Microsoft Word 101: A quick look at formatting styles

Using Word styles will help you work more efficiently and create consistent documents that are easy to maintain and modify.

There are two ways to format a Word document. You can apply formatting directly or apply styles. Using direct formatting, you select the text and click all the different formatting options. Using styles, you select the text and choose a style - it's much more efficient! A style is a set of formatting attributes.

If you're working with a short simple document, direct formatting is fine, but the process is tedious in a long document, or when applying the same formats repeatedly. Direct formatting is also error prone - it's easy to click the wrong option. In contrast, you can apply a number of formats quickly by choosing a single style. If you want to change something, modify the style and Word will update each occurrence of the style, accordingly.

Efficiency and consistency are the main reasons you'll want to work with styles, but there's a bonus. Word uses its built-in styles with several features. For instance, Word can generate a table of contents based on the built-in heading styles. Word's outline feature, useful with long documents, also uses built-in heading styles.

Word styles come in four types:

  • You'll use character styles to determine the look of a document's text. Character styles apply to individual characters and words.
  • Paragraph styles also applies to standard text, but format an entire paragraph.
  • Table styles determine the look of tables.
  • List styles determine the look of lists, including bullet style, indentation, and so on.

Even if you think you don't need or want to use styles, you already are. The includes several. When you enter text, Word automatically applies the Normal style. Open a blank document and press [Ctrl]+[Shift]+s to launch the Apply Styles pane, and click the Style Name dropdown to see a complete list. (Different templates can have the same styles or use the same style names, even if the attributes are different.)

Apply a style

Applying a style is a simple task. Select the text and choose a style from Quick Styles or the Styles gallery. To see the gallery click the Quick Styles dropdown. If you want more control, click the Styles group's dialog launcher to display the Styles pane. You can also press [Ctrl]+[Shift]+s to display the Apply Styles pane to choose a style. In Word 2003, choose a style from the Styles dropdown or choose Style from the Format menu. (If you miss the Styles dropdown from the pre-ribbon versions, add it to the Quick Access Toolbar.)

Applying a style is the same as directly applying a format - select want you want to format and choose a style, the same way you would choose a single format from the Font or Paragraph groups on the Home tab.

Create a style

Word's pre-defined styles might be adequate, but you can create your own to achieve just the results that you need. Perhaps the easiest way to create a new style is to use direct formatting to apply all the attributes and then, do the following:

  1. Right-click the formatted text and choose Styles.
  2. Word will display the Styles gallery. Choose the Save Selection As A New Quick Style option below the gallery options. If the Styles pane is open, you can click the New Style option (bottom left of the pane).
  3. Enter a name for the new style and click OK.

Now you can choose the new style from the Quick Styles or the Styles gallery, as you would any of the pre-defined styles.

Control updates

Along with the ease of use, comes a bit of confusion. Word likes to update a style based on additional formatting. When you add a format, Word adds that new format to the applied style. That behavior can be a problem, but you can control it as follows:

  1. Launch the Styles dialog and find the style.
  2. Choose Modify from the style's dropdown.
  3. Uncheck the Automatically Update option.

Don't forget that you can press [Ctrl]+z to cancel a style update instead of changing this option-that lets you retain the update capability, but choose when you apply it. Knowing why Word updates styles and how to opt out of that behavior, will make working with styles much easier.

Replace a style

After formatting a document, you might decide that you like another style better than one you've used. Depending on the length and complexity of the document, that could mean a lot of work if you try to make all those changes individually. Fortunately, you can use Word's Replace feature to switch one style for another, which is another great reason to use the feature. To replace one style with another, do the following:

  1. Launch the Find and Replace dialog by clicking Replace in the Editing group on the Home tab. In Word 2003, choose Replace from the Edit menu. Or, press [Ctrl]+h.
  2. Click More (if necessary-if the button displays Less, these options are already visible).
  3. Click inside the Find What box and click Format.
  4. Select Style.
  5. Choose the heading you want to replace and click OK. Word will display the selected style beneath the control.
  6. Click in the Replace With box and click Format.
  7. Select Style.
  8. Choose the replacement heading and click OK. Word will display the selected style beneath the control.
  9. Click Replace All and then OK.
  10. Click Close.

Getting started

You won't learn everything you need to know about styles from this quick primer. Instead, this is a place to start. Once you know the basics, you can create a more consistent looking document more efficiently. In addition, you can maintain your choices and make changes much easier.


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.


I am familiar with styles in Word and try to use them regularly, and generally I would agree that they can be a big time saver. But Excel is my primary office tool, and I only recently learned that it also supports styles (at least in 2010). They work similarly, although I think only apply to the entire cell rather than individual characters within. In Excel 2010, you can find it on the ribbon under Home | Styles | Cell Styles


Is there any way of getting rid of Microsoft's default styles? For most of my Word docs, I have no use for most of the Headings styles, just to name a few, but I still have to wade through them all to get to the custom styles I have set up because the Delete button is inactive when I select them in the Format Style dialog. I'm using Word 2K at home, but I've also used Word XP, 2003 and 7 on the job, and the problem just seems to get worse as the version numbers get higher.


Jody Burton touches on my frustration with Word 2010 Style's, But When I go from Document to Document a newly set Style reverts to its Default. When Setting up TOC I have Noted that the Default Heading 1, 2 3 etc etc is the auto TOC default. So My Heading 1, 2... etc has been setup to cater for this. The Problem is if I Modify Say Heading 7, the Next document I go into (New or Existing) the Heading 7 reverts back to its original Formating Style!! I Tried Modifying the Normal.dotm, But that doesn't always work!! I'm guessing it's a SetUp issue BUT What?? Problem Solved - The End User wasn't paying attention!! The link in Paragraph "Apply Styles", Quick Styles, of this document Did the Trick!! Thanks Sue!!


I'm still on 2003 which has served me well (apart from this).


I do try to use styles in all my documents. However, one thing that drives me mad is that my own style set seems to be constantly overwritten by styles included in documents originating elsewhere. For example, my "Normal" is Arial 12 point - however, I keep finding this reverting to Times 10 point. How can I stop this? ps I'm a developer not a MS Office expert (as may be obvious!).


Why don't you create a new template with custom styles?


In Word 2010, you can replace the document's styles with your default styles: Change Styles / Style Set / Reset to Quick Styles from Template


... I do have several templates with custom styles, including, to-do lists, and song lyric sheets; but I still can't delete the styles I don't use, either from the Styles drop-down list or in the Style dialog. For example, in my to-do lists I only use five styles, all custom; Title, To-Do, and To-Do Bullets 1 through 3. Nonetheless, in the Styles drop-down, Word still insists on showing the Default Paragraph Font, all the headings from 1 to 7, Normal, etc. And of course, because they're alphabetical, all are listed ahead of my own styles. By the bye, in case you or anybody else figures this one out, I have another one for you. ;-)!


... (not really), like I said, I'm primarily using Win 2K, since the only reasons Microsoft has offered to induce me to upgrade that I can see are making the Help system more difficult to manage (starting w/ 2003), and the opportunity to start all over in learning how to do things w/ the ribbon system that I already knew how to do w/ the perfectly good toolbar system.


...right-click on the unwanted style(s) and choose "Remove from Quick Styles Gallery."

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