Writing with Styles

Tapping into the styles available in modern word processors such as Microsoft Word and OpenOffice unveils a power tool for writers to automatically format their documents.

Many users probably don’t stray too far from the default “New Document” that comes installed with their word processor. For short documents that’s probably just fine, but trying to manage a longer document can quickly become a hassle.

Think about a standard magazine article and you will probably recognize certain elements. Most will begin with a headline followed by an article. Longer articles may be divided into sections with sub-headings. Take a look at a document such as the 24-page Accounting Manual provided by the Finance Department on Sharepoint for a clear picture of styles in use.

If you have ever had to update each subheading of a document, you’ll appreciate how valuable styles can be. A writer who decides the sub-headings should be bigger, smaller, emboldened, italicized, or even displayed using a different typeface can make a single change to the style and see it reflected throughout the document. This eliminates the process of copying, changing, finding the next one, copying, changing, finding the next one.

Well, you see the pattern.

Common Language

Let’s establish a few terms so we can move forward with a common language. These definitions are gleaned from the iPad app Typography Insight designed and developed by Dongyoon Park. Learn more about this app and general typography online at www.typeinsight.org.

  • Typeface – These are the names you are familiar with and probably refer to as fonts. Standard typefaces include Arial, Verdana, and Times New Roman.
  • Font – Fonts, in the proper sense, are the digital files that refer to a single style such as Helvetica Bold.
  • Type Style – Variations a word processor may impose on a typeface such as bold, thin, italic, or light.
  • Type Family – A group of typefaces designed to be used together
  • Sans Serif – Latin for “without feet.” Example include Arial and Helvetica.
  • Serif – The cousin to sans serif, characters in this typeface have feet. Examples include Garamond and Times New Roman.

Style Types

Writers generally have two options: character styles and paragraph styles. Character styles only affect selected characters. You can use character styles to select the first word of a paragraph to consistently set in Small Caps or boldface type. There is no need to scroll back to see what point size and typeface was used earlier in the document with a defined style.

The real power lies in paragraph styles. Predefined paragraph styles can be applied to quickly and uniformly modify the paragraph holding the cursor or huge swaths of text in a document. The result is a clean and consistent look and feel to the finished product.

Basics: Set Your Style

Many writers use the standard-issue Microsoft Word. There are several versions still in use, so this section is intentionally hazy to be useful with most versions and other word processor.

Select “Styles” from the formatting area or menu to review available styles. This provides an idea about the options available to writers.

The easiest way to set up a style is to open a new document and make the text look the way you like. Type a few characters, then set your size and other formatting characteristics to your liking. Select your formatted text and choose “New Style” to give it an appropriate name. If you want to use this style in future documents, but sure to add it to the template. In Word, there is a checkbox to do this. Word also has a drop-down menu where you may choose other style characteristics to modify.

A good rule of thumb is to use sans serif typeface to stand out for headlines and sub-headings. Serif fonts are better for body copy. Having said that, these rules are not set in stone and you should use what works best for your document.

Advanced Styles

Style options are often inherited from the previous paragraph and the savvy writer can use this to her advantage. Consider this example.

Every time the author begins a new section with a subheading in 14-point Helvetica bold, he wants the next line to be a pithy quote in italics set in 10-point Helvetica in italics, which is immediately followed by the body copy set in 12-point Garamond. Rather than manually doing this with each new section, this writer with foresight can set up a style to automate this process.

He puts the cursor in place and selects his “Subheading with Quote” style (or whatever he has named the style), types his sub-heading, and presses return. As he begins typing a related quote, it is already set in the correct typeface and italicized. When finished with the quote, another return will bring his cursor to the next line waiting to write the rest of the section in the serif typeface Garamond.

All of this is possible when writing with styles.

NB: I wrote this for people who won’t grok Markdown, which is still my “writing platform” of choice.