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.