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Creating documents: a Practical Guide

Using styles

Using styles

How does the computer know a paragraph from a heading, a caption from a quote? By using styles! On this page we look at why you should use styles and how to set them up.

What are styles?

Styles are a feature of text processing applications that allow you to tell the computer what different sections of the document are. For example, you can mark what is body text (mostly known as 'normal text'), what is a heading, what is a caption, and so on. You might have seen the styles options on Word or Google Docs before on the toolbar, as seen below.

In Microsoft Word, the styles can be found on the Home tab.

The styles pane is found on the Home tab in Word, and has a selector to open the full styles pane down the side of Word.

In Google Docs, the styles can be found as a dropdown list on the toolbar.

The styles options are found on the menu in Google Docs, under a dropdown.

Why use styles?

So, why should you use styles?

There's lots of reasons to use them: accessibility, ease of formatting, the ability to make use of automated features... Let's take a closer look.


Using styles creates structured content, because the computer knows the different kinds of content in the document. This helps with making your documents more accessible to a range of users, including people using assistive technologies.

For example, using heading styles means that the computer knows where the headings are. This allows people to navigate your document much more easily, whether that is using the navigation pane (on Word - from the View tab, tick 'Navigation pane') or document outline (on Google Docs - go to View > Show document outline), or for people navigating using other technologies, such as screenreaders.


When you apply a style, it applies a particular set of formatting rules to that text. This ensures that all your headings look the same, and all your captions look the same, and so on.

This means that if you use styles, it is easy to change the appearance of all of your body text, or headings, or any other element, without having to manually select and change each relevant bit of text. You just modify the style, and it will change all the text that has that style applied.

Automated features

Both Word and Google Docs have some automated features that work if you use styles, making it easier to format and keep track of longer documents.

Word logo

Word has a number of built-in features to make creating long documents easier. For example, you can generate automatic tables of contents, figures, and tables to go in your document. These only work if you use styles, so the computer knows where the headings are to include in the table of contents, or where there are captions labelled with figure or table to include in lists of figures or tables.

If you use heading styles in Word, you can also apply automatic heading numbering, including subheading numbering (e.g. 1, 1.1, 1.1.1), to your headings. These will update if you add more headings, making it easier to keep track of numbering, especially in documents with many headings.

Google Docs logo

Google Docs can also generate an automatic table of contents if you're used heading styles. You can also insert links to particular headings within your document (or, using the URL, anywhere else), so people can jump to the right heading when reading on screen.

How to apply and modify styles

To use styles, you just need to apply them to the relevant sections of text in your document, or apply them as you write content. You can also modify the appearance of styles, either before, during, or after writing your document.


When modifying the apperance of styles for assessments and submitted work, always check any departmental guidance on how your document should be formatted. There are often guidelines on elements like line spacing, fonts and font size, etc. Also, use sensible formatting for the type of document you're creating - an academic document typically isn't written in a brightly coloured font, for example!

Applying styles

Word logo

To apply styles in Word, you need to use the styles available either on the Home tab, or for a more comprehensive list of styles, you'll need to open the Styles Pane. To do this, you either need to click on the small box with an arrow icon in the bottom right hand corner of the ribbon near the styles (on Windows), or click on the 'Styles Pane' button on the ribbon (on Mac).

Windows ribbon with a button labelled Styles Pane
Styles pane button on Windows
Mac ribbon with a button saying Styles Pane
Styles pane button on a Mac

To apply a style, it depends if the style is for the entire paragraph or some of the characters in that paragraph. Typically, most styles are applied to an entire paragraph, like a heading (which Word treats as a paragraph). To apply a style to a paragraph, click anywhere in that paragraph, and then click on the style on the Styles Pane. To change the style, do the same.

To change a style that is just for some characters, you will need to highlight the text first and then click on the style you want to apply.

Google Docs logo

To apply a style in Google Docs, you need to click on the paragraph you want to apply the style to, and then click on the styles drop on the toolbar (which will appear as a dropdown saying the current style in use, next to the zoom controls. Hover over a style and click Apply [style name].

The styles menu is found on the toolbar in Google Docs, after the zoom controls.

You can also go to Format > Paragraph styles and select to apply styles that way. Through the menu you can access up to six levels of heading styles, rather than the default three.

Modifying the appearance of styles

Sometimes you've applied or are going to apply a style, but it doesn't have the right font, font size, line spacing, or something else. You can modify the appearance of styles using all of the same settings as you can when directly modifying text in a document, but when you modify a style, it'll change for any text currently in that style and any text you apply the style to later.

