Please Note: This article is written for users of the following Microsoft Word versions: 2007, 2010, 2013, 2016, 2019, Word in Microsoft 365, and 2021. If you are using an earlier version (Word 2003 or earlier), this tip may not work for you. For a version of this tip written specifically for earlier versions of Word, click here: Understanding Styles.

Understanding Styles

Written by Allen Wyatt (last updated April 16, 2022)
This tip applies to Word 2007, 2010, 2013, 2016, 2019, Word in Microsoft 365, and 2021


Unlike most other word processing programs, Word does an excellent job of separating content from appearance. This may sound strange, but the words you type are your content and the way they look on screen or on paper is the appearance. Styles are nothing more than a named definition of how text should appear. You can best understand this by comparing your text to water (this is your content). The appearance of the water depends on the attributes of the container in which it is placed. If you place it in a glass it will look one way; if you place it in a pitcher, it looks a different way. The relationship between text and styles is no different; if you change the style that has been applied to text, then the appearance of the text automatically changes.

While Word allows you to explicitly format your text by selecting it and then picking the attributes you want applied, styles give you much more power. This is because you only need to define the style once and then you can apply it to text as you see fit. Plus, if you later change the style, all text formatted with that style is automatically updated to reflect the change. (You have changed the container, so the water changes appearance.)

The two most prevalent style types in Word are Character styles and Paragraph styles. Character styles are used to define how individual characters appear, including attributes such as font, font size, and bold, italics, superscript, etc. Paragraph styles are much more comprehensive and define not only how the characters in the paragraph appear, but how the paragraph should appear in relation to the margins of your document, whether it should include bullets or numbering, how it should be treated by the spelling and grammar checkers, and how it should appear in relation to other paragraphs in the document.

In addition to character and paragraph styles, you can also define table and list styles. Table styles are used to specify how a particular table appears, including borders, spacing, and other table-specific formatting attributes. List styles are used to define how bulleted lists and numbered lists should appear.

Styles are saved with a document, or they can be stored in a document template. Word allows you to add, change, rename, and delete styles. Follow these steps to define a style:

  1. Press Alt+Ctrl+Shift+S. Word displays the Styles task pane. (If your fingers get twisted when you try this shortcut, you can display the Home tab of the ribbon and click the small icon at the bottom-right of the Styles group.)
  2. At the bottom of the task pane there are 3 buttons. Click the left one, New Style. Word displays the Create New Style from Formatting dialog box. (See Figure 1.)
  3. Figure 1. The Create New Style from Formatting dialog box.

  4. The initial settings in the dialog box are based on the style of the paragraph in which the insertion point is located. In the middle of the dialog box there is a block of text that approximates what the new style will look like. Immediately below is a list of the formatting attributes assigned to the style.
  5. Make sure you specify the name and type of style you are creating. You can also indicate if this new style is based on (derived from) an existing style.
  6. You can make changes to common attributes right in the dialog box. If you need to make more detailed attribute changes, click on the Format button (bottom left corner of the dialog box). The types of formatting available through the Format button depend on the type of style you are defining.
  7. Selecting the Add to the Styles Gallery check box will add the style to the gallery in the Home tab of the ribbon.
  8. When you are done setting the formatting attributes, click on OK to close the dialog box.
  9. Close the Styles task pane.

At this point you can use your style anywhere you like within your document.

WordTips is your source for cost-effective Microsoft Word training. (Microsoft Word is the most popular word processing software in the world.) This tip (9627) applies to Microsoft Word 2007, 2010, 2013, 2016, 2019, Word in Microsoft 365, and 2021. You can find a version of this tip for the older menu interface of Word here: Understanding Styles.

Author Bio

Allen Wyatt

With more than 50 non-fiction books and numerous magazine articles to his credit, Allen Wyatt is an internationally recognized author. He is president of Sharon Parq Associates, a computer and publishing services company. ...

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