Power User Tools for Paragraph Styles in Microsoft Word


To review: Paragraph Styles are a big item in Word - just about the biggest there is. 

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

In our previous article we explained how Customise a Paragraph Style using the obvious parts of Word's Modify Styles dialog.

Now we will dig down one layer to the Power User tools.

These are found under the Format button in the lower left corner of the Modify Style dialog.

To begin:

  1. Right-click on a style to open Word's Modify Styles dialog.
  2. Then, click Format at the bottom left

  3. You will see a drop-down menu with a number of choices. For now, choose Paragraph


The Indents and Spacing Tab


The Paragraph dialog has two tabs.

We start with the Indents and Spacing tab.

These are the settings that most of us think as being the “paragraph” formatting: the indents and spacing. 

The Indents and Spacing tab has 3 parts:

  1. General
  2. Indentation
  3. Spacing

The graphic below shows you what they do. And then we explain how to pull these strings.


Let’s break this down...

Paragraph: Indents and Spacing: General



  • Left. Almost always, set Alignment to “Left” in English. This produces text with an uneven (ragged) right margin, but means the letters and words are evenly spaced on each line, which makes the text much easier to read.
  • Centered can be used for captions, and I use it for the style I make to position graphics.

  • Right provides a cunning way to get the page numbers in the correct place in footers, when you are producing a document with mixed portrait and landscape sections.

  • Justified causes Word to try to get both margins straight and even, by adjusting the space between words.  The result is usually fairly ugly and difficult to read: you can improve it a little by hyphenating, but really, I think it is a technique whose time is passed.

Outline Level

This controls the level at which this paragraph will appear in:

  • Tables of Contents, and
  • Outline View.  

Leave this as Body Text, except in headings. The built-in heading styles won’t allow you to change it. We’ll have more to say about this when we talk about Numbering.

Paragraph: Indents and Spacing: Indentation


Left / Before Text

This is what many users think of as the “left margin” of the paragraph. In Word, the left margin is a section property.

Normally, set this to 0 so each paragraph lands on the left margin.

For long and complex documents (technical manuals, reports…) set this to 1 or 2 cm (half or one inch) on your body text styles, and to 0 on your headings.

  • That results in the headings hanging to the left of the text, known as “outdented headings”. This is pleasing to the eye, and helps the reader quickly scan the text to find their way around the document.

Right / After Text

Normally, set this to 0.

For block quotes, you can set both Before Text and After Text to 2 cm (about an inch). 


This affects the first line of the paragraph. First Line indents the first line by the specified amount. 

  • Use this for book paragraphs, then do not specify extra space between paragraphs. Hanging out-dents the first line by a measured amount. 

Automatically adjust

Don’t! If you see this setting option, ignore it.

This setting defines a “grid” in the document, and will align paragraphs to the grid. nice until a few days later when you edit some text and your entire document collapses in an unholy mess. Just don’t do it: you do not deserve such pain!

Paragraph: Indents and Spacing: Spacing



Set this to:

  • 0 for body paragraph styles
  • 2-1/2 times the font height for headings


Set this to 10 points for all styles. 

More about Spacing Before and After

These two settings specify your inter-paragraph spacing. In the printing industry, it’s still called “extra lead” or just “leading”. Because, many years ago, it was actually produced by adding strips of lead between the paragraphs.

Row of Linotype operators at the Chicago Defender newspaper 1941.

 We set space Before on headings to space them from the text above.

  • Set heading to 2-1/2 times the font height to give a balance that is pleasing to the eye and economical to print. If you want to save pages you can close up to twice the font height, but it starts to look too dense.
  • For a modern look you can open up to three times.

We set space After on practically ALL styles.

  • We set only space After on body paragraph styles, to work around a design deficiency in Word’s pagination algorithm. A “real” page layout program (the kind you pay $200,000 for…) will automatically suppress space above a paragraph at the top of the page, so you get a nice regular top margin. Word will do so only when it feels like it, so you end up with your top margin bounding up and down like kids in a jumping castle. The cure is to put all your inter-paragraph space BELOW the paragraphs. We’ll talk more about this in “pagination”.

