fonts 5 things you didn't know about styles in your word processor

Styles are a power feature in technical writing. Learn five ways you can leverage styles to work for you.

You probably add "style" to a document you're writing without even thinking about it. When you make a word bold or italics, you're adding style. When you create a heading above a paragraph, you're adding style. Style controls how your document looks, and it's important because ideally it also helps your reader process the information you're hoping to convey. For example, I've written this article as a list of clearly-defined concepts in an attempt to help you (the reader) remember the principles I'm hoping to teach. So that each principle stands out, I've made each item in my list a sub-heading in the article. These styles help the reader to navigate the content. Some people will read just the subheadings, while others will read the full text. The ability to skip around a document is a feature of how the article is styled.

Style can affect the way you write, because it effects the way people consume the information you've written. Here are five things you can do to put style to work for you.

1. Use the style menu

Try this experiment: Have a friend or your computer read a random document to you, with your eyes closed. Try to guess which words were written in bold or italics and which phrases are sub-headings (and what level of sub-heading they are). Depending on the document and the reader and your interpretation of what you hear, it's not impossible to get right, but it requires concentration.

A computer doesn't have that benefit. While some AI may be able to differentiate between a header and a body paragraph, the point is that no computer or human has to reverse engineer the structure of your document. You can make it explicit with the Style menu in your word processor.

The Style menu is presented as options that quickly change the appearance of text. Set a top-level heading to Heading 1 and it becomes big and bold, the obvious title of your document. Set a sub-heading to Heading 2 and it becomes less big and bold, an obvious delimiter between sections of text. It makes your document easier to read, but just as importantly it changes the markup, or how your document is encoded.

Depending on what word processor you use, the markup might be XML or LaTeX or HTML or something else entirely. Whatever format it is, that markup is what the computer reads. Markup tells the computer your intent, and it ensures that your intent carries over from one file type to another. The computer doesn't have to guess whether that lone short sentence is meant to be a section heading or a paragraph. The markup makes it clear.

2. Avoid direct formatting

When you're not used to writing with style, it can be difficult to break the habit of just making the document look the way you want it to look without using the Style menu. You might, by old habits, set a block of code to a monospace font without using a Preformatted text or Code style, or you might create a quick section header by adjusting the boldness and size of a sub-heading.

I think of these as “rogue” style changes. They're quick sleight-of-hand tricks you do to get the job done. The result appears to be the same, so what's the harm?

There is no harm in rogue style changes until you export your text to a new format. This direct formatting doesn't carry over because there were no styles defined. All text, whether it's code or heading or the body of the document looks exactly the same and, worse yet, is treated as equal by the computer, post-processors, and screen readers.

If you catch yourself trying to adjust your text so it looks good, take a moment to ask whether it's something you can do as a style instead.

3. Think in document blocks

One way to train yourself to use styles is to think in terms of block elements. If you've hit Return or Enter on your keyboard while typing, you've probably just changed into a new, imaginary "block" element. Each paragraph is a block. Each heading is a block. A code sample is a block.

Block elements are as easy for a computer to identify as they are for you, and so they're easy to style. Your word processor probably already provides an array of definitions for common block elements, including a paragraph style, several heading styles, code block styles, and maybe more. Use these existing styles to customize what your block elements look like, and then update the style so that your customization becomes the new default.

4. Keep your custom styles updated

In LibreOffice, the main Style menu is located in the top left toolbar. It's a drop-down menu that can apply a style to text, and which can be updated to match existing text. Here's how to create a new style in three easy steps, using a sub-heading as an example:

  1. Type your sub-heading, and set it to Heading 2 from the Style menu.
  2. Customize the sub-heading using the usual text font, size, and colour tools.
  3. Select your styled sub-heading, and click the Style menu again. Click the disclosure triangle to the right of Heading 2 and select Update to Match Selection

Within this document, all Heading 2 elements now match the style you created, and any new ones you create will match it, as well. It's that easy.

5. Separate style from content

The separation of style and content has been a vital principle in modern writing for decades now, but it's not something that tends to occur to us writers naturally. Writers use words to express ideas, and sometimes the way those words are laid out is just as important, at least in the writer's view, as what the words are.

However, in reality you can't control how your reader ingests the data contained in your words. Audio books don't traditionally stop to describe metadata, like the appearance or page layout, of the words being read. Blind readers never see the words the way sighted readers do, but they get the same data unless that data isn't well-structured.

In technical writing, especially, it's important that the information you write can be parsed no matter the delivery mechanism. And structured writing can benefit your SEO. For example, search engines can classify structured writing - and it's thanks to semantics like this that the Internet knows a business's phone number from its post code.

What is style?

We live in a golden age of word processing. You have your choice of office suite, including word processor, spreadsheet, page layout, and diagrams and other drawing tools. You can write a document in one format, and export it as PDF or EPUB or HTML or other document types. Leveraging styles may not make the writing easier, but it can make the logistics trivial. The "invisible" semantics of style helps you convey information that's easier for both your reader and computers to parse.