents Based On This Document (Add To Template) option. If you're changing only the current document, retain the default setting of Only In This Document. Existing documents based on the template will not change when you update the template. You must open existing documents and update the style.
  4. Click OK.

Word will automatically update the current document to reflect your changes. For instance, if you changed the font color for the built-in Normal style to blue, all Normal text in the current document will be blue, not just the selected text.

The shortcut

There's a bit of a shortcut to updating a style. Select some text and make the change. Then, right-click the style and choose the Update stylename To Match Selection. It's quick and easy.


Users often make the mistake of checking the Automatically Update option when modifying a style. Unfortunately, doing so can create a bit of havoc. Once you check this option, Word will automatically update the style every time the user modifies an appropriately styled occurrence.

For instance, let's suppose a user updates the Normal style to a new font, but inadvertently checks the Automatically Update option while making the change. All is well, until the user changes the font color of a Normal paragraph to red. Suddenly, all Normal-styled text is red! Most likely, that is not what the user meant to do. That's why the default setting for this option is off.

This warning needs a warning of its own. In the ribbon version, the Normal style doesn't offer the Automatically Update option via the Modify Styles dialog. I guess that's Microsoft's way of keeping you out of one of Word's basic building blocks.

Put them to good use

Changing styles is easy, but there are a few rules you'll want to keep in mind:

  • You can change a style for the current document.
  • You can change a style in your template.
  • Changing a style doesn't impact existing documents, even if you change the template.
  • Don't automatically update styles, unless that's really what you mean to do!


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.

Editor's Picks