Line spacing

Normally, set this to “Single” unless you have a reason to use something else.

The choices are:

  • Single
    • Word sets a line height of 140% of the font height (13.8 points here) but it can increase the line height as needed to accommodate the content. 

  • 1-1/2 Lines

    • Sets the line height to 1.5 times 12 points.

  • Double
    • Sets to 24 points.

  • At Least

    • Word sets the line height to whatever you specify, but can increase it as needed to accommodate large letters or graphical elements you insert.

  • Exactly
    • Word maintains the line at exactly the height you set.

    • Use with extreme caution, or expect a few cut-off letters here and there.

  • Multiple

    • Current versions of Word tend to use this one as a default, set to 1.15 lines.  

    • It results in a more open appearance that is pleasing to today's readers.

Don’t add space

This would normally be “off” except for paragraphs that are part of a numbered or bulleted list.

  • Suppressing the space “blocks” the list together so the eye instantly sees the paragraphs in it are related, as a unit of text. 

Snap to Grid

If you see this setting option, don't use it. Microsoft Office Word is a word-processor, not a page layout program. If you need to use grids, do the document in a a page layout program like InDesign, which handles grids properly.

Paragraph: Line and Page Breaks


In the Paragraph dialog, click the Line and Page Breaks tab to get to the pagination controls.

The Line and Page Breaks tab has 3 parts:

  1. Pagination
  2. Formatting Exceptions
  3. Textbox options

We'll look at each in turn.

Paragraph: Line and Page Breaks: Pagination


For each style, you need to think about and assign the standard behaviours you would like all paragraphs of that type to have. 

Widow/Orphan control

An Orphan is a very short line of one or two words stranded at the bottom of a page or column.

A Widow is the same thing, stranded at the top of the next page.

Turning Widow/Orphan on enables Word to flow text to the next page to ensure that at least two lines remain either side of the page break.

These days, I turn Widow/orphan OFF except in legal texts, where a paragraph may go for most of a page. 

Keep with next

Causes Word to hold the end of the paragraph on the same page as the following paragraph.

I set Keep with next for all Heading paragraph styles, because nothing looks sillier than a heading stranded at the bottom of a page. 

Keep with next won’t work unless you also set Keep lines together.

  • Well, it will work, but you won’t like it. If the last word in the paragraph flips to the next page, that has satisfied keep with next.

Keep lines together

Prevents Word from splitting a paragraph across a page break.

Use Keep lines together to prevent Word from splitting this type of paragraph, then Keep with next can be used to throw a block of paragraphs to the next page at a logical break. 

Page break before

Does what it says. We’ll talk about these in detail under “Pagination”.

Page break before you may use on in Heading 1 style. Heading 1 is normally used to start each Chapter (particularly if you are numbering the chapters) so set Page break before to ensure it starts a page of its own, and take off the space before. 

Paragraph: Line and Page Breaks: Formatting Exceptions

2-Paragraph-2FORMATTING Exceptions.png

Suppress line numbers

This setting is used only by lawyers, for headings. Lawyers used to number the lines on each page to enable them to refer to them easily in court. They may not want the headings numbered, because they may not be part of the evidence.

Line numbering in Word is not very reliable. If you print a document someone else sent you with a different printer than the writers' your document will reflow differently and your line numbers won’t match the sender's.

These days, lawyers tend to use Heading styles, customised to look like body text, and with numbering turned on. The numbering is per paragraph, not per line, but much more reliable, and everyone’s numbers are the same.

Don’t hyphenate

Word supports automatic hyphenation. If you are producing full-justified text, you really should be hyphenating to avoid the “rivers of white” problem (wide spaces between word that form columns running vertically down the page). If you are hyphenating, there are places where you absolutely would not do it: headings and captions come to mind. Use this in your style to suppress hyphenation for paragraphs of that type.

More Format Style Options

We have covered the main settings people use in a Paragraph style. In Character styles we discussed the font settings, which also apply to Paragraph styles. And we have discussed the Paragraph settings, which is really what we came here to do.

