Word installs nearly 300 styles that are built in and ready to use, but there's nothing wrong with creating your own custom styles—especially for paragraph and character formatting. Still, it's important to keep in mind that many of Word's features rely on its built-in styles. Knowing when to use built-ins and when it's okay to customize will make your work a lot easier. Even if you never use a custom style, knowing how to manipulate the built-ins will help.
I'm using Word 2016 (desktop) on a Windows 10 64-bit system, but this article applies to earlier versions. There's no demonstration file. For a basic tutorial article on styles, read How to manage Word styles like a pro. You can apply styles in the browser version. In addition, the browser edition will support existing custom styles. However, you can't create new custom styles in the browser, and many of the features reviewed in this article aren't available in the that edition.
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1: They're easy to use
Every Word document makes use of styles, whether you recognize them or not. Just typing text uses Word's built-in Normal style. A style is a set of formats. By applying styles, you can quickly and consistently format your documents. You can build your own styles or use the built-in styles. Because the built-in styles already exist, of course, they're easier to use. Most organizations don't have specific conventions for ordinary word processing needs, so make things easy on yourself and use the built-in styles, unless you have a specific reason not to—and I can think of lots of reasons not to make more work for myself.
If the built-in styles don't suit your needs but you want to take advantage of their feature-linking behaviors, create a template and modify the built-ins. It's the best of both worlds.
2: You gain stability and consistency
You can't delete Word's built-in heading styles. That means you can't accidentally destroy your document's style hierarchy by deleting a style that's in use—even though you didn't realize it. In addition, your documents are consistent from one file to another. That means more professional documents and easier sharing.
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3: Building a table of contents is a snap
You can use any style to generate a TOC, but using Word's built-in styles reduces the work because it's automatic. The heading styles are the defaults; use them for chapter and heading titles and your TOC will literally write itself. Once the document is complete, with built-in heading styles applied, you can generate your TOC as follows:
- Position the cursor where you want to insert the TOC.
- Click the References tab.
- Click Table Of Contents in the Table Of Contents group and choose an option from the gallery (Figure A).
Word's built-in TOC options are adequate for most uses.
That's it! For step-by-step instructions on this process, read How to insert a table of contents into a Word document.
4: Navigation is more efficient
Most documents comprise a single page or only a few pages, and navigating is as easy as clicking, using the scroll bar, or using PageUp and PageDown. However, these tools aren't adequate for browsing large documents. For that, Word provides the Navigation Pane (Document Map in older Ribbon versions). To view the pane, click the View tab and then check Navigation Pane in the Show group. Figure B shows this pane with a simple document, but you can easily imagine its worth in a long document. Simply click the headers in the pane to quickly access that section of your document. This feature works only with built-in heading styles.
Use the Navigation Pane to access sections in large documents.
For more detailed instructions on how to take advantage of this feature, read Use Word 2010's new Navigation pane to efficiently browse and organize documents.
5: You can work in Outline View
Outline View also relies on built-in heading styles. It's similar to the Navigation Pane, but it displays and supports a true outline format, as shown in Figure C. Whereas the Navigation Pane is a useful tool for accessing areas of your document, Outline View allows you to promote and demote headings to specific levels, so evaluating and even restructuring your document is easier.
Use Outline View to organize a document.
6: Print Layout is more flexible
As with the Navigation Pane and Outline View, you can collapse entire sections in Print Layout view. After applying a built-in heading style, Word displays a small arrow in the left margin. Hover the mouse to the left of the formatted heading to display it (Figure D). Then, click it to make that entire section disappear (and reappear).
Use collapsible headers in Print Layout.
7: Cross-references are easy to set up
Cross-references are simple to generate in Word if you use built-in heading styles. Once you apply a heading style, that heading is immediately available for cross-referencing, as you can see in Figure E. Word doesn't include text styles with custom styles. When using custom styles, you must bookmark the headings—and if you've worked with bookmarks before, you know they can be messy and frustrating. (Word's hyperlinking feature behaves similarly.)
Built-in heading styles mark headings for inclusion in cross-referencing.
8: Updating page numbers and captions is automatic
Word offers numerous ways to insert page numbers and captions. When you use these features, Word applies built-in styles: Page Number and Caption, accordingly. To quickly update all page numbers or captions, simply change the built-in style.
Many features use built-ins styles, and you won't always realize they're in use. Anytime you need to modify all instances of a feature-based element, such as footnotes, endnotes, bulleted and numbered lists, and header and footer text, look for a built-in style to modify. Their names are descriptive, so they're easy to find.
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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.