Styles and templates

Formatting your document using styles and templates helps you to develop a logical structure and layout.

When you are writing a document, each content type (eg heading, paragraph, text box) has a different look. For example, headings are usually larger than paragraph text. The space before and after a heading also gives important visual navigational cues to readers (eg to ensure that it is clear what text the heading belongs to, the space after a heading should not be larger than the space before it).

Do not format documents manually by highlighting each content type and using toolbars to set the font size and attributes (eg bold, left aligned). This is time-consuming, prone to error and inconsistency, and difficult to update throughout the document.

Using styles means that you set up a ‘style’ for each of your different content types in a word-processing program such as Microsoft Word. In this context, a style is a set of text formatting characteristics such as font size, type, alignment and spacing.

Styles and templates are key writing tools because they allow you to:

  • ensure that the look of different headings and other content types is consistent
  • repeat the look of a document in other documents
  • restyle the document quickly and consistently
  • create a table of contents
  • check and change the table of contents to create the most logical structure
  • create accessible documents.

Using styles also helps if the document is being sent to a designer – the designer will use the styles to format the document accurately into the heading levels you want. If you have styled the whole document as Normal text and then applied bold, italics and so on to indicate headings, the designer will need to guess the correct level for each heading, and errors can creep in.

This section covers:

Using styles

If you are writing your document in Microsoft Word or Google Docs, the software provides a set of basic styles. These may be paragraph styles (which apply to a whole paragraph) or character styles (which apply to characters within a paragraph).

When you open a document, you may see a list of set styles such as:

  • Normal
  • Heading 1
  • Heading 2
  • Title
  • Subtitle
  • Quote
  • Emphasis
  • Strong.

Each of these styles has a different look. For example, they may be:

  • Normal – 11 point Calibri with 6 points between paragraphs, left aligned
  • Heading 1 – 18 point Calibri with 24 points following, left aligned
  • Heading 2 – 14 point Calibri with 12 points following, left aligned
  • Title – 24 point bold Calibri with 24 points following, centred
  • Subtitle – 18 point bold Calibri with 18 points following, centred
  • Quote – 9 point Calibri with 12 points following, centred
  • Emphasis – Normal style in italics
  • Strong – Normal style in bold.

To apply paragraph styles, click on a paragraph, then click on the style you want to apply. To apply character styles, select the text, then click on the style you want to apply.

If you do not like the look of the styles supplied with the program, you can change the style or add new styles. You will find many online guides to changing and using styles for Microsoft Word for PCs or Mac, or for Google Docs.

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Appearance of styles

Take care with how your styles look, to ensure that they convey the structure of your document accurately and look good on the page:

  • Heading styles. Make sure the hierarchy of the headings is clear (eg a level 1 heading should be bigger than a level 2 heading, or made bold or a different colour). Make sure you consider the appropriate spacing before and after headings, as well as the font (see Heading basics).
  • Normal style. Make sure it is appropriate for the whole document (eg choose a font that is plain type rather than cursive).
  • Lists. If you are setting up styles for bullet lists and lead-in sentences, ensure appropriate spacing between items
    • The lead-in sentence and the list, as well as all the items in the list, should be closely spaced because they are read as a single sentence.
    • The last item in the list and the following paragraph should have more space between them than between the list items, to show the separation of the list from the next paragraph.
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Saving styles

If you have changed the look of styles in a document, these styles will be saved when you save your document.

If you want to create new documents using the same styles, you can create a ‘template’. A template holds all your styles and can be used to create multiple documents with the same look.

For example, to make a Microsoft Word template:

  1. Create all the styles you want within a Word document.
  2. Click on File > Save As.
  3. Click on the dropdown menu of file types and select Word Template (*.dotx).
  4. Click Save.
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Using a template

You can set up and use your own template, or you can use one supplied by your organisation or find one online.

If you are using Microsoft Word (Microsoft Office 365), templates can be used in 2 ways:

  • Create a new document based on your template by double-clicking on the template file. This creates a new Word document (ie a .docx file) that you can then save with a new document name.
  • Open an existing document, go to the Templates and Add-ins dialog box and click on the Attach button. Browse to find your template file, click Open, and then click OK in the Templates and Add-ins dialog box to apply the template.
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Table of contents

Using styles means that you can easily create a table of contents (TOC) in your word-processing program.

For example, to make a TOC in Microsoft Word (Microsoft Office 365):

  1. set up your heading levels and apply these styles consistently to the relevant content
  2. go to the page where you want your TOC
  3. click on References > Table of Contents
  4. select the type of TOC you want, or create a custom TOC.

Word will automatically create a TOC on your chosen page using your heading levels.

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Styles and structure

Styles can help you to check and improve your document structure.

If you have set up styles, you can now see the structure of your document by looking at your table of contents. You may also be able to see the structure while you write – for example, in Microsoft Word when you have Headings selected in the Navigation pane, and in Google Docs when you use the Document Outline pane.

You can use this feature to check whether your headings are parallel, are grouped sensibly and have a logical flow:

TOC from the original structure of Guide to assembling your robotic editorial assistant

After restructuring, the TOC shows the improved flow:

Examining the original TOC helped to:

  • spot missing information
  • see the need for more explanatory headings
  • make the appropriate headings parallel (in language and in level)
  • get the section levels right
  • get the section order right
  • see the need for extra subheadings.
Tip. You can use the Microsoft Word Navigation pane or the Google Docs Document Outline pane as an editing tool. Rather than cutting and pasting or moving text in the document pane, you can move sections of content around in the Navigation pane simply by clicking and dragging on the relevant heading. You can rearrange the order and levels of headings easily using this method. 
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