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.
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.
In Google Docs, the styles can be found as a dropdown list on the toolbar.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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!
Once you've gone over the material on this page, try the following exercises to apply your knowledge: