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How to Use Microsoft Word with Style

26th May 2011

I’ve been using MS Word for almost 20 years, I started using it at university for writing technical reports, and continued when I started work for a research & development company. A report written with MS Word was often the major deliverable to the customer at the end of a lengthy research project. Word was the corporate standard, and it was used by the majority of people every day (9000 people). The problem with Word is that the majority of people don’t “use” Word, they “misuse” Word.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen people struggle with a document, not because of the content, but because of the formatting. It was never an issue with Word, it was always an issue with the user. Here are my top tips for creating a Word document the right way.

Keep the content and the formatting separate

Let’s get one thing straight, the goal of a document is to get information across to the reader, it’s the information that is most important. The formatting aids in achieving this goal by presenting the reader with something that can be easily digested.

Write in Outline view

Writing using Outline view allows you to concentrate on the content, and the Outline of the document i.e. it’s structure. There will be no formatting to distract you, as there will be no formatting! Your only options while creating the content will be to specify text as Body Text or Heading Text (Heading 1, 2, 3 etc)

Never use Direct Formatting, use Styles

After the content has been created in Outline View, switch to Print Layout View (this is the default view). On the Home tab (Office 2007 & 2010) you’ll notice the Font and Paragraph areas. This is what most people would use when creating a document, it can be used to make heading text larger, to create bold or italic text, to create lists etc. This is called Direct Formatting, and my advice is simple, don’t use it.


Fig 1. The Direct Formatting area on the Home tab

Next to the Directing Formatting area on the ribbon is the Styles area, this contains document elements (Headings, Lists, Titles, Emphasis) that have predefined formats. For example, Heading 1 might be size 16, Blue, Bold etc. By using these built in styles you are not simply telling Word to make a heading large and blue, you are telling Word that it is a heading.


Fig 2. The Styles area on the Home tab

Show the Styles window

Hit Alt+Ctrl+Shift+S to display the Styles Window (or click the small arrow in the lower right corner of Fig 2), and then select Options from the lower right of that window. From the Select Styles to Show dropdown, pick In Use. The Styles displayed in this window will now be limited to the styles currently being used in the document. It’s useful because it allows you to keep an eye on the number of styles you are using. From my experience a good document does not need more than around 10 styles e.g. Title, Normal, Heading 1, 2 & 3, Emphasis, bulleted list, numbered list, graphic, caption. With this arrangement you have the styles available displayed in the Ribbon, and those in use in the Styles window.

Mark formatting inconsistencies

This is the one feature that even seasoned Word users often aren’t familiar with. Everybody knows that Word can highlight spelling errors with a red squiggly line, and grammar errors with a green squiggly line, but, Word can also highlight formatting inconsistencies with a blue squiggly line. This feature is off by default, to enable it go to the File tab, select Options, then select Advanced, then tick Keep track of Formatting, and Mark formatting inconsistencies. Now, whenever you deviate from the predefined styles, Word will underline the text, if you then right click on the text you will be given the option to change the formatting to match the nearest built in Style.


Fig 3. Word highlighting inconsistent formatting, and suggesting applying a Style

Modify the Styles once the content is complete

Remember, the goal of a document is to get information to the reader, and the formatting is purely an aid. Only once the content has been generated can you make a decision on the type of formatting. If it’s a short document with very few images you might want large bold headings, with a narrow paragraph, and a large line spacing. If it’s a long document you might opt for wide paragraphs with a narrow spacing etc. Once the content is complete, now is the time to modify the Styles you have used, i.e. those displayed in the Style window. Simply right click on the style and then select Modify.

The Benefits

Whether you use Direct Formatting, or Styles when creating your document, the simple fact is that the end result will look identical, so what’s the point in using Styles?


If you define your Headings using Styles, then Word can use this information to help you navigate the document. Go to the View tab, and from the Show area, tick the Navigation box. You’ll see a new window docked to the left side of the screen that shows you the Outline (or Contents) view of your document. This has three benefits:

  1. You can see at a glance how your document is structured
  2. You can click on a heading and be taken to that point in the document
  3. You can move whole sections around simply by dragging the headings.

There are other benefits to correctly outlining a document, for example, defining headings correctly gives Word the ability to generate a table of contents with just a few clicks.

Changing the look of the document

By using Styles it’s possible to completely change the look of a document by simply modifying the Styles, and this is done without ever selecting any of the text. If your company updates their brand and introduces new colours etc, old documents can be easily updated to match the new look.


Most documents are not written by a single user, and when it comes time to pass the document to someone else, it will be much easier for them to continue in a consistent manner if you have used Styles correctly.

Key points

  • Write the content in Outline view
  • Never use Direct Formatting, always use Styles
  • Always display the Navigation Window and the Styles Window
  • Enable the Mark formatting inconsistencies feature
  • Modify the Styles once the content is complete.
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From → Office, Word

  1. David Taylor permalink

    Outstanding advice. I take it blue squiggles are a 2010 feature only?

    • It’s in 2007, and I think there is also a version in Word 2003, I only have Office 2010 installed, so I’m unable to verify, but according to this post, the feature has been available for quite a while.

      How to use the Format Consistency Checker in the background
      To use the Format Consistency Checker in the background as you type, follow these steps, as appropriate for the version of Word that you are running.

      Word 2003 or Word 2002
      On the Tools menu, click Options.
      Click the Edit tab.
      Under Editing options, click to select the Mark formatting inconsistencies check box, and then click OK.

      Word 2007
      In Word 2007, click the Microsoft Office Button, and then click Word Options.
      In the left pane, click Advanced.
      In the right pane, click to select the Mark formatting inconsistencies check box under Editing options, and then click OK.

  2. Gareth permalink

    Very useful, thanks. Word gets less useful with every version; but may be its the stuck in the rut me!

  3. Billy McCallum permalink

    That was useful information for someone who regularly misuses Word, thanks

  4. The information on formatting inconsistincies was particularly helpful, very useful advice.

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