Word logo

To modify a style in Word, make sure you have the styles pane open, then find and hover over the style you want to modify until there's a small arrow on the right hand side. Click on the arrow and choose Modify Style...

From the Modify Style dialogue box you can change the formatting of the style and whether it is based on another style. So, for example, you might choose to base your Heading 2 style on Heading 1, so they are the same font etc. and then tweak Heading 2 if needed. You can also use the drop down menu in the bottom left corner to modify other elements of the style, like features about the Paragraph like line spacing and if there is a different first line, or if there is any Numbering.

If you already have some text in your document that has the formatting you want a particular style to have, then you can also use this to set a style's forramtting. Select some of the text that has the formatting you want, then use the arrow next to the style on the Styles Pane (or right click on the style name in the ribbon) and choose Update to Match Selection.

Google Docs logo

In Google Docs, the only way to modify a style is to manually change some text on your document, then make sure your cursor is in that text (or it is highlighted), then go to the styles menu on the toolbar, choose a style, and click Update [style name] to match.

Choosing fonts and formatting

When you're modifying your styles or choosing the apperance of anything on the page, you need to take into account font choices, colours, styles, and spacing, to ensure your document looks appropriate, follows good design, can be read by a wide audience, and is accessible.

If you're not sure, ask someone else to look at your document and see how easy it is for them to read it.

Choosing fonts

There's a multitude of fonts out there so it can be difficult to know what to choose. Here's some tips for choosing fonts:

  • Think about how you are sharing the document when choosing fonts. Sans-serif fonts are easier to read on-screen, so when sharing digitally use fonts like Arial and Calibri. If you're printing your document, you could choose those or a serif font like Times New Roman, but pick something simple and easy to read.
  • Don't use too many different fonts. Ideally, all of your main text will be in the same font. You may use another font for accents or headings, but then you'll want to try and pick two fonts that look good together.
  • Don't use fonts that mimic handwriting, like ones that have 'script' in the name. They are difficult to read and not accessible. This is also true for novelty and decorative fonts - these are rarely suitable for any kind of text document due to their lack of readability.
  • Think about suitability. Most documents are either academic or professional, so tend to need a font that is clear and formal. There's a reason most academic documents are written in Arial or Times New Roman! You can pick others, but don't go too out there.


Don't forget to check any departmental guidance on fonts for submitted documents, as a specific font or type of font (e.g. serif, sans serif) might be specified.

If you do need to find a different font for something and can't find anything on the list you see in your text processing application, you can either find and install free fonts from the internet (Word), or use the More fonts button in Google Docs to explore the full list of fonts available to install.

Font sizes and colours

As well as choosing the right font, think about the size and colour of your text. A larger font size is usually better, so making your document in 12pt size is better than making it too small to read. Again, you do need to follow any departmental guidelines on font size for submitted work.

For most documents, you're not going to want to use different coloured fonts and backgrounds. For submitted documents like essays and theses, you will typically be required to use black text on a white background. For other documents you may have more freedom, but make sure that there is appropriate contrast between the text and the background colours. Avoid using any neon or overly bright colours for either, as these can be very difficult to read.

Don't use colour to display differences in text - use bold instead. This will ensure that anyone with visual impairments or colour blindness can still understand your emphasis.

Text spacing

Line and paragraph spacing is another important element of your document, ensuring readability and providing space for handwritten comments on printed documents. Make sure your document isn't too crowded and there is enough space around the text that readers aren't overwhelmed with content.

Make sure you set an appropriate level of line spacing for the text in your document, taking into account any departmental guidelines. Sometimes having slightly over single line spacing can help with reading each line of text.

Use space before and after paragraphs, from the options in Word (from the Paragraph options when modifying a style) and Google Docs (Format menu > Line & paragraph spacing), to help readability and to ensure it is clear where paragraphs start and end. Don't use the 'Enter' key for this, as it will add empty paragraphs into your document!


Using styles exercises

Once you've gone over the material on this page, try the following exercises to apply your knowledge:

  1. Create a new 'play' document.
  2. Open the Navigation Pane (View > Navigation Pane).
  3. Write a title for your test document and apply the ‘Title’ Style to it.
  4. Modify the ‘Title’ style so the font is slightly bigger and in Bold.
  5. Create some made-up headings for your document and turn them into headings (e.g. abstract, introduction, literature review, methodology, etc.). Try adding ‘Heading 1’ and ‘Heading 2’ (for a sub-section).
  6. Modify how the heading styles look: change the font, size, colour, line spacing and space before/after paragraph (right click the heading and select Modify).