Word styles: The secret to a professional-looking Word document

You Got Style!

Microsoft Word is a style-based program. Designers have created endless Word styles to make life easier for Word users. Bullets are a great example. If I need to create a list of organized items in a document, I use bullets to quickly list items in my document. A bullets icon on Word’s Home tab makes it easy to create bulleted lists.

Word styles - custom bullets
Hint: Click on any image to view a larger version.

I click the bullets button and—voila!—a predefined bullet icon appears each time I press tab. The tool also indents the bulleted text.

So, what’s occurring in the background? These are Word styles: pre-created, predefined formats to work with fonts, lists, data tables, tables of contents, borders, and other design elements that make your Word document more attractive and more intuitive. Simply put, Word styles are a design tool created for users so you don’t have to create them yourself.

Working with Word styles can make working with Word documents much simpler. Learning to modify them will give users the control to give their documents a specific, desired “look.”

Let’s begin with one of the most important Word styles: Heading Styles. These are located on the Home tab.

Working with Microsoft Word styles

As you move your cursor arrow over the Word style gallery, hover-over text mentions that styles give your document a polished and consistent look. Many more benefits exist. We are going to discuss one main benefit about why heading styles are so important.

Office 2007-2016 versions provide a few styles by default.

Word styles - default styles in Microsoft Word

Most Word users discover these default styles to be a quick way to format text in a document. Default styles include titles, subtitles, quotes, headings, and more, as we can see by their names. Word’s default styles are great on their own; more importantly, however, they can be used to help with automation.

Heading 1 and Heading 2 are two popular default styles. Headings offer Word users several great tools. They allow PowerPoint to create new slides from text created in a Word document. They allow chapter numbering within long documents. They work well with website content and HTML. If you explore the topic further, you’ll find many more other useful features. Today, though, we’ll discuss one of the most useful functions of Word headers.

These heading styles allow for ease when creating a Table of Contents (as I described in this “how-to” post). Any professional document should always have a Table of Contents. Up to nine of these heading styles are available—they will become available as you start using them. To set up a document for a Table of Contents, just select the text that you would like to see in the Table of Contents and apply a style.

Which Word Styles Do I Use?

Word allows you to customize how it picks up the text when you insert a Table of Contents. For this tutorial, though, let’s pause and think of Heading 1 as a primary level bullet and Heading 2 as a secondary bullet.

We know primary bullets list main points or items, and secondary bullets denote relation to the main point or primary bullet. Here’s an example:


  • Marketing
  • Sales
  • Operations
    • New Employee—Jessica Smith
      • Starts on 10/1/2016

Word displays bullets in a hierarchical structure. Notice that the primary bullets above are used to list departments. The secondary bullet in this case notes that a newly-hired employee will report under the Operations department. A tertiary bullet indicates the start date of the new employee.

If we think of Heading styles 1-9 in the same manner as bullets, we can better understand their intended use. When we make a Table of Contents, we may want to display main topics and secondary topics. These parameters will help determine which style you choose. Heading 1 will designate primary topics, while Heading 2 will show secondary topics, and so on.

Example: I want to create a document with a Table of Contents. I want the TOC to identify page locations where specific items appear. I also have some text I’d like to appear as sub-topics or secondary topics in my TOC.

  1. In a new Word document, type in a title. Select the text and choose Title style
    1. This will enlarge your text to font size 28
  2. Identify the main topic and make them “Heading 1” style
    1. Select multiple text areas by holding CTRL if needed
    2. Choose Heading 1
      1. The style will change the text to blue and font size 16, and applies additional line spacing to help readers’ eyes distinguish separation from paragraphs below
    3. Identify text that should appear as sub-topics or secondary topics
      1. Select the text and apply Heading 2
        1. Font size will decrease to 13 and text will change to blue again

[Now for an admission. Long ago, I used to create tables of contents manually. It was such a grueling process. Type in the topic, … press and hold down the period, … and manually attempt to align each page number. Then, manually undo and redo these steps every time I needed to add more content into the document. (No shame… we’ve all done it!)]

At this point, I have prepped the document for a Table of Contents by adding Heading Styles. When ready, I can have Word search for all Heading Styles and pull them into the document, automatically producing a table of contents.

Word styles - headings for table of contents

  1. Place cursor on the document before inserting the TOC
  2. On the Reference Tab, select Table of Contents
  3. You will see a few TOC styles (Automatic TOC 1 or Automatic TOC 2) if you’d like to use them; otherwise, choose Custom Table of Contents
    1. I prefer the Custom Table of Contents; this option provides full control of how it will look
    2. Once within the Custom Table of Contents, users will be able choose different styles to use
      Customizing the table of contents using MS Word style options
    3. The Tab leaders dropdown menu gives options for the separator that will display between text and the page numbers; standard options include:
      1. None
      2. Dots
      3. Dash
      4. Line
    4. In the General section of the Table of Contents tool, the Formats dropdown will provide various styles to choose from
      1. From Template is the default style chosen
    5. Also in the General section, Show Levels tells Word to search the document for a specified number of levels to pull into the Table of Contents; here we have chosen to look for Heading 1 through Heading 3
  1. Press OK

The Table of Contents will appear. You can easily update it as you change your document by adding more content or by reformatting the page numbers. Select the Table of Contents and press F9 to quickly update the TOC.

Managing a Table of Contents using Word styles becomes especially useful in long documents.

Modify Styles

Word users can modify styles to change any formatting aspect per document, or adjust styles so they apply to all new documents. To ensure a consistent and cohesive look when creating multiple documents, simply modify the styles one time and use as a default template.

Modify Word styles

  • To modify the default style, right-click on the style you want to change. In this example, I will adjust the Title style.
  • Name your style. I chose “Terri’s Style” for this example.
  • Adjust basic formatting.
    • Change the font and font size; make bold or italic; set the text to justify left or right or center.
    • More formatting options exist at the bottom left corner.
  • Identify whether changes should apply to one document or become a new default template.
    • Only in this document will impact only the existing document.
    • New documents based on this template will change the style within all new documents created from that point forward.
  • Hit OK.

The style gallery should display your modified style.

Word styles - modifying default style in Microsoft Word

Building Blocks

Building Blocks are similar to Word styles as they are snippets of reusable content. Using Word’s building blocks in addition to heading styles and a TOC will give your professional documents a finished, polished look.

On the Insert Tab of your Word document, you will find an option called QuickParts within the Text group. QuickParts includes a tool called the building block organizer. This organizer holds numerous components to insert from Insert tab and other tabs within the ribbon.

The building block organizer contains all reusable content to quickly insert on your documents. Options include: cover pages, text boxes or quote boxes, headers, footers, tables, and watermarks. Take a moment to look at the options within the building block organizer.

Word styles building block organizer

Insert building blocks using the Insert button (at bottom). Or, you can choose to insert items from the insert tab or other tabs within the ribbon. This is a general area to store styles of various components that acts as your one-stop-shopping area for any reusable content.

Cover Pages

Cover pages are an amazing Word feature that was long overdue. Cover pages can add a finished look to any document. They are perfect when creating manuals. (Microsoft brought in the use of these cover pages in Office 2007.)

Before inserting a cover page, select the first point in your document (Ctrl + Home is a quick trick to get to the top of any document within Microsoft Office). Go to the Insert Tab > Cover Pages, or access through QuickParts> Building Block Organizer.

Word styles - cover pages

Within the cover pages, users can type directly into fields for titles, subtitles, and author name, and some cover pages also contain date fields.

Word styles - cover page fields

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