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Headings and Styles – A Primer

Office SoftwareProductivity

Marcus HeinmaaBy: Marcus Heinmaa, freelance technical writer

If you’ve ever used Microsoft Word, you’ll have experienced a situation where your text looks wrong, and you can’t figure out why. There’s no shame in admitting that: most likely, it’s because you haven’t configured your styles properly. You can save yourself hours of frustration by taking the time to learn about styles and how to use them.

So what is a style, then? A “style”, in Microsoft Word, is basically a pre-set way of formatting text – it contains instructions for the font, spacing, text size, and all of the other things that define how text “looks” in Word. Knowing how to use them effectively is key to becoming an effective user of MS Word.

In this blog post, I’m going to focus on teaching you the basics, with a focus on the Normal style and the use of Headings. There are a lot of fancy tricks available to you once you know how to use styles effectively, but for now, we’re going to concentrate on the basics. Advanced users who already know how to configure styles and want to learn more should take a look at the “Further Reading” section at the end of this blog post.

One last thing before we begin: this blog post is written with Microsoft Word 2013 in mind. However, styles and how they’re used haven’t changed in the latest release of Word (Word 2016), and the advice here will still be accurate even if you’ve upgraded.

Configuring Normal

All of Word’s styles are located on a ribbon on the “Home” tab, which will look something like this:

MS Office Ribbon

The Normal style (by default the one on the furthest left) defines how you want your body text to look: it literally defines what is “normal” for your font, text size, paragraph spacing and so on. You can adjust any style, including Normal by right-clicking it and selecting “Modify” in the drop-down menu. A dialogue box will appear, allowing you to adjust the font, paragraph breaks, and so on.

MS Office Modify Styles

Adjusting Normal will allow you to configure what you want your main body text to look like. Alternatively, if you have text you’ve already formatted to your liking, you can instead choose “Match Selection” in the drop-down menu. That will adjust the format of Normal to match the currently selected text.

The question you are now asking, of course, is this:

Why don’t I just change the format of the text by using the options in the home menu at the top? Why bother using styles at all?

MS Office Home Tab

If you change the font or size using the bar at the top (doing this is referred to as “direct formatting”), it’s a little like using a manual over-ride. You aren’t changing what word sees as the “default” for a document, but instead, you’re ordering it to use a different style in the same way you would if you made some text bold for emphasis – except what you’re emphasizing is, in effect, the whole document.

Now, doing this is OK if you’re just writing a quick one-off document to yourself, but in anything more complicated than a few paragraphs, it’s generally better to adjust Normal directly. Otherwise, the Normal style will conflict with the document’s formatting – and that can lead to all sorts of problems down the road. Like I said at the very beginning: it will save you a lot of time in the long run if you simply take a minute to configure your styles early on.

A good rule of thumb is this: for any document longer than a couple of pages, that will be heavily edited, or that is intended as a template for other documents, configure your styles rather than using direct formatting.

As an added bonus, once you’ve configured Normal, you can make it apply to all new documents. This is very useful if you like your text to look a certain way (or to align with your nonprofit’s brand guidelines): it’s a one-time configuration that saves you from having to change the font, paragraph breaks, spacing and so on every single time you create a new document. Furthermore, it becomes much easier to implement format changes to an entire document: Instead of having to select text manually, you can just adjust Normal and then all the text will self-correct.

Configuring Headings

In terms of how they appear on the page, Headings are fairly straightforward: they’re a way for you to organize your text into chapters or sections. In terms of formatting, Headings behave just like any other style: the look of a heading can be adjusted in the exact same way we changed the style of Normal. What makes Word’s Headings special is this: the way in which they “tag” separate sections of a document allows you to use a number of other powerful and time-saving features to keep your document organized.

For now, I’m going to focus on three of the most useful features of headings: the use of subheadings, creating a Table of Contents and using the Navigation Pane.

Using Subheadings

You’ll notice that there are a lot of headings in the Styles bar – nine, by default. This is what allows you to have sub-headings: something tagged “Heading 2”, for instance, will be treated as a subsection of “Heading 1”. You can use subheadings to easily manage documents with a large number of subsections (a typical example might be legal documents, which often have multitudes of subsections and paragraphs to keep track of). They’ll also come in handy when we start using the Table of Contents and the Navigation Pane.

Creating a Table of Contents

Word keeps track of the sections you’ve tagged as Headings, and can use that information to automatically generate a table of contents for you. This is much faster (and more accurate) than doing it manually.

Once you’ve created a few headings, go to the “References” tab on the ribbon and click “Table of Contents”. Once you select the style you want for the table, it will automatically appear in your document, using the text of the headings as chapter titles. If you’ve used subheadings, they’ll appear indented beneath their parent heading. Here, for example, is a table of contents for this blog post.

MS Office Table of Contents

Keep in mind that the table will not automatically update: if you edit the document and the page numbers change, then you’ll need to bring the table up to speed. If you move your mouse over the table of contents, then you’ll see an option to “Update Table” near the top.

The Navigation Pane

The Navigation Pane displays all of your heading titles, giving you an outline of your document arranged by section. It can be accessed by going to the “View” tab in the ribbon, and ticking the box marked “Navigation Pane”. A window will appear to the left of your document looking something like this:

MS Office Navigation Pane

The Navigation Pane has several useful abilities. First, you can quickly go to any section of the document: just click it in the Navigation Pane, and you’ll be taken there. Secondly, you can use the pane to rearrange your document. If you click and drag one of the headings, you can change its place in the document. Additionally, you can collapse headings within the Navigation Pane for easier viewing – anything with subheadings will have a little arrow appear next to it, and by clicking the arrow, you’ll collapse the heading.

You can, by the way, also collapse headings within the body of the document itself. If you move the mouse over a heading, you’ll see a little arrow appear next to it. If you click on it, that will collapse the heading.

One last tip. The Navigation Pane defaults to being organized by Heading. However, you can also configure it to be organized by page if you like. Unfortunately, you cannot rearrange pages the way you can with headings, but it’s still a handy feature to have.

Further Reading

If you’re looking to learn more about styles, I recommend Charles Kenyon’s excellent primer, Understanding Styles in Microsoft Word. Kenyon goes into a lot more detail than I do here (and he also covers some of the more intricate things you can do once you’re more familiar with headings): and he’s an excellent starting point for expanding your knowledge of how to effectively use styles.

If you have some experience under your belt and are ready to learn some of the more complicated things that styles can do for you, I recommend learning about Outline View, a more powerful version of the Navigation Pane which allows you to easily manage the structure of your document. Microsoft Office’s online help directory provides a good summary of Outline View, and Mark Kaelin’s article on How to use Word's Outline view to quickly sort long lists goes into further detail.

Now you’re all set to start using styles: you won’t have to worry about text running amok on you as often anymore. Good luck!


About the Author

Marcus Heinmaa is a freelance technical writer with experience in programming. He previously worked at a Canadian-based global private bank as an analyst, and has a Master's degree in English Literature from the University of St. Andrews. He's aware of how strange this combination is, and doesn't usually describe himself in the third person. Find him on LinkedIn.