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On Microsoft Word Styles: “You Cheated!”

When I taught Technical Writing at my alma mater last fall, it was my first ever college course (as a teacher, of course). It was three credit hours and rated on the junior level — so, in other words, I jumped right into the deep end of the pool.

I wasn’t too worried about it, though. After all, I am a technical writer (and a really good one, at that). I’ve got eight years of diverse real-world experience, and teaching is in my blood. How hard could it be?

What tripped me up — and it astonishes me how often I have to repeat this sentence — was the math.

See, I was thinking, “A whole semester to teach Technical Writing. How am I going to fill all that time?” But a week before classes were supposed to start I finally sat down to come up with my detailed lesson plan, and I realized for the first time exactly what a 3-credit-hour course was.

3 hours a week, for sixteen weeks. Without even factoring in holidays and breaks, that gave me just 48 hours total to teach a bunch of college kids — most of them with no real background in writing — everything they needed to know about writing in the business world.

I gave myself a good half hour to panic, and then I opened my list of “topics that might make interesting lessons” (in Google Docs, of course), scrolled through the thirty or forty notes I’d scribbled in there, and then cut all but two of them.

  • Distinct Document Types
  • Writing with Styles

Forty-eight hours, I figured, would be just enough time to cover those two topics in sufficient detail, and nothing else on my list was nearly as important.

You’ve seen a lot of discussion around here already on the second bullet point, and I’m building up to the first one in a subtle, sneaky manner. At heart, though, it’s the same as my discussion of document templates. Knowing that, if you’ve been around here for long you can make a pretty educated guess what my class was like.

Really, the biggest difference was just that I could make them do the exercises. So by the midpoint of the semester, I’d made them go through the motions of setting up styles several times.

We’d built our own templates at least once a week, and customized styles for every single paragraph in the document. I’d mentioned some of the benefits obliquely from time to time, but I hadn’t really shown them the real why of styles yet.

This was a lesson I’d been planning from the first day, though. I opened a new document on the monitor at the front of the class, filled it with completely unformatted text I’d copied from several of their tutorials, and then scrolled through real quick and applied a bunch of styles while they watched.

That was impressive on its own, watching boring Notepad-type text become a real book (visually, anyway) just like that. By the time I was done I had nine chapters, complete with titles, section headings, illustrations and captions…the works.

Then I skipped to the topic of the document, added a blank line, and clicked Insert | Field | TOC. My Table of Contents sprang onto the page fully-formed (and, if I do say so myself, quite beautiful).

They gave a pretty satisfying gasp of surprise. Someone sitting on the back row shouted, “You cheated!”

“And that,” I said with debonair aplomb, “is why you need to learn styles.”

Using and Customizing Styles in MS Word

I started this series two weeks ago with the promise that applying standard styles adds meaning, not just formatting, and that having access to that meaning gives you more options as a writer. When it comes to document design, there is real power in paragraph styles.

This week we’re going to see some of that power in effect. Come back tomorrow for a quick guide to working with styles in Microsoft Word, and then Tuesday I’ll show you how to make some magical TOCs of your own.

2 Responses to “On Microsoft Word Styles: “You Cheated!””

  1. Oh dang you. I can’t tell you how long I spent in Word trying to figure out how to auto-create a Table of Contents. I knew there was a way, but never found it. 😛

    So I guess I’ll be heartily applying your next blog.

    • Aaron Pogue says:

      Actually, Becca, it’ll have to be my next two blog posts. Tomorrow’s will tell you how to prep your book properly (and get in the habit of doing it right) without messing up the way it looks. Then on Tuesday (assuming you’ve done all that), then you can get the payoff.