Reformatting a Document with Messed-Up Styles

by Allen Wyatt
(last updated August 1, 2020)

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 Office 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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