However, there are additional settings you can make in a Paragraph style, and we need to cover them because you may use them only once a year, but you will use them.

You reach all of these from the Format button drop-down menu in the bottom left of the Modify Style dialog.


Format: Tabs

If Tabs are totally foreign to you, you may want to start by taking a look at the help Microsoft provides about working with tabs in Word and then use the guidance below to supplement your new knowledge.

You can set tab stops in styles.

  • Many people set a “Default tab spacing” in the Normal style, which will be inherited by all styles and thus the whole document.
  • Styles for lists and headings all need a tab set for the hanging indent.

  • TOC styles need three tabs set (a complex operation, in a later article).


Here is an example of the Tabs dialog. 

The tabs in this example are set up for a Table of Contents.

The first one (at 1 cm) places the text half an inch in.  

The second one (at 3 cm) sets the “turnover lines” indented.  

The last one, at 18.5 cm, places the page number and sets leader dots from the end of the text to the page number.  





About the Tabs dialog - by the numbers

  1. The tab stop position is set in absolute measurements in this example, in increments of about 5 points.
    1. The figure in the window is the one you are just about to set, or the one you have selected.
    2. An easy way to do this is to drag the tabs in the ruler to roughly where you want them, then use the Style By Example mechanism (“Update to match selection”) to import what you did with the ruler, then open this dialog to adjust them to exact measurements.
  2. This part of the dialog shows the tabs that are currently set.

  3. This lists the tabs that will be cleared when you click OK.
  4. Alignment: There are five types of tab you can set:

    1. Left: The tab stop sits on the left of the text and “pushes” the text to the right of itself.

    2. Center: The tab stop sits in the middle of the position and centres the text either side of it.

    3. Right: The tab stop sits to the right of the text and “pulls” the right end of the text onto itself.

    4. Decimal: The tab stop aligns a column of numbers so their decimal points all align vertically. Use this in tables to make your dollar amounts all align at the decimal point.  If any number does not contain a decimal point, Word assumes one at its right-hand end.

    5. Bar: Oh c’mon! Nobody uses these nowadays!! It sets a position that draws a vertical line at the tab stop. Use a table, a graphic line — anything but this

  5. Leader: Only useful for Right tabs, it sets a row of dots between the end of the text and the tab position. This is how you get those leader dots in your TOC.

  6. Set, Clear, Clear All: these buttons either set a tab at the position you typed, mark the tab you have selected to be cleared, or clear all the tabs.

Word will execute the changes you have made when you click OK, or abandon them if you click Cancel.

Format: Border

The ability to set a “border” in a style comes under the heading of “Just because we can, does not mean we should!”


About the Borders dialog - by the numbers

  1. Setting. Enables you to choose the depicted styles. In any long and complex document, remember “less is more”! The fewer marks you put on a page, the less work the reader’s eyes and brain have to do to decode your meaning, and thus the easier and quicker they can read your text. Never make a reader work when you don’t have to.
  2. Style. Choose from an unbroken line, or various perturbations (I have been looking for an excuse to use that word for ages…) of it.

  3. Color. If you want black, choose Automatic, otherwise your ink consumption will become extravagant (and you won’t get “black”).

  4. Width. If you don’t know what to pick, choose ¾ of a point in most documents and print a page  to see if you like it.

  5. Preview. This is the most useful part of the whole dialog. The small squares are buttons that enable you to turn on or off the top, bottom, left, and right borders. If you chose the Custom setting, you can specify a different line weight and style for each.

  6. Apply to. The only option is “paragraph” when we’re working on a paragraph style.

  7. Options. Enables you to set the distance from the text to the border in each direction. Four points is the maximum in most versions of Word (Mac Word 2016 will apparently go higher) and it’s usually the best one.

There are three tabs in this dialog, only two are active.  Click the Shading tab to specify shading behind the text.  These days I quite often use light colour shading to distinguish headings; these work well for web text.

Format: Language


Use the Language setting to mark a specified language on all paragraphs with the same style.

But just because you can “mark” a language, does not mean that your copy of Word has it installed.

Language is a text attribute, similar to “colour” or “font”.

