The Open Desk

Margie Beilharz

Freelance editor and writer in science, environment, education, health

What are Word Styles and how do you use them?

You can easily format text in Microsoft Word with the options you can see in your Home ribbon. You can choose your font, font size, colour, bold and italics (character options) and also paragraph options like bullet points, alignment, indenting, spacing between lines and paragraphs, and lots more.

Style Gallery in Home Ribbon showing Heading 1 highlighted.

With this manual formatting, you can create a document to suit your purpose and look, whether that’s professional, creative or somewhere in between.

If you format with Word Styles, you can produce your document with added consistency and efficiency!

And using set styles may even help you avoid your formatting becoming too ‘fun’ when that isn’t really appropriate.

What are Word Styles?

Styles are format settings that you apply to multiple sections of text.

For example, you can apply Heading 1 style to all your top level headings, and Heading 2 style to all subheadings at the next level.

By applying that particular style, you can quickly format all your top-level headings in exactly the same way. And if you change your mind, it’s a simple matter to modify the style and all text in that style will update to the new setting.

How do you apply Word Styles?

Look at your Home ribbon to the right of the paragraph formatting area. Depending on the width you have on your screen, you’ll see something like this – a set of styles already defined. On a PC, click the more arrow (1) to see all the styles in the Style Gallery, or the dialog box arrow on the bottom right (2) to see the Styles pane. On a Mac, click the down arrow (or scroll through with the right arrow) to see more styles and the Styles Pane button to the right to toggle the Styles pane.

Style Gallery in Home Ribbon showing Heading 1 highlighted.

Setting text to be a certain style is as simple as selecting the text and clicking on the style you want to apply. In the image above, I’ve selected Heading 1.

Style types

Character and paragraph styles

Some styles (like heading styles, Normal and Body Text) apply to the whole paragraph. Other styles (like Emphasis or Strong) apply to just the characters – you might want just one word in the paragraph in italics, for example.

Character styles (a) format Font properties (i.e. those in the Font dialog box). These styles will apply to your text selection.

Paragraph styles (¶) format both Font and Paragraph properties (i.e. those in the Font and Paragraph dialog boxes). The styles will apply to a whole paragraph –you can select the entire paragraph or just have your cursor in the paragraph.

Linked styles

There is another category of style, called a Linked style (¶a). These format either like a Character style or a Paragraph style depending on what is selected.

If you google Linked styles, you’ll quickly see they are much derided by expert Word users for two reasons:

  • They can cause problems with some of the key things people use styles for, such as creating tables of contents and using the navigation pane (of which more in a later post)
  • Even though they were designed to let you set two paragraph styles in one paragraph, there is a better way to do that (check out ‘style separator’).

So we’ll have nothing more to do with Linked styles for now.

Because the default Heading 1, Heading 2 etc. styles are Linked styles (at least in Word 365), it’s a good idea to select ‘Disable Linked Styles’ at the bottom of the Styles pane (see below), which will make Linked styles work like Paragraph styles and prevent problems.

Styles pane showing Heading 2 highlighted

Other styles

You can also use:

  • Table styles – to format tables
  • List styles – to format multilevel lists.

How can you see what style your text is in?

There are many ways to check what style your text is in. In a separate post, I describe six ways to found out what Word style your text is formatted in, including a great tip to customise the Quick Access Toolbar.

Formatting styles

You can easily modify a style (which will then apply to all cases of that style in your document).

Right-click on a style (e.g. in the Style Gallery) and select ‘Modify…’.

Modify style command seen when you right-click on a style

This brings up the Modify Style dialog box, where you can format some attributes in the main box or drill down to more formatting options under the ‘Format’ button.

The Modify Style dialog box

Themes and style sets

Using styles lets you benefit from Word’s built-in Themes and Style Sets.

Click on the Design tab to see these.

Themes and style sets shown on the Design ribbon

You can use themes and style sets to choose an overall ‘look’ for your documents. For example, if you produce documents for your business, you could make them cohesive and distinctive to you.

By default, Word is set to Office theme and a default style set, so you are already using them. But you can change the look of your documents by selecting different options.

In brief, each theme offers a suite of style sets – above you can see a handful of the alternatives in the Office theme. You can see more by clicking on the more arrow.

Each style set has a particular combination of title, heading and various paragraph styles that are designed to work together.

Each theme offers a different suite of style sets. Themes control more aspects than just the style set; for example, they also control graphic formatting effects. Themes can be shared across Word, Excel and PowerPoint documents to give you an even more cohesive look.


Using Word Styles lets you consistently and efficiently format different elements (e.g. headings) in your document. You can modify styles and also select from the many built-in options, including whole themes and style sets.

What next?

As well as controlling the look of your documents, using Word Styles also opens up many functional possibilities, which are even more important to me as an editor. I mentioned some of them in my introductory post – Microsoft Word skills for editors: basic to advanced – and I’ll go into more detail in future posts.

My next post looks at how you can use Word Styles to navigate around and restructure your document.

See more tips and tricks. Tips on Word Styles are gathered in this collection.




4 responses to “What are Word Styles and how do you use them?”

  1. Tips and tricks: Summarising tracked changes in Word – Margie Beilharz — Freelance editor Avatar

    […] See more tips & tricks, including my recent series on using Word Styles. […]


  2. Create a table of contents using Word Styles – Margie Beilharz — Freelance editor Avatar

    […] If you are new to styles, start at my introductory post What are Word Styles and how do you use them? […]


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