MS Word, A Primer for Indie Writers: Part I: Styles

Let us ponder MS Word. It’s ubiquitous. Until recently, just about every PC came pre-loaded with it. Writers use it because it’s there. In the course of cleaning thousands of documents generated in Word, I’ve come to the conclusion that the vast majority of writers have zero idea about how to actually use the program. This is not a slam. Up until I began formatting ebooks, I had no idea how it worked either. I typed my stories and my printer puked out the pages, and that was that. Back in those days, it didn’t matter much. I had a standard manuscript format to follow, one my editors demanded, and once the manuscript was in my publisher’s hands, it was completely out of mine.

What I never thought about, and you probably don’t either, is that MS Word has evolved from a word processor into a quasi-publishing program. Its purpose is to create office documents: memos, contracts, forms, etc. Stuff that is printed for office use. As a tool for writers, especially fiction writers, it’s over-powered and way too complicated. For writer/publishers it’s horrendous. But, it’s what most people use and they aren’t going on a hunt for something different because it takes time to learn a new program and they’d rather be writing.

Indie writer/publishers, pay attention. If you don’t learn how to use Word properly, it’s either going to a) Drive you insane; b) Drive your hired production people insane; c) Create a less than professional end product; d) All of the Above.

I get enough questions via email about how to fix some problem or another created in Word, that I think this primer is necessary. Since Word is such a complex program, I’m doing it as a series. I’m not, however, writing a manual. (90% of Word’s features aren’t something you will ever need, so I’m not bothering with those.) Every feature I cover will pertain to you.


Styles in Word are the most useful feature of all. Learning to use them and then actually using them consistently will save you headaches, frustration and hours of useless, mind-numbing work. If you hire out book production, professional formatters will have no trouble with your text. If you do it yourself, styles will eliminate the majority of problems before you even begin.

NOTE: I am demonstrating using Word 2010, and its menus are different than other versions, but all the principles are exactly the same.

Word_Styles_1The Style menu is found on the Home menu screen. Pictured here is a work in progress. It requires only two (TWO!) styles. Normal and Heading 1, which are both built-in styles in Word. For composition purposes, especially with fiction writers, I recommend you stick to those two styles. You’re composing. You don’t need to worry about margins, headers, tabs, centering, page breaks, etc. If you aren’t going to print the document for any purpose than your own, none of that matters. Trust me.

The sample is set up for MY composition comfort, the layout that floats my boat. You may prefer a different font or line spacing. To modify a style to suit you, right-click on the style you want to change and choose Modify.

Word_Styles_2This will open the main style modification menu. In the lower left corner is a box that says Format. Click on that and you will open boxes that allow you to change the font and paragraph styles. The above sample shows my paragraph set up. To prevent future production problems, I suggest:

  • Alignment: Left
  • Outline Level: Body Text
  • Indent: (right and left): 0
  • Special (paragraph indent): 0.3″ if you like it narrow; 0.5″ if you like it wide
  • Line-Spacing: Your preference, single, 1.5, or double
  • Under Line and Page Breaks: Unclick ALL the boxes

You can modify your font the same way. Select Font from the Format menu and choose your font and font size.

NOTE: Choose a font that you can stand to look at and work in for however long it takes you to write your story. BUT, big warning here. Fonts in Word are designed to work in print. If you’re going to produce an ebook, and if you are using special characters (umlauts, breve and grave marks, ornaments, etc.) some character subsets will NOT translate. Times New Roman is the safest. Garamond and Courier are also pretty reliable.

So you set up your body text style as Normal, what happens? You type. When you hit Enter for a new paragraph, the cursor is at the proper indent (no need to use the Tab key or hit the space bar.). Your document will look the same throughout. If you decide to modify the layout, Word will update the entire document to match the new style.


Heading 1 is a built-in style. If you use it

  • Word will create a navigation guide for you. (You can do levels using Heading 2, Heading 3, Heading 4, etc., but for most fiction projects, that’s just silly.)
  • You can bop around your manuscript easily. You can tell at a glance where you are.
  • You can use the search function to find your chapter or section starts.
  • When you give the document to an editor, proofreader or formatter, Heading 1 makes it perfectly clear where your chapters begin even if you don’t use page breaks or title your chapters with “Chapter”.
  • If you are formatting a Word doc for Smashwords, Heading 1 alerts the Meatgrinder and enables it to build the internal ToC.
  • It makes building a Table of Contents easy.

To demonstrate how easy styles can be, I just spent a few minutes manipulating styles. The left document is my working document: Normal and Heading 1. In the middle is the same document styled for Smashwords. I modified Normal and Heading 1, then added a new style called “First” (you can make custom styles) to remove the indent from the first paragraph. On the right is a document I can save as a pdf to use for an advance reading copy. (I would, of course, adjust the margins, hyphenate the text, and add headers and page numbers, but that is another post).

Word_Styles_3Minutes. No hassle, no fuss, no bother.

Some tips for Styles:

  • Print and Digital are two completely different things. Use Save As to make a working copy any time you decide to style for a new format.
  • For ebooks, never use a justified style (in Word). Justifying your text can cause Word to insert “lock” commands that render user preference controls useless in the ebook.
  • Don’t use the centering command in the tool bar. Create a style for centering. That way you’ll never have to remember to remove the paragraph indents.
  • If for some reason, you prefer working in block paragraphs, use your style to insert space between paragraphs, NOT extra hard returns. Take a look at the image for modifying paragraphs. See the Spacing Before and After? Select “6” in the Before box and that will automatically insert a space between your paragraphs. “3” will you give you a half-space.
  • Remember, for printing purposes, What You See is pretty much What You Get. That is not true when formatting ebooks. If you are formatting an ebook in Word, set your view to Web Layout so you are not distracted by “pages” and margins. Adjust the window to make it smaller and larger, and you will see what I mean. Trust the styles to take care of your paragraphs, and don’t try to micro-manage spacing.

There you go. Styles. They’ll make your life easier and your books more professional.

Next post: Scene Breaks, Page Breaks and Sections