Importance of Styles in Microsoft Word

Last edited by Charles Kenyon on Monday 21 August 2023 - an exerpt from Understanding Styles in Microsoft Word

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Styles Overview

Styles are arguably the most important feature in Microsoft Word. Why? Because everything that you do in Word has a style attached. The definition of a style is two-fold. First, you can think of a style as a set of pre-defined formatting instructions that you can use repeatedly throughout the document. Let's say each heading in a document must be centered, uppercase, bold, and a slightly larger font size. Each time you need to apply formatting to the heading, you have to go through the entire process to get the text the way you want it. If you store the formatting commands in a style, you can apply that style any time you need it without having to do all of the reformatting.

Possibly more important however is that styles are used to "tag" or identify parts of a document. An example of this is whether text is part of a heading, a footnote, a hyperlink, or body text. These are all examples of styles in Word.

If you're concerned about whether or not you need to learn styles, we can put it rather simply: you do. Styles are the architecture upon which Word is based. Just about everything in Word is style-driven. In fact, many people in the industry refer to Word as a "style-driven" program.

Allen Wyatt uses an elegant metaphor about styles:

"Styles are nothing more than a named definition of how text should appear. You can best understand this by comparing your text to water (this is your content). The appearance of the water depends on the attributes of the container in which it is placed. If you place it in a glass it will look one way; if you place it in a pitcher, it looks a different way. The relationship between text and styles is no different; if you change the style that has been applied to text, then the appearance of the text automatically changes."  Understanding Styles

Styles allow for quick formatting modifications throughout the document and can be tied into numbering to make working with outline numbered lists easier. See Outline View in Microsoft Word

"While the [quick] styles gallery has been available on the Word home tab since Word 2007, some people just assume styles are meant for people who want big blue text.

Styles Gallery - Word 2013

"As it turns out, that’s not true. I’m here to tell you that Styles are handy, and if you use them to format your text as you write your document, you’ll be able to take full advantage of the improvements in Word 2013 that we’ve outlined below."

-- Caitlin Ashley-Rollman, Microsoft Program Manager for Word 2013 in blog on using styles

The dialog drop-down arrow on the bottom-right corner of the [Quick] Styles Gallery will launch the legacy Styles Pane. See more on the Styles Task Pane.


CK Note: For long documents, documents that are likely to be heavily edited, and documents that may form the basis for other documents, follow the basic rule that to change formatting use Format => Styles... Do not apply direct formatting.

In Ribbon versions of Word (2007+) this is even easier, click on your style from the Styles gallery!

You will save yourself, and others, untold hours of hair-tearing. For shorter one-use documents, direct formatting is OK; you'll only regret not using styles about one time in six, on the other five out of the six, you'll save a bit of time. If you create document templates with direct formatting, you deserve what will happen to you when someone finds out (and it won't be nice). In my opinion, using direct formatting in document templates intended for use by others rates the words malicious and/or incompetent. If the templates are for your own use, you deserve the loss of days, months, even years from your life that you'll spend fighting with Word and trying to figure out why your documents look so bad.

Trying to use Word without understanding and using styles is like pushing on a string. I resisted learning and using styles for years and now regret every day of those years because although that string was still very hard to push, it kept getting longer and longer, and had some very important projects tied to it!

Once you understand styles and the Word concept of organizing things into nested Russian dolls everything falls into place and instead of pushing a string, you can push a button that turns on the very powerful text processing machine known as Microsoft Word and it will start doing your work for you instead of running around behind you trying to undo what you thought you just did.


These statements should be even stronger for those using Word 2007-21 because styles are even easier to use in the ribbon versions of Word.


I just had occasion to edit a 100-page document that was created without using styles. It was formatted completely with direct formatting. Each page ended with a page break.

Each time it had to be saved, the save took more than 60 seconds, during which time Word was frozen.

A similar-sized document formatted using Styles takes less than 3 seconds for me to save. When a page break must be forced, instead of using a manual page break, the paragraph to begin the new page is formatted using a style that has "page break before" paragraph formatting.

