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Operating Systems

Put Microsoft Word's styles to good use

Create custom styles in Word 2003 and 2007 to reformat documents quickly, and to help others format their files in a uniform manner.

One feature in Microsoft Word has saved me more time than all the other doodads in the program put together: Styles. I frequently edit Word documents created by other people. The first thing I do after opening their files is to reformat them so they're easier for me to work on. I created a handful of styles that let me make the changes in an instant via custom keyboard shortcuts.

The favorite font style of one of the tech writers I work with regularly is 10-point Bookman Old Style, which I find close to unreadable. Another writer I edit insists on double-spacing every Word file he sends me, which has worn my Page Up and Page Down buttons to nubs. Just four custom paragraph styles let me reformat the fonts, spacing, and other attributes of their documents in seconds.

In Word 2003, click Format*Styles and Formatting to open that pane on the right side of the screen, and then choose the New Style button. In Word 2007, click the arrow in the bottom-right corner of the Styles box under the Home tab, and select the New Style icon in the bottom-left corner of the drop-down box. In both versions, give the new style a name that differs from any of Word's built-in styles. For instance, I called my top heading style "hed1," my author byline style "byline1," my secondary headings "subhed1," and my primary paragraph style "graf1." After you enter the style name, select its attributes.

I'm using only paragraph styles in this example, but you can also create custom styles for characters, tables, and lists; you'll find more information on Word styles on Microsoft's Word training site.

Microsoft Word 2007's Modify Style dialog box
Reformat Word documents in a jiffy by applying custom styles.

Word 2007 brings back the linked paragraph styles that were available in Word 2002 but removed from Word 2003. This option lets you link paragraph and character styles, so you can apply a paragraph style to just a portion of the paragraph by creating a hidden character style. From what I've read on the Internet, this feature is buggy, so it is recommended that you avoid linked styles.

In the spirit of keeping things simple, I leave Normal selected in the "Style based on" dropdown menu, but I suggest changing the option in "Style for following paragraph" menu to anticipate what's going to come next in the file. So for hed1, I selected byline1 to follow, and for that style I selected subhed1, which is followed in turn by graf1.

After I select my preferred font style and size, spacing, and other options, I check "Add to template" at the bottom of the dialog box in Word 2003, and "New documents based on this template" in Word 2007 to make the styles available in all the files I open. (In Word 2007 keep "Add to Quick Style list" selected to keep them visible in this dropdown list.) After you click OK, the styles will be ready for you to apply by placing the cursor in the paragraph you want to reformat, and choosing the style from the list.

Unfortunately, this may require more clicks than you care to make, so before you close the new Style dialog box, assigned a custom keyboard shortcut to each of them: Click the Format button at the bottom of the dialog box, and choose Shortcut key. Now click in the "Press new shortcut key" box, and type your preferred keystrokes; I recommend beginning the shortcut with the Alt key to avoid assigning a shortcut that already has some other function. (If you use a key combination that currently has some other use, it will appear below as "Currently assigned to.") For example, I assigned hed1 the keystrokes Alt-H, byline1 got Alt-B, subhed1 is applied when I press Alt-S, and paragraphs are reformatted when I press Alt-G.

When you're done adding your preferred keystroke combinations, click Assign*Close*OK. To make a change to one of your custom styles, right-click it in the Styles and Formatting list in Word 2003, or the Quick Style list in Word 2007, and select Modify. You'll have to recheck "Add to template" or "New documents based on this template" because Word automatically reverts to the its default option not to add it to the template ("Only in this document" in Word 2007).

Tomorrow: Stay out of trouble at work by knowing and following your employer's rules for using company-owned equipment on your own time.