Styles in Word

In addition to providing heading structure, Word’s styles give you a powerful way to quickly create attractive documents with consistent formatting.

Why Styles Matter

Styles make your message adaptable.  You can separate presentation (how things look) from content (the text and its structure).

Suppose you copy text from one document and paste it into another. If it’s made right, your text will keep its structure. You’ll still see all its headings, for example. But that text may look quite different in the new document, with different fonts, colors, sizes, etc. The text would keep its structure but leave it’s old document’s presentation information behind and take on the look of the text in the new document.

Likewise, screen reader software ignores how text looks. The listener won’t see text size and color, but will still be able to tell when they encounter a heading. That’s because what makes that text a heading isn’t that it’s bigger and bolder. It’s the underlying structure.

If your document has good structure, a screen reader user can jump from heading to heading, or to the next table, or next list.

Customize a Style

When you apply one of Word’s styles, you may find that you don’t like what you see. The default formatting for heading styles is particularly lame. But don’t fix it by highlighting the text and using the Font and Paragraph sections of the Ribbon. That will only fix that one block of text. Instead change the formatting of the style itself so you get the look you want whenever you apply it.

Access the Styles Pane

A small number of styles are visible in the “Styles” section of the ribbon when the “Home” tab is selected. Whatever is highlighted is the style for the text where you have your cursor.

To see more styles, open the “Styles Pane.” On a Mac, there is an obvious “Styles Pane” button on the right of the Home ribbon. On a PC, click the tiny icon in the lower right corner of the Styles section of the ribbon.

Keyboard Shortcuts to Open the Styles Pane

  • Windows: Alt+Ctrl+Shift+S
  • Mac: Option+Command+Shift+S

Modify a Style

To modify a style, right click a style on the ribbon and choose “Modify.” Or hover over a style in the Styles Pane and click the downward-pointing arrow that appears, then choose “Modify” or “Modify Style.”

You’ll immediately be able to choose a lot of formatting for the style, such as font, text size, and color. For more formatting options, click “Format” at the bottom left of the “Modify Style” dialog box.

Recommended Style Modifications

Paragraph Spacing

By default, Word doesn’t put space between paragraphs. As a result, a lot of people separate paragraphs by hitting the Enter key twice. This create blank paragraphs between paragraphs. Screen reader users then hear “blank” spoken between each paragraph.

Also, if you copy the text and paste it into a web page, chances are the styles for the page provide space between paragraphs. That space, added to the blank paragraph, creates a very large gap between paragraphs. You will end up having to delete the blank paragraphs for the page to look normal.

To avoid these problems, modify the “Normal” style.

Add Space Between “Normal” Paragraphs

  1. Choose to “Modify” the “Normal” style, as described above.
  2. Click the “Format” button at the lower left of the “Modify Style” dialog box.
  3. Choose “Paragraph” from the “Format” menu.
  4. Under “Spacing” on the Paragraph dialog box, change the “After” setting to whatever size space you want between paragraphs. If you aren’t sure, 6 pt is a good place to start.

Now you only need to press Enter or Return once and you will automatically get some attractive breathing room between paragraphs.

Heading Spacing

You will likely also want to improve upon the default heading spacing. The space before a Heading 1 is particularly worth changing. By default, the space before the heading is 12 points, the height of a whole blank line. That’s not an accessibility problem. But you may want to set that to 0 so the heading sits at the top of the page. And you may want to add some space after Heading 1 so you aren’t tempted to insert blank paragraphs there.

All the default heading styles are a bit lame. Have fun. Anything modifications you make are likely to improve them.