This difference was due entirely to the document being directly formatted - a much higher level of complexity. Each paragraph mark in a directly-formatted paragraph carries with it up to fifty different formatting commands. When formatted using a style, that paragraph mark will carry with it one command - use this style!

--CKK 1 Feb 2012

See an example of a document formatted using styles for two virtually identical documents, one formatted using Styles, the other mostly not using Styles. Both have the same number of words and pages. One is 34K; the other is 48K.

--CKK 6 Jan 2016

In this Word Forum thread, the poster was having a very sluggish response from Word. I advised changing formatting from direct formatting to style-based. Problem solved!

--CKK 30 Oct 2019

Yet Another "Use Styles" Verbal Beating! by Dian Chapman, MVP

Why Use Styles? - (4.5 min. video that may save you months of work.)

Tip Tip  Microsoft recommends that you use numbering linked to styles to get the best result for numbered paragraphs, outline numbering and lists.

CK Note: See How to create numbered headings or outline numbering in your Microsoft Word document by Shauna Kelly and Word's Numbering Explained by John McGhie.

There are several reasons for using styles in a document:
bulletConsistency — When you use styles to format your document, each section is formatted the same and therefore, provides a professional, clean-looking document.
bulletEasier to Modify — If you use styles in your document consistently, you only need to update a given style once if you want to change the characteristics of all text formatted in that style.
bulletEfficiency — You can create a style once, and then apply it to any section in the document without having to format each section individually.
bulletTable of Contents — Styles can be used to generate a table of contents quickly.
bulletFaster Navigation — Using styles lets you quickly move to different sections in a document using the Navigation Pane (formerly Document Map) feature.
bulletWorking in Outline View — Styles allow you to outline and organize your document's main topics with ease.
bulletLegal Outline Numbering – Numbering, when linked to styles, allows you to generate and update consistent outline numbering in legal documents, even ones with complicated numbering schemes like municipal law, tax law, and mergers and acquisitions documents.
bulletEfficiency of Word — Files which are predominantly manually formatted are less efficient than those which have formatting that has been imposed by styles: manually formatted files, such a converted documents which have been File, Opened, are bloated in file size (bytes) and do not render to the screen efficiently when you scroll through them. This is because Word is a styles-based application: it first reads the attributes of the underlying style, then has to broadcast anything contrary (e.g. manually formatted on top of that). As such, a lengthy document that has been predominantly manually formatted, will behave sluggishly because Word has to work harder at managing it. Additionally, the print formatting processes are equally labored as opposed to using styles.
bulletHTML AND XML — What lies ahead? A fully structured, styled document will move into HTML and XML incredibly well.

Styles are an essential part of Microsoft Word. In fact, everything you type into a document has a style attached to it, whether you design the style or not.

When you start Microsoft Word, the new blank document is based on the Normal template, and text that you type uses the Normal style. This means that when you start typing, Word uses the font name, font size, line spacing, indentation, text alignment, and other formats currently defined for the Normal style. The Normal style is the base style for the Normal template, meaning that it's a building block for other styles in the template. Whenever you start typing in a new document, unless you specify otherwise, you are typing in the Normal style.

The above was an excerpt from the much larger chapter Understanding Styles in Microsoft Word. That chapter goes into styles in more depth and has a plethora of links to other resources.


