In Microsoft Word, a “style” is essentially a collection of one or more pieces of formatting information.

Using styles can be a great way to ensure consistent formatting across a document. Styles are especially helpful when you use them to format your headings.1

Here are 4 simple steps to start leveraging styles in your headings.

1. Identify the heading format requirements your style authority has.

If you’re a student writing for class, you’ll want to consult your school’s and professor’s requirements.

If neither of these authorities mandates a heading style scheme for you, you’ll get your heading styles from the Student Supplement for The SBL Handbook of Style.

In that case, you’ll format your headings as follows:2

Primary heading: centered, all capital letters, long titles single-spaced

First-level subheading: centered, bold, capitalized headline style

Second-level subheading: centered, capitalized headline style (no bold)

Third-level subheading: on left margin, bold, italics, capitalized headline style

Fourth-level subheading: on left margin, capitalized headline style (no bold or italics)

Of course, if you’re not writing for a degree program you’re enrolled, you might be writing for a journal, a book publisher, or someone else.

In those cases, you’ll still want to be sure to consult your style authorities in the proper order.

For more on this and other important points, see my free e-book, Secrets of SBL Style: What You Need to Know That Hides in Plain Sight.

2. Decide which Word styles to use for which heading styles.

Word comes preloaded with heading styles numbered 1 through 9. So I line them up with heading styles like those above as follows:

Authority StyleWord Style
Primary headingHeading 1
First-level subheadingHeading 2
Second-level subheadingHeading 3
Third-level subheadingHeading 4
Fourth-level subheadingHeading 5

But you might prefer to align the styles differently.

For example, you could create a new style in Word (e.g., named “Heading Primary”) and then use the built-in “Heading #” styles only for subheadings. (But I don’t recommend this because it can complicate using heading styles to create a table of contents.)

A first-level subheading would then use Heading 1, a second-level subheading would use Heading 2, and so forth.

3. Modify Word’s style formatting to match your authority’s requirements.

Next, you’ll need to modify each Word heading style to match the formatting your style authority requires.

You can do this in several ways. I find it’s easiest to:3

1. Go to the Home tab, and find the “Styles” section. You should see an arrow in the lower right corner of the section. Click this to expand the section into a panel.

Steps to open the styles panel from the Home tab

2. Scroll down the styles panel until you find the first heading style you want to edit. The panel lists styles in alphabetical order.

3. When you find the style, right-click it, and choose “Modify.” You’ll then see the “Modify Style” dialog box where you can specify how you want that heading style formatted. So for instance, if you’re following the examples I’ve given above, you’ll modify the Heading 1 style to be centered, use all capital letters, and have single spacing.

4. After you’ve gotten the style formatting as you want it, decide whether you’ll want to use this same style formatting in other documents based on the same Word template. If so, choose the “New documents based on this template” option at the bottom of the “Modify Style” dialog box.

5. Click “OK” to save the style formatting you’ve specified in the “Modify Style” dialog box.

4. Use Word’s heading styles in your document.

To use the heading styles you’ve built in your document, simply

1. Highlight some text in your document. Then choose the appropriate heading style from the Styles menu. Or,

2. Choose a style from the Styles menu, and then type your heading text.

After your heading, you can then use the “Normal” style or another one you’ve crafted for after a heading to format that paragraph appropriately.

Conclusion

Using styles to format your headings will help ensure your headings are consistent with one another.

Via the navigation panel, you’ll be able to see easily if you have any sections with only one subheading.

You’ll also be able to quickly generate a properly formatted, dynamic table of contents that updates with the rest of your document.

So if you haven’t given much attention to Word’s heading styles in the past, give them a try, and start making things easier on yourself and your readers.


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Header image provided by rupixen


  1. And if you ever need to turn styles into direct formatting, you can do that pretty easily also. 

  2. Student supplement for The SBL Handbook of Style §2.6. 

  3. Here, I’m assuming you have a current version of Word via Office 365. These instructions are based on v16.0.12430.20046. They should work on other recent versions as well. But you’ll notice greater differences in the process if you have an older version of Word. 

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