All About Paragraph Styles in Microsoft Word - Part 1


Paragraph Styles are a big item in Word: just about the biggest there is. Smart Office workers format almost all of their documents entirely with paragraph styles, rarely using the other types of styles Word offers. So what are Paragraph Styles?

A paragraph style is a named collection of formatting that applies only to the paragraph properties of the text.

How do you Make a Paragraph Style? The short answer is “If at all possible, don’t!”

Because Word contains more than one hundred built-in styles, one for almost every purpose you may have. Thus, you likely will never have to “make” one. But you will frequently need to customise them to your requirements. 

How to Customise a Paragraph Style

Well, first you need to select a style to work with in in your Quick Styles pane on Word's Home tab ribbon, or bring up Word's Styles window.

Either way, right-click on the paragraph style and choose the option to Modify. You will see this dialog:

Before we go any further, let’s just say it: This is one of the most poorly-thought-out dialogs in Word (yes, there are worse, but not many). Sadly, most of what you will need is not on this dialog; and most of what is, you will not (or should not) use. If you think of the Word user interface as being set up in three “layers” then this dialog is the Level One layer, designed for use by undemanding newbies — but such users are unlikely to be using styles. Still it’s been this way from the beginning: all pleas to improve it fall on deaf ears.

Let’s follow the red numbers:

1. Name: If you are making a new style, type the name of it here. 

Word has three “groups” of styles in each type:

  • Default
  • Built-in
  • Custom


  • The default styles will not allow you to change their names, but you can add an alias to their name and hide the default name. I most often see this done with the Heading 1 through Heading 9 series of styles. But, adding alternative names is not a practice I recommend because:
    • it confuses users accustomed to the standard names
    • and if the name string gets too long it can corrupt the style table (above about 250 characters). If that happens you usually lose the entire document, and there’s no way to fix it.
  • Our AuthorTec Quick Styles Customizer utility enforces the Heading 1 to 9 name standards so the program can find them in the styles table, which also protects you from yourself!

2. Style type: If you are making a new style, set the type of it here.

  • Note: If you are customising a style, you cannot change the type.

3. Style based on: When making a new style, you can save a lot of thought and effort by setting the "Style to copy from".

  • When you do that, all of the formatting properties of the style you nominate are copied into the style you are making.
  • Be careful with this: don’t do it if either style has a number formatting included because that will confuse Word.

Having set a “Based on” style, any properties you change in the current style replace the ones that were copied. You use this to set chains of similar styles that all inherit from the master. I typically do this for the Heading series, if I am not numbering them. For example:

In Heading 1, I set a font of Calibri, then I base Heading 2 on 1, Heading 3 on 2, Heading 4 on 3 and so on, all the way down to Heading 9.

I also set any other properties that I want to propagate down the whole chain (e.g. Space After of 10 points).

If I then decide to change the font to Cambria, I need change only one style: Heading 1. All the others will inherit the change.

However, I will set a font Size for each of the nine styles. Each setting replaces the one inherited from above. Each property you set drops out of the chain of inheritance. This can get quite complex: for example, if I set a size in Headings 1, 2, and 3, the font size in Headings 4 to 9 will continue to inherit: but from Heading 3. If you get muddled, the only way to restore the inheritance is to unset, then re-set the Style based on setting.  You have to keep your mind on the job when setting up chains.

I don’t use inheritance chains very often these days: they are really useful only in large commercial jobs where you anticipate wanting to make global changes, say to re-purpose the text for both paper and internet use.

However... it is worthwhile to break the inheritance from Normal style. Whenever you get a completely default Word document, every style will be set Based on Normal style. It only takes one idiot to make a change to Normal style and your whole document may be ruined. You may consider it worth setting your important styles to be Based on “no style”.

4. Style for following paragraph: For paragraph styles, nominate here, the style to be automatically applied to the following new paragraph. Put some thought into getting this correct: it’s a massive time-saver.

For example, I set all my Heading styles to be followed by Body Text.

This means I have to touch the ribbon only once to put in a heading: I type the heading and hit Enter — the Body Text style is automatically applied ready to type.

5.  Add to template: If you check Add to template, the style you spent so much time creating will be available for use in other documents you create. You may choose not to set this, if the style change you are making applies only to the current document. 

6. Add to Quick Style list: If this is a style you will use several times an hour, add it to the Quick Styles gallery so it’s near to hand. But if it’s one of those styles you use once per document, uncheck this: no point in cluttering the styles chunk with useless stuff.

This setting is what the Quick Styles Customizer actually does, setting or unsetting this property is how it works.

7. Automatically Update should ALWAYS be OFF, except for the TOC styles.

If it is on, whenever you make any formatting change to any paragraph that has this style, the style and all the paragraphs will instantly adopt whatever change you make. A classic horror story is about the poor souls who set this on for Normal style. The moment they bold a word, the entire document turns bold, and they have no idea what caused it, or how to recover from it. Now you know better!

Next time -  we will dig down one layer in the user interface to the Power User tools.

This blog post has been graciously provided by our Contributor at Large:
John McGhie. 
Among other fine accomplishments, John is a Microsoft MVP (Word, Mac Word) and a Consultant Technical Writer at McGhie Information Engineering Pty Ltd in Sydney, Australia.