Additional Web Resources

Display, Use, and Manage Styles in Word by Suzanne Barnhill, MVP
bullet The [Quick] Styles Gallery
bullet The Styles Pane
bullet Apply Styles Toolbar
bullet Styles Dropdown in QAT
bullet Comparison of Ways to View/Apply Styles
bullet Using / Creating / Modifying Styles - Types of Styles
bullet Customizing the [Quick] Styles Gallery
bullet The Manage Styles Dialog
bullet Solving Style Mysteries - Style Inspector - Reveal Formatting Pane
Tips for Understanding Styles in Word by Shauna Kelly, MVP
How Styles in Microsoft Word Cascade by Shauna Kelly, MVP
Working With Styles by Tony Jollans, MVP
Word Styles from the Beginning - Office Watch
Why does text change format when I copy it into another document? by Shauna Kelly, MVP
What happens when I send my document to someone else, will the formatting change? by Shauna Kelly, MVP
Tying numbering to Styles - How to create numbered headings or outline numbering in Word 2007 and Word 2010 by Shauna Kelly, MVP
Customize Styles in Word for the Mac - Microsoft Support
How Templates, Styles, and Building Blocks Relate to One Another in Microsoft Word by legal office guru Deborah Savadra (video)
A Global StyleSheet in Microsoft Word? by Charles Kyle Kenyon
[Quick] Style Sets and Themes in Microsoft Word by Charles Kenyon
Microsoft Word Styles and Why You Should Use Them (hint: you already are!) by legal office guru Deborah Savadra
Consistent Headings Using Styles by legal office guru Deborah Savadra
Six Secret Word Style Settings You Should Be Using by legal office guru Deborah Savadra
Get one-click access to formatting with Styles by legal office guru Deborah Savadra
Word is always making changes I don't expect. How can I get more control over my formatting? by Suzanne S. Barnhill, MVP, and Dave Rado, MVP.
So You Want to Write a Book Using Microsoft Word - extensive tutorial by MVP Daiya Mitchell with overview of Styles, Templates and Sections and the interactions among these tool/features. Excellent! Not just for those who want to write books!
Word Tips about Styles from Allen Wyatt - Note, most tips have versions for Ribbon versions of Word (2007+) and pre-ribbon versions. A few of the tips are listed below.
bullet Making Sure Styles Do Not Update Automatically
bullet Assigning a Shortcut Key to Styles
bullet Deploying Standard Styles through an Organization
bullet Displaying the Styles You Want Displayed
bullet Preventing Styles from Changing
Creating Documents with Style - Jonathan Bailor - blog
Behind the Curtains: Styles' Order of Operation - Jonathan Bailor - blog - six types of styles, how styles relate to one another, document defaults,
Behind the Curtain (II) - Styles, Doc Defaults, Style Sets, and Themes  - Jonathan Bailor - blog - How do document defaults relate to the Normal style? How do Style Sets relate to Styles? How do Themes relate to Styles?
(Advanced) How to safely update a document's styles from its template without using the Organizer (and how to make the Tools + Templates and Add-ins dialog safe) by Dave Rado, Margaret Aldis, Ian Sharpe and Beth Melton.
How to Apply a Style in Microsoft Word by Shauna Kelly
How to Modify a Style in Microsoft Word by Shauna Kelly
How to Control the [Quick] Styles Gallery on the Home Tab by Shauna Kelly (Word 2007-2013 (365))
Customize Your [Quick] Styles Gallery by Debora Savadra (video)
Applying and Modifying Styles - A tutorial with video and practice document
Creating and Sharing Custom Microsoft Word Styles by Deborah Savadrah - especially good on creating new Style Sets and sharing them in ribbon versions of Word
Why Does Text Change Format When I Copy It Into a Different Document? by Shauna Kelly
How Styles in Word Cascade by Shauna Kelly
Table Styles Not Useful by Shauna Kelly
Formatting applied to one paragraph affects entire document by Suzanne S. Barnhill, MVP
How to Control Bullets in Microsoft Word by Shauna Kelly, MVP. Bullets and outline numbering are very much related in Word. You use styles to implement either in a reliable way.
OutlineNumbering by Shauna Kelly, MVP (see note above)
Changing the formatting rules with compatibility options - these can change how Word treats formatting in styles.
Styles Order of Operations Microsoft Blog
Default Paragraph Font Explained by Suzanne Barnhill, MVP
Why Use Styles - part of Video tutorials on Word
Using the Navigation Pane in Word 2010
Style Basics in Word (2007-2021) Microsoft
Word Styles from the Beginning - Woody's Office Watch
A Deep Dive into Styles in Microsoft Word by Greg Maxey (video)


Note: There are more links on the main page!

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