Using styles in Microsoft Word

Phew, using styles is a complicated affair. At least it is if you start part way through your book (report, family letter). This tiny guide shares my learnings over the last few months and, hopefully, will put you in the situation where you can confidently share your work with lots of people without the formatting going wrong and it doesn’t matter where you are in your creative process, there are options to suit everyone.

Please note this guide assumes you can do the basics, such as add a new tab to the ribbon or negotiate the save as dialogue, if you are not sure how to do anything look it up. All commands are shown in that pretty pale teal you can see in the previous sentence.

If you are really apprehensive about doing this stuff, don’t be. A good way of making sure your existing work is safe is to ALWAYS make a copy (in File Explorer or with save as) before changing an existing document and work from the copy. Give the copy a clear name – eg, rubbish, sandpit, my styles test environment. And don’t edit your normal template just yet, get happy with how all this works then give it a go.

This guide is written from a Windows Ten desktop running Office 2016. The dialogues and tools behind these instructions haven’t changed for years, but if you are using an older version of Word you might have to hunt around for them. Sadly the styles gallery was only introduced with Word 2003.

What are styles – a tiny bit of background

Styles tells Word how to format your document. Word knows which styles to use because they are saved in a template. Most of us create documents using the ‘blank document’ option on the new dialogue page, this uses the ‘normal’ template. When we send our document to someone else Word uses the styles in their ‘normal’ template. That is when everything goes wrong.

Key steps to creating a document that is nicely formatted, regardless of who opens it

  1. Create a template
  2. Add your styles
  3. Use the template
  4. Add new styles or modify existing styles

Create a template

You have two options: one is to use a best-beloved document and the other is to start from scratch. The experts tend to recommend the latter as an existing document carries lots of history and could be corrupted.

  1. Creating a template directly from an existing document

This is really easy, open your document and save as a word template. Delete the text, save again. In older versions of Word you may have to save as a template again. You have to be sure to save the template in the right location. This varies with the version of Word, but Word will normally put the template in the right place. On older versions it is worth checking where your ‘normal’ template is saved and putting your new template in the same place, in newer versions there should be a Custom Office Templates folder in your ‘documents’ folder.

2. Creating a template from scratch

Also really easy, open a blank document and save as template, making sure it is in the right location (see above).

Add your styles

Again you have two options: copy your styles from an existing document or create them in the template.

  1. Copy from an existing document.

This takes concentration, but is worth the effort if you already have a great format. Open the document you want to take the styles from. Add the developer tab to the ribbon, click on Document Template and click on organizer

The styles organizer

In the picture above you will see two file names. Make sure one is your document and the other is your NEW template. Use the buttons in the centre to copy styles from your document to your template. You can, if you wish, also take this opportunity to delete styles you don’t use and give your styles more meaningful names.

2. Set up new styles

You might want to start from scratch, it’s fun and you can get creative without having to worry about your content. The picture below shows a template I have set up. I have typed the name of each style, applied the style, made the changes I want and then right clicked on the style name in the gallery and hit update ‘style’ to match selection. Easy as pie.

Setting up styles from scratch

If you want to create numbered headings it is really important to follow the guidance from this brilliant website, you will find lots of other information about styles there too.

When you are done, don’t forget to delete the text and save as a template.

Using your template

Yes, we are ready to rock and roll, let’s put that great new template into action – now you have three choices. You can create a new document, you can paste your text into the template or you can apply the template to your existing document.

  1. A brand new document

Click file, new and switch from featured to personal. Select your template and off you go.

2. Sort out an existing document

Click file, new, switch from featured to personal and select your template. Open your existing document and select all the text (ctrl-A). Return to your new document and paste as text. Work through the document applying each of the styles you want. Remember to save frequently.

3. Apply the template to your existing document

If you haven’t already done so, add the developer tab to the ribbon. Click on Document Template.

The document template dialogue

In the picture above you will see the word Normal in highlight. To change the template used by your document, click Attach….

You need to work through your document to make sure all the styles are applied in the right places and are working correctly – see top tips if they are not working as you expect.

Modifying your styles

Now your styles are in a template you can add new styles as you work and be confident that they will remain with the document. To create a style you can format text in the style you want, select the text and then use the create a style option from the gallery drop-down or you can create a style and then use the  modify dialogue box to get the format you want.

If you want the new style to be added to the template, then you HAVE TO right click on the style in the gallery, select modify and click on New documents based on this template.

If you want to modify an existing style you have the same two options. You might want to modify it just in this document. In which case you can make a change in the document and then right click on the style in the gallery and select update ‘style’ to match selection, or right-click the style and click modify. But if you want the changes to be added to the template then you HAVE TO right click, select modify and click on New documents based on this template.

Top tips

Sometimes styles just don’t apply, you click and click and click, but nothing happens. In this situation select the text and use the clear style option in the gallery. Then apply your style.

NEVER tick the Automatically Update box in the modify dialogue box. It makes the sharing issues worse, picks up stray information and applies any changes to all instances of the style (say you want to embolden one paragraph, with Automatically Update ticked you will get all paragraphs of the same style in bold).

There is a second Automatically Update box, if your styles are really playing up, you should make sure that is also not ticked. To find it, you have to add the developer tab to the ribbon and select Document Template, the offending item is on the template tab of the dialogue box.

When you have the modify dialogue open, you will see two options: style based on and style for following paragraph. With some exceptions (see numbered headings link) you should base all your styles on Normal, this gives Word less to think about. And what do you want to follow a heading – a normal paragraph – so tell Word here and save some time.


style gallery
The style gallery

What is the style gallery? The style gallery is your easy, one stop shop to all things style. There are a ton of ways of creating, applying and modifying styles, frankly, they are a bit repetitive, complex and ugly. So if you want to

  • apply a style to some text, either click the style in the gallery and then type, or select the text and then click the style
  • create a new style, select the text and use the drop-down on the right of the gallery, select create style
  • modify a style, right click on the style in the gallery and hit modify
  • update a style based on selected text, right click on the style in the gallery and hit update ‘style’ to match selection.

Finally, if you have kept a style in the gallery, but never use it, you can remove it by right-clicking on the style and selecting remove from style gallery.

Editing your normal template. You can see now that is fairly straight forward and perfecting your normal template lets you get a document format you like from the get go. Just take your time and, if you feel like being super cautious, make a copy of your existing normal template in another folder before you start.

Templates have the file extension .dot in older versions of Word and .dotx in newer versions.

This post barely touches the surface of styles and all they can do for us. If you would like to learn more here are some advanced guides:

Shauna Kelly –

Word 2013 Templates: Featured vs Personal vs Shared vs Custom location names – wiki

How to manage Word styles like a pro – Tech Republic –

Styles for Dummies –


2 thoughts on “Using styles in Microsoft Word

  1. Good intro to styles. There are 2 additional basic tips I like to share with new users.

    That is I find it helpful to go to the Home tab > Paragraph group and click on the “Show/Hide” (backward P) button. It displays “non-printing” characters such as tabs, spaces and paragraph marks (to name just the most common). I find that seeing these non printing characters makes it easier to figure out what is going on when there is a “spacing” problem.

    The other is in 2016, go to the View tab > Show group and turn on “Ruler” check box. This displays the “rulers” across the top and left side of the document.


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