Make Professional Looking Documents in Word (Part 1)

Here’s the scenario: You are working on a document that needs to be formatted nicely so that it’s both easy to read and easy to see the inherent logic, or document structure, in the document. You want: text evenly spaced, headings to introduce new sections, and maybe even a table of contents. So you start writing and you format as you go using Word’s basic formatting features such as bold, italic, underline, etc.

For headings, you may want the font size to be larger and you may want the text underlined. As your document grows, you notice you start spending more and more time fiddling with the formatting of text because no matter what you do, text isn’t flowing nicely across the pages. There may be huge gaps between some of the paragraphs. One heading may look different than another.  And you can’t quickly make up a table of contents that can be updated if you move sections around or make other changes. Before you know it, you’re spending more time fixing and re-fixing formatting issues and pulling your hair out than you are on writing the document. There must be a better way.

There is! Use Styles in Microsoft Word.

Let’s first review what a style is. A style contains formatting properties – i.e. font type, font size, font colour, alignment, indentation, numbering, etc. The default style in Word is a style called “Normal”.

Styles live in a template. Templates are documents that have formatting properties already set for you. Word stores templates in a separate location from our working documents folder and locks them so we don’t accidentally overwrite them. In older versions of Word, templates have “.dot” extensions, meaning DOcument Template. In newer versions of Word, templates have either “.dotx” or “.dotm” as their extension.

The default template in Word is called “Normal”.  When you start up Word, and that blank sheet of paper appears on your screen, Word has opened a copy of the template called Normal (which opens up to give you the blank page to start writing on). And when you start typing, the font characteristics of what appears on your screen are determined by the default style, called Normal.

There are a couple of style types but the most common one that you will use is called a paragraph style. For paragraph styles, Word uses the paragraph marker as the style delineator.  The accurate term in Word for the paragraph marker is “pilcrow”. [I know, who knew and who cares, and who comes up with these obscure terms!]

When you turn on the behind-the-scenes codes in Word, you’ll see what looks like a backward facing “p”, the pilcrow. That means every time you press enter, Word inserts the pilcrow. Each paragraph marker (pilcrow) stores style information for preceding text.

You decide when to apply a style to your content. You can write first and then apply a style or apply a style and then write.The choice of when to apply a style largely depends on your preference and possibly how much you know about your document structure before starting out. If you prefer to build the document structure after you have written out the content, then apply the styles afterwards. If you are creating a document that has specific headings and is standardized, like a judgment, then create the document structure first.

Word comes with a few styles already built in, such as Normal (the default style), Heading 1, Heading 2, and Heading 3. The last 3 styles are examples of styles that will help you build the hierarchy in your document structure. Heading 1 means it’s the first level below a title. Heading 2 means it’s the first subheading under Heading 1. And Heading 3 means it’s a sub-subheading. You can have multiple Heading 1s, multiple Heading 2s, and multiple Heading 3s in your document. Word will allow you to have up to 9 levels of hierarchy if you want. Most documents don’t have a need to go beyond 3 levels.

So if you want to create a quick heading, and it’s your first heading in your document (not the document title), apply the style called Heading 1. You’ll notice the formatting properties have changed.

Here are step-by-step instructions on how to apply a style for PC users, written by Shauna Kelly at Thank you Shauna!  Just a quick aside: Shauna is one of Microsoft’s MVPs, or Most Valuable Professionals. MVPs are experts awarded Microsoft recognition on an annual basis for their outstanding contributions to the larger community. I have had the pleasure of working with a few of them now (Dian Chapman, John Marshall) and participating in some of their Word email discussion lists over the years. I hope to return the favour by paying it forward.

One quick tip to help you apply a style– you don’t have to highlight all the text in a text string to apply a style. The text string might be a couple of words (as in a heading) or it might be as long as a paragraph. You only need to make sure that you have placed your insertion point, the blinking I-beam on your screen, within the text where you want to apply the style. When you apply the style, the formatting properties will change for all the text up until the paragraph marker (yup, the pilcrow again).

For Mac users using Word 2008, a quick way to access styles is the following. After you select text or position your insertion point in a paragraph, click on the Toolbox (it’s located on your toolbar). The Toolbox will open a separate window on your screen. The title of this window will be Formatting Palette. Expand the Styles section by clicking on the triangle beside the word Styles. Then click on a name of the style you want to apply. You can choose to leave the Toolbox open on your screen or not.

And if you don’t like how a style looks in your document, modify the style.  The beauty of modifying the style is that by making one change, all the text that had been marked with that style will be automatically updated! I’ve tried this in large documents that easily had 400+ pages and the changes were immediately implemented. It’s really cool!

Here are some tutorials on how to modify a style:

On PC, Word 2007 and Word 2010, again thanks to Shauna Kelly from Australia.

On Mac, Word 2008, thanks to Xander Tan in Indonesia.

Okay, that’s enough about styles for now.

Stay tuned for Part 2 because now we can talk about advanced reasons for using styles that will make your documents look even more professional!