Using Styles in MS Word

The learning curve is worth it.

My books: Legal Writing Nerd: Be One, Plain Legal Writing: Do It.

Styles in Microsoft Word are pre-set formats you can apply to parts of your document. There are existing Styles for body text (Normal) and headings (Heading 1, Heading 2, etc.), and you can create other types for block quotations, bullet lists, and more. Styles allow you to set font, line spacing, paragraph spacing, automatic tabbing, and other features and then apply those pre-set formats to any document. On a PC, you can find Styles in a large section at the Home tab. (It’ll be different on a Mac.)

If you spend a lot of time creating Word documents, I encourage you to learn more about Styles. Yes, there’s a learning curve, but you’ll save time and reduce frustration if you master Styles. One good source to consult is this book:

  • Ben M. Schorr, The Lawyer’s Guide to Microsoft Word (2015)

Getting started

You’ll need to change Word’s default Styles. For example, the default Normal Style (for body text) uses Calibri, a sans serif font that’s probably not right for most legal documents. Some of the default Heading Styles use colored fonts—also not right for legal writing.

So right click on the Style you want to change, choose “Modify,” and set it up the way you want: choose a font, click Format then Paragraph and set the line spacing (double, single), and then set the paragraph spacing (probably zero). Tell it to automatically indent one tab for each new paragraph. Or don’t; you can still do it manually. For the Heading Styles, do the same but apply boldface or italics. To keep these new Styles, click the button for “New documents based on this template.”

Once you’ve made your Style choices, create your document by typing and, as you go or during revision, apply your Styles. To apply a Style to any piece of text, select the text, or place your cursor in the text, and choose the appropriate Style.

Three reasons to use Styles

First, you’ll get consistent formatting. All your headings at the same level will look the same, all your lists will look the same, all your block quotations will look the same, and so on. Naturally, you’re aiming for consistency already, but Styles make consistency easier. For a block quotation, instead of indenting left and right and converting to single spacing, just type (or paste in) the text and click the Style for Block Quotation. Done. Universal changes are easy, too. To change all your first-level headings from bold italics to bold, you don’t find and re-format each one. Instead, modify the Heading 1 Style from bold italics to bold, and the format changes occur automatically.

Second, with Styles for headings, you can use the Navigation Pane. To see it, go to the View tab. In the Show section, check the box for Navigation Pane. It appears on the left and displays an outline, pulling the entries from your Styles Headings. The entries in the outline are click-able, allowing you to move around easily in a large document—like a 40-page brief or a 60-page contract.

Third, using Styles enables you to create a Table of Contents in seconds. Go to the References tab, click on Table of Contents, and choose Custom Table of Contents (near the bottom). Word will generate a table of contents from the Styles headings in your document—correct page numbers and all. You can adjust the settings: How many heading levels do you want displayed? Do you want the entries to be hyperlinked? And so on. If you make any changes later, right click on the table of contents and Update Field to update the headings and the page numbers.

I’ll admit that it took me a while to master the Styles function and to see the benefits, but ultimately it was worth it. I now save time when I create and modify documents, and producing a table of contents in 10 seconds is wonderful. So it might take a while to master the Styles function, but the effort will pay off in time and headaches saved.

My books: Legal Writing Nerd: Be One, Plain Legal Writing: Do It.