Styles in Microsoft Word

Let’s face it: legal writing is already hard work. Tinkering with things like fonts to enhance legal document readability can be time-consuming. However, with the Microsoft Word Styles feature, consistent formatting becomes a whole lot easier and faster and can help enforce standards in your firm’s outgoing documents.1

What are Styles?

Using Microsoft Word Styles is a way to apply pre-set formatting definitions to blocks of text. For example, you can designate a style called “Heading 1” which formats all of your first-level headings in a particular font, boldface, single-spaced, and centered. That Heading 1 style, applied to all of your first-level headings in a brief or another document, gives you a one-step way to apply multiple format settings (font, font weight, justification, line spacing, etc.) for consistent formatting in your document.

Why You Really Should Use Styles (Hint: You Already Do)

Some users say they don’t use Styles. But, in fact, every single piece of text you touch in Microsoft Word has a Style applied to it. In fact, there are over 200 built-in Styles to control everything from headings to numbering to footnotes. Styles are the foundation upon which formatting, document organization and many features (Tables of Contents, etc.) are built.

The beauty of using Styles rather than manual text formatting is being able to change the formatting throughout the document in a couple of steps. Otherwise, you’re stuck going through the entire document looking for each instance of a particular text type. For instance, if you decide to change your first-level heading font from Times New Roman to Book Antiqua, you only need to modify the Style, and all the headings in your document will change automatically.

And because Microsoft designed Styles to mimic web formatting, understanding how the Styles relate to one another is critical. For example, if you change the font for the Normal Style, you’ll see that same change immediately reflected in other Styles such as Footnote Text. Why? Styles are designed to cascade from one another; in other words, many of the formatting settings in one Style may be inherited from a “parent” Style. Normal is a common “parent” Style for many other Styles, so making changes there can have ripple effects all over the document. Understanding cascading Styles lets you make high-leverage changes in one place rather than going all over your document applying direct formatting.

Example of how Microsoft Word Styles cascade from one another

Change the Normal Style’s font, and that change will cascade down to other Styles such as Footnote Text

Using Built-In Microsoft Word Styles

Microsoft Word has had the Styles feature for several versions, and the Ribbon-based versions (Office 2007 and up) kick it up a notch by offering multiple sets of standard Styles. Styles are grouped into Style Sets, and many of the Styles within the current set are available in the Quick Styles Gallery on the Home tab:

Click on the down arrow just to the left of Change Styles (the arrow that has a small line above it) to see the full list of Quick Styles:

The default Style set often features blue headings and fonts not particularly appropriate for legal documents. There are more choices over on the Design tab:

word-2016-design-tab

Either choose another Style set from the gallery or click on the Colors and/or Fonts drop-downs to the right to make the appropriate adjustments to the current Style set. Save your settings for your future documents by clicking the Set as Default button.

How to Apply a Style to Text

To apply an existing Style (such as one of the above) to your text, select the text with your mouse. Once your text is selected, click on the Style name in the Quick Styles Gallery on the Home tab. Your text will be re-formatted in the new Style.

To see a preview of how a particular Style will reformat your text, simply hover your mouse pointer over that Style and pause a moment—your text will briefly change to the new settings. It will revert to its previous formatting as soon as you move your mouse pointer away

Here’s another way you can choose Styles to apply to your text: click Apply Styles in the full Style set view shown above and get a complete list of Styles to apply (not all Styles are listed in the Quick Styles gallery):

word-2017-apply-styles

Clicking on that button circled in red above will pop up a Styles pane to the right that you can also use to manipulate Styles:

word-2016-styles-pane

Modifying an Existing Style

If you would like to apply a Style to your text but want a minor change, such as making the type a bit larger, right-click on top of that Quick Style and select Modify:

You’ll be taken to the Modify Style dialog box, where you can adjust the formatting in a variety of ways. To change the font as in our example, just click the font drop-down and scroll down until you find the font you want.

word-2016-style-modify

The easiest way to change an existing Style? Find some text in your document that’s already formatted the way you like, select the text with mouse or keyboard, then right-click the Style as previous. As you can see above, the first choice in the right-click menu is Update [Style] to match selection. Click that, and the selected Style will be updated with all of that text’s settings—font, justification, line spacing, etc.

Figuring Out What Style is Currently Applied So You Can Change It

If the text your cursor is sitting in has one of the Quick Styles applied to it, it’ll be selected in the Styles Gallery:

Normal Style selected in the Styles Gallery

However, not every Style is a Quick Style (which is what makes it visible in the Styles Gallery). To determine which Style is applied to your current text, click the small launcher arrow in the lower right-hand corner of the Styles area of the Home tab (or use Alt-Ctrl-Shift-S) to open the Styles pane:

Again, it may be obvious from the Styles pane which Style is applied, and you can modify that Style by clicking on the arrow on the right-hand end and choosing Modify from the menu. To get a fuller list of available Styles, click Options at the bottom and change the setting in Select styles to show:

The Style Inspector (the middle button at the bottom of the Styles pane with the magnifying glass icon) tells you not only which Style is applied, but whether any direct formatting has been added:

Under Paragraph formatting and Text level formatting, you’ll see which Style has been applied plus any direct formatting that’s been added. The eraser icons on the right let you reset the selected text to the defaults.

Creating a New Style

What if you want to add a Style to the set you’re using? You can format some text the way you want it, then use that text as the basis for a new Style.

For example, you can create a “Block Quote” Style where paragraphs are single-spaced and indented 0.5″ on left and right. Format the block quote the way you want it, triple-click it with your mouse to select the entire paragraph, and get the contextual menu:

When you click Create Style in the contextual menu, you get the Create New Style from Formatting dialog box. That will allow you to name your new Style and modify it some more if you like (see “Modify an Existing Style” above), then save it.

Word 2016 Modify Style dialog box

Recommended settings for Block Quote Style

Sharing Your Styles with Others

Part of the usefulness of Styles is their ability to standardize text formatting. If you’ve developed some Styles you want to use firm-wide (or just within your practice group), you’ve got some hurdles to clear.

First, Microsoft is pretty adamant: you cannot share the Normal.dotm template among multiple users. But you can copy any Styles you’ve stored in your Normal.dotm template to other templates, then share those templates with your workgroup. Open up documents based on the two different templates (Normal and whatever template you want to copy a Style to). Back on the Styles pane, click the Manage Styles button on the bottom right to go to the Manage Styles dialog box. Click Import/Export at the bottom left to go to the Styles Organizer.

Word 2016 import export styles

Once you’ve copied your new Styles to special templates, you can designate a central network folder for those templates and point everyone’s Workgroup Templates setting to that folder.

To modify that setting on an individual PC, click the File tab and choose Options. Under Advanced, scroll down to the General section and click File Locations:

From here, you’ll be asked to designate a network drive/folder as the Workgroup templates folder:

If you have a large workgroup to share templates with, your IT support person will have a more sophisticated method of repointing everyone to a workgroup templates folder via the Windows registry.


  1. Unless otherwise noted below, all instructions and screenshots are for Microsoft Office 2016 for Windows.