Every modern word processing program comes with a feature, usually called ‘styles’, which allows you to control the look of your final document. Microsoft Word does. LibreOffice and OpenOffice do. I’d be surprised if there was a major program word processing program that doesn’t.
A style is a collection attributes, such as font, font size, indentation, alignment, colour, and many other attributes that describe an element in a document. The element can be a page, a character or set of characters, a paragraph, an image, and many other things. A style can be applied either by default, or by selecting an element and clicking on a list of available styles.
Sounds complex? It isn’t really. When you want to create a heading for example, you can type some text, select it, change the font type to make it bold, change the font to make it stand out, and increase the size. Or you could simply type the text and then apply one of the builtin Heading styles with a single click and everything is done for you.
I’m mostly concerned here with paragraph styles. That is, styles which apply to whole paragraphs, and not just single characters or words. In MS Word, LO Writer and other word processing programs, if you start typing a paragraph it will be formatted according to a default style. In MS Word I believe it is called “Normal”. In LibreOffice it is “Default Paragraph Style”. The current paragraph style is usually shown somewhere in the editing screen.
(In my text below I will refer to things in LO Writer terms, because that is what I use. But the concepts should apply to MS Word and probably other word processing programs too, even if the details are different.)
It is my strong belief that everything that affects the look and feel of a document should be achieved with styles, because it makes it so much easier to change things.
For instance, suppose you decided to make one of your paragraphs stand out. You could select the paragraph text and make it bold using the style toolbar at the top of your editor screen. That would work.
But several hours later and many pages later, you decide to also indent it. You have to search back through the document for it. Again you could use the on-screen tools to indent the paragraph. Again, that would work.
You return to end of your document, and create another paragraph, which you bold and indent. So far, so easy. But then, you decide that the bold paragraphs would look better in a different font size. Now you have two places to go to change the font and each time you create a bold paragraph, you need to bold it, indent it, and change the font to be consistent.
By the time that you have six or more bold paragraphs, and you want to change something else about them, you will find yourself flicking about in your document. And what if you miss one of the bold paragraphs? Your formatting is no longer consistent!
It would be a lot easier if you had created a “Bold Paragraph Style” (based on the “Default Paragraph Style” for example) the first time that you decided that you needed a bold paragraph. Then you could change all the occurrences of the bold paragraphs without needing to visit all of the occurrences individually. Just change the style!
Creating a new style is not hard. You don’t have to supply all the attributes. You base your new style on an existing one, and just change the things that you want to be different.
I would avoid changing the builtin styles. This is because every style except the “Default Paragraph Style” is based on another style, and all builtin styles are descendants of the “Default Paragraph Style”. In other words the style system is hierarchical, and if you change the “Default Paragraph Style”, any styles which inherits from it, directly or indirectly, may change.
I would not use “Default Paragraph Style” for ordinary text paragraphs, as it is the ancestor of all builtin style. Instead I would choose “Text Body” or one of the styles that inherit from it, and then the consequences are limited.
Since styles are arranged hierarchically, a style such as “Heading 1” for example inherits from the style “Heading”, which in turn inherits from the “Default Paragraph Style”. So some of the settings of “Header 1” come from “Heading” and some from way back in “Default Paragraph Style”.
This is all pretty straightforward and logical, but difficult to explain. The main lesson is that if you use styles, be really cautious about changing the builtin styles, as changing one style may affect any styles which inherit from it.
This is not a good reason to avoid styles as they can make life so much easier for you!
But what if you want all your documents to have the same formatting. The chapters of a book should ideally all look the same, so that when you combine them, it all looks neat and tidy.
You don’t have to modify the styles in each document that you create! That would be tedious and error prone. Instead you can take a document that is in the format that you require, and save it as a template. I’m not going to detail the process here, because there are a couple of ways of doing it in LibreOffice Writer, and that is almost certainly true in MS Word and other word processing programs too.
You can edit the template to remove all the text, if you wish, but the template will have all the necessary styles in it, and writing a new chapter will be easy, with just a click now and then to apply the styles!
One final point is that once you have created a template and are using it to create documents, then everything is not set in concrete. You can change the styles in the template and revisit and save your documents to update the styles in them. This may be tedious, but it is simple! You can even apply a template retrospectively to your old documents, but that is beyond the scope of this article.
In conclusion, I strongly believe that anyone who uses a word processing program that provides a style-like feature and a template-like feature should use the features in almost situations. OK, you write a letter and may think that you would not need to style that, but then you come to write another similar letter. If you had spent a few minutes styling your first letter, you could use it as a template for any subsequent letters. “Dear Mum…”
Don’t be scared of styles. They aren’t really that complex. Styles will not cause you to lose any work or break your word processing program. If things get too messy you can always cut and paste your text into a brand new empty document. I ended up with a mess because I like to experiment with things and only read the documentation after I’ve tried something (and usually screwed it up). But my documents are going to look perfect by the time that I’ve finished.