Reformatting a Document with Messed-Up Styles

Written by Allen Wyatt (last updated August 1, 2020)
This tip applies to Word 2007, 2010, 2013, 2016, 2019, and Word in Microsoft 365


Fred has a 60-page legal document that has styles from all over the map (such as a dozen versions of Heading 2, numerous tab distances even for the same level of text, etc.). Fred wonders how he can easily, quickly, and safely reset and make all these styles consistent.

Given the three requirements (easily, quickly, and safely), the old adage comes to mind: You can have any two you want, and two out of three ain't bad!

Seriously, there is no quick way to do what you are asking. The reason is because, literally, you are trying to unravel what has become a bowl of spaghetti. Editors of various stripes have been struggling with this problem for years, and it is not a problem that Microsoft has been able to fix. In fairness to Microsoft, it is not a problem that is really possible to fix. For just one instance, let's say that you have (as you say) a dozen versions of Heading 2 in the document. If Microsoft were to develop some automated way of fixing this, how would the automation know which of the versions of Heading 2 was the correct one? What if it chose incorrectly? Now, multiply that by a dozen or more different styles you need in the document. The problem quickly goes from bad to worse and the solution may be no improvement over the original problem.

What seasoned editors have done to address this problem is to come up with their own techniques to "unravel" the spaghetti. If the document is short and has relatively few errant styles, you may be able to work directly in the document. Here's one approach:

  1. Open the document.
  2. Make sure the Styles pane is open. (Display the Home tab of the ribbon and click the small icon at the bottom-right of the Styles group.)
  3. Click the Options link at the bottom of the Styles pane. Word displays the Style Pane Options dialog box. (See Figure 1.)
  4. Figure 1. The Style Pane Options dialog box.

  5. Using the Select Styles to Show drop-down list, choose In Current Document.
  6. Using the Select How List is Sorted drop-down list, choose Alphabetical.
  7. Click OK to close the dialog box.
  8. In the Style pane, hover the mouse pointer over one of the styles you want to remove from the document. A downward-pointing arrow appears at the right side of the style name.
  9. Click the downward-pointing arrow and choose Select All X Instances. (The X will actually represent the number of times the style is used in the document.) Word selects all the paragraphs or text that uses the style.
  10. In the Style pane, click on the style you want applied to the selected text. The style of the selected text is changed.
  11. In the Style pane, hover the mouse pointer over the same style you used in step 7.
  12. Click the downward-pointing arrow and choose Delete XYZ. (The XYZ is the name of the style.) Word displays a dialog box asking if you want to delete the style from the document.
  13. Click Yes. The style is removed from the document and disappears from the list of styles in the Style pane.
  14. Repeat steps 7 through 12 for each style you want to get rid of.

In applying this technique, you'll want to save your document periodically so that you don't lose your work.

Obviously, this technique can take a while, which is why I mentioned it as a good approach if you are working with a relatively short document. If the document is really messed up, the best approach is to start fresh and apply styles as you want them applied. When choosing a "start fresh" approach, though, it is always a good idea to do your work on a copy of the problem document, not on the original.

One way to start fresh is to select the entire document (Ctrl+A) and then press Ctrl+Q to remove all explicit paragraph formatting and then press Ctrl+Space Bar to remove all explicit character formatting. While this won't get rid of the unwanted styles from the document, it will allow you to reapply styles without the complication of dealing with weird explicit formatting that may have been applied.

To take this process a step further, create a brand-new document that is based on a template that includes your approved (desired) set of styles. With the two documents open (the source document from which you've removed explicit formatting and the target document you just created), follow these steps:

  1. Select everything in the source document except the final paragraph mark. (Easiest way: Press Ctrl+A, hold down the Shift key, and press the Left Arrow key.)
  2. Press Ctrl+C. This copies everything in the source document to the Clipboard.
  3. Switch to the target document.
  4. Display the Home tab of the ribbon.
  5. Click the down-arrow under the Paste tool. Word displays a variety of pasting options.
  6. Click the Keep Text Only tool. (It looks like a clipboard with the letter A at the bottom-right.) Word pastes unformatted text from the Clipboard into the target document.
  7. Close the source document.
  8. Open the original document. (You did work from the copy, not the original, right?)
  9. Using the original document as a visual guide, apply styles in the target document to make it appear as you want it to appear.

This tip has addressed only three possible techniques you could use; there are dozens of others you could use and that editors use every day. In my experience, it is this last technique—the one just described—that is probably the best approach. It is not quick, it does get easier with practice, and it definitely is safe. It also provides the cleanest approach to creating a document that is easy to maintain with the fewest chances for "gotchas" to crop up.

WordTips is your source for cost-effective Microsoft Word training. (Microsoft Word is the most popular word processing software in the world.) This tip (13289) applies to Microsoft Word 2007, 2010, 2013, 2016, 2019, and Word in Microsoft 365.

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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What is five more than 6?

2022-11-12 11:35:11

Max Yaffe

Add the preferred styles to the styles gallery on the ribbon. Then, after you select-all of the style you want to eliminate, simply click the replacement sytle on the ribbon.

2022-05-20 16:16:46

Tammy Richardson

I have a template I want to use for proposals. I chose a font most used, but sometimes a customer specifies a font and font size. Is there a way to change all of my styles at once to the new font/size?

2022-02-02 05:25:16


The way she describes it I don’t think that Catherine’s problems are caused by reversion to ancestor styles. It would appear to be a bug in Word.

There is a temptation to delete unused styles in a document but leaving them in increases the document size by only a small amount. In most cases it is safer to just leave them in.

On the other hand I have seen a corporate Normal template with 400 custom styles of which only a handful are used in any one document, the rest just sit there unused. That is getting ridiculous.

The problem with dependencies is that initially every style item is dependent on the same item in the parent style. If a style item in the daughter style is changed then the link is broken and cannot be re-established and furthermore there are no indications what links are broken. For example if the font size in the daughter style is changed from 10 to 12 point then back to 10 point the link for font size remains broken. Style dependencies should be used with caution.

2022-02-01 09:45:30


Catherine, I believe Tomek hit the nail on the head with his points 3 and 4. When you delete a style that is the ancestor of other styles, I believe the other styles then become descendants of the deleted ancestor style's own ancestor.

The only thing for it is to examine each style more carefully before deleting it. In particular, I try only to delete styles that are not "in use" as reported by the Styles Pane's Options window's "in use" option under "Select styles to show" (which unfortunately--most unfortunately--is not available to the user programmatically to use in a macro). Typically, I right-click the style I'd like to delete, and before deleting it, if it is "in use" I select all instances and change them to a different style. Often, there are many styles in use only 1 or 2 times, especially when dealing with documents historically created by OCR or from backing out Deltaview redline etc.

Reformatting is tedious work and much more art than science. Lately I've taken much more to blowing out all the formatting and starting with only the text in a newly created document.


2022-02-01 07:58:12


I seem to remember that at the time I was having the same problems as you I was trialing custom table styles.

Were you working with table styles?

2022-01-31 19:27:13

Ken Blair

Another option if your are the creator of the document is to restrict cutting and pasting to only allow for certain styles. If you restrict the styles that can be used and then require and pasting to be done showing track changes it will allow for the pasting of the content but will show it in the allow style as a tracked change.

If you are inheriting a document that a number of people have worked in then the "spaghetti" rules.

2022-01-31 12:07:39


I did not try it yet but one possibility for fixing a messed-up document is the following:
1. Create a paragraph style (preferably not a linked style) based on "no style" that would be appropriate to format most of the document content. Alternatively you could use a Normal style and modify it to suit your needs but remember: many styles are based on it and will inherit the changes.
2. Select the whole document and apply the just created paragraph style to it. This should keep any explicit formatting of the text like bold, italic, sub- or superscripts intact.
3. (Optional but recommended) Go through all the styles in the document and delete (or revert) all the custom styles other than those "approved by you". You cannot delete built-in styles. NOTE: the easiest way to delete several styles is from the "Manage Styles" dialog box (in Styles panel click on third icon in the bottom line)
4. Apply desired styles to the paragraphs that need it.

Consider learning more about styles. It is a subject that needs systematic learning - learning it by trial and error or from a tip here and there may be an option for other software skills, but this one IMHO is too convoluted for such approach. You may consider taking Allen's Course on Styles and Templates when available. Get your boss to pay for it. ;-), they will be glad if they do. Mine did.
Disclaimer: I have no connection to Allen's enterprise (other than subscribing to tips) and do not benefit from expressing my opinion about it.

2022-01-31 11:24:27


I have some thoughts on the problem you described, but without having your document I cannot really check whether any of this will work:
1. When you attach or re-attach a template make sure that"Automatically update document styles" is not checked. This setting is sticky so it will cause styles to update when you open the document.
2. In each defined style there is an option to "Automaticallyupdate". This will result in changes in any paragraph formatted with this style to propagate to all paragraphs using the same style.
3. Styles are frequently based on other styles. As a result changes to one style may propagate to all dependent styles.
4. When you delete a style, the paragraph style reverts to the parent style. Often there is no visible option to delete but only to revert to the parent style. What is more, any styles dependent on the deleted one will get modified. What a mess.

Let me know if any of this helped.

2022-01-30 05:33:29



I have had happen exactly what you describe on a number of different documents about a year ago. It hasn’t happened since and I assume that it was a bug in Word that was fixed in a subsequent update.

2022-01-30 00:11:23


Thank you for this useful page.
Have you ever come across the situation where the Word styles in a document suddenly change so that paragraphs that have one style become styled with a different, apparently random style and this change occurs through the whole document? I have a document from a client that is full of junk styles but it is long so I resisted repasting the entire thing as text into a new template (I have now had to do this anyway). Before giving up I was trying to remove the junk styles by going through and restyling paragraphs that used them, then deleting the no longer used styles one by one. This appears to go ok but then suddenly, apparently at random, all the styles in the document seem to reassign themselves so that paragraphs such as footers, which never had a problem or any junk styles on them, will have some random style applied. When I use the undo button to roll back and get the correct styles back again, I have to roll back all the way to when I actually made a change to a style, rather than just one step. This is extremely disconcerting because everything appears to be ok until something triggers the problem, then you lose any work you've done since you made a change to a style. There is obviously something corrupted in the template (I had attached a clean version of the template but as mentioned above this does not remove the junk) but this behaviour is very mysterious and I wondered if you had ever seen it before and had any idea what might cause it? The effect is like if you deleted a style and then all the styles moved up one place, reassigning themselves to the paragraphs of the document but transposed in some way. Sorry for the long question, this is hard to describe. Thank you if you ever have time to answer.

2021-07-19 11:55:08

Sajit Viswan

Allen, it sure has some complications, but it is not something that MS should leave at where it is now. They can include a Styles review that lets the user know what the user may have done that Word is not able to handle. A lot of the multilevel formatting is just workarounds. It is high time that MS decides that they do something about it. Use AI or whatever and don't burden the user. Formatting using Styles is hard enough and then when one finds that the effort is gone down the drain and has to do it again, is frustrating.

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