And Language controls the operation of Word's spell-checker and grammar-checker.

Every version of Word arrives with several languages pre-installed.

To see which languages your copy of Word has installed:

  • Open the Language dialog
  • To the left of the name of each language that is currently installed..

  • Look for a tiny little check mark with ‘abc’ above it

  • Any Language so marked is currently installed.


Language impacts Spell-checker & Grammar-checker

Word’s “Proofing Engine” switches languages on the fly, word-by-word, extremely quickly.

Basically, your language setting tells the program which dictionary table to switch to, and since those tables are normally held resident in memory, it can switch from one to the other in microseconds.


  • It cannot switch to a language you have not purchased!
  • You can mark the text with any of the roughly 150 languages Word supports; but unless you have the dictionaries installed for the language you specify, the result will simply be that the proofing tools don’t work (at all!) on that text.

  • You can read about getting extra languages hon the Microsoft Support site.

All text in Word has a language, whether you assign one or not. So better you assign a language, so you know what it is. 

Most of us would like our entire document spelled in the same language.

The easiest way to ensure this is to set the language in the Normal style, which all other styles will inherit unless you change them.

  • Open the Language dialog
  • Select your language
  • Click the Default button after making your selection
  • This will pass your selection through to the Normal template, so all styles in all new documents you create will get the change.

And just for the record: “English” is not close enough. There are 29 dialects of English spoken by the Word spelling checker. Plus American.

Format: Frame


A Frame is a truly ancient mechanism that behaves very much like a textbox.

A textbox is a graphic object that can “float” around the page, and have text wrapped around it, under it, over it, or through it. And it can contain text.

A Frame can do most of those tricks, although a Frame is not a graphic object. A Frame is in fact a part of the paragraph. Like speech balloons in comics, which, in fact, is often what authors use frames for.

Because they are part of the paragraph, Frames can be part of a paragraph style. Which is the only reason they are still around.

There are rare cases when you want to style your text to float in a box in relation to the other text. Side-heads is one. A side-head is a box that places the heading in the left margin of the document.

Because they are so rarely used, and their use is very complex, I am not going to cover them further here. If you would like a topic on frames, by all means email or comment: if we get enough demand, I will produce one.

Format: Numbering

Numbering is an entire topic all to itself. Word’s numbering is complex, powerful, and flexible. But there’s a lot of information you need before you can use it like a pro. And I am one of the best people in the world to get it from.

Funny (True!) story:

Five of us MVPs were standing in the Microsoft headquarters in Redmond chatting to the Software Architect who actually designed Word’s numbering mechanism. We were complaining about it, as is our wont. I said “There are only about five people in the world who understand Word’s numbering, apart from the folks who work for Microsoft, and they are all standing within an arms-length of you!” He looked at us for a second or two, smiled a little smile, and responded “If you had been in the meeting I have just come from, you would think there are only five people in the world who understand Word’s numbering, and NONE of them work for Microsoft!”

Format: Shortcut key


You can assign a keystroke to instantly apply a style.

While most of us use a tiny number of styles in our actual work, you can assign a keystroke to each, so you rarely have to lift your hands from the keyboard.


  • If you use the standard styles, you can have those styles configured with different formatting in different documents.
  • I use the same six styles in all my documents, but they have different formatting.

Personally, I no longer assign keystrokes, because in my real work, I use too many styles to remember them all.

Instead, I use the Styles Customizer (which the nice folks at Great Circle Learning are giving away free…) to customise my styles chunk so I can use it instead.

Format: Text Effects

If you are creating a newsletter or possibly a one page flyer and you want to get a bit creative with a headline or callout, the Text Effects formatting might be something for you to explore.

This formatting function allows you to add "Word Art" artistic flair to a specific paragraph style and might be handy is you have a certain creative "look" for text you find yourself often repeating in your publication. 

The feature is only available on PC versions of Word, the Mac version does not contain this function.

And that’s the end of the Paragraph Styles topic.  Bet you thought I would never finish? Hell, I thought I would never finish…

Next time: Linked styles. Much less pain, I promise! See you then!

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.