How to apply new styles to an old document in Microsoft Word
Updating old Microsoft Word documents is tedious work, but nonetheless, you must get the job done. If the old and new documents share the same style names, you’re in luck. If the difference between old and new is style names, you’ll have a bit more work. If the old documents use no styles at all, your work is even a bit harder, but still not as difficult as updating all those documents manually.
In this tutorial, I’ll show you how to use built-in styles to update old documents using a new style template. You might still have to review and tweak the results a bit, but it won’t be the laborious task you originally thought.
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I’m using Microsoft 365 on a Windows 10 64-bit system, but you can work with older versions of Microsoft Word. Word for the web will let you change styles, but you can’t rename styles in bulk as you can in the desktop version. Also, the number of built-in styles is limited.
How to review styles in Word
Simply put, a Word style is a combination of formats that you apply together. If you update the style, you also update all instances of the applied style in the document. They’re easy to create and apply, but often misunderstood, which means users often avoid them.
Updating an old document is easy when both the old documents and the new style template use the same style names for the same content level. For instance, all titles are the Title style, all heading 1 content uses the Heading 1 style, all heading 2 content uses the Heading 2 style, all quotes use the Quote style, and so on. When this is the case, you simply apply the new style template and you’re done.
Unfortunately, that may not be your reality. When updating older documents to new formatting conventions, you may run into a few issues:
- The old document’s styles don’t match the new style template style names.
- The old documents may not use styles at all, but rather, be a chaotic mess of direct formatting, which might not be consistent within the same document or from document to document.
- The old documents might be a mix of the first two.
The solution is to match style names in the old document to style names in the new style template. When you apply the new style template, Word will replace the old formatting with the new formatting.
To clarify, you’re not matching formats. You’re matching style names.
To begin, open the old document and see what you’re dealing with:
- Does the document use style names, whether built-in or custom?
- Does the document use style names consistently?
- Can you match styles in use to styles in the new style template?
To work more efficiently, keep Word’s Style Inspector open. To do so, click the dialog launcher for the Styles group on the Home tab and click the Style Inspector icon in the middle at the bottom of the Styles pane. I don’t know of a shortcut for displaying this pane. Once open, the inspector stays open until you close it, so it’s very convenient to use.
How to update style names in Word
Now that you have an idea of what you’re looking for in the old documents, let’s discuss what you’ll do with those findings.
To determine what styles and direct formatting are in use, highlight text to view the applied style, as shown in Figure A using the inspector. As you can see, the inspector displays paragraph and text level formatting and direct formatting. The term direct formatting applies to any format that you apply manually.
Formatting is less important than the style names in use. That’s because the template will update the styles for you. The key is the style names and how they’re applied to the levels of the document.
For example, let’s suppose an old document uses a style named Heading 2 that’s font 12 with bold, italics font. The new style template’s Heading 2 is font 12 with bold, no italics. You’ve determined that the old document is using Heading 2 to style content headers at the second level. This is the best setup to find. When you apply the new style template to the old document, Word will remove the italics from all Heading 2 text in the old document. That’s what you want.
If all the style names and levels in the old document match styles and levels in the new style template apply the new style template and move on to the next old document.
How to update when style names don’t match in Word
When the old document uses style names but they don’t match those in the new style document, you have a bit of work to do in the old document before you can update it.
Repeat the process above, viewing the styles used in the old document. How the content uses the style is the best clue, and we’re back to the level discussion. You recognize what a title is, what a heading 1 is, what a heading 2 is and so on. You’ll want to rename the old styles using new style names.
To quickly rename all instances of the same style in the old document using the Style Inspector, do the following:
- Right-click the Paragraph Formatting control and choose Select All N Instances. Word will select all content using the same style.
- Remove all direct formatting from all the selected instances by clicking All Clear next to second control in the Text Level Formatting section.
- Choose another style from the Styles gallery to rename the selected instances — a simple click.
Let’s consider another example. An old document uses a custom style named BoldandItalics for level 2 headings. Using the Style Inspector, select all instances of the BoldandItalics style. Remove any direct formatting if necessary. Then, choose the built-in Heading 2 style in the style gallery.
Formatting might matter when you’re trying to decide whether content is heading 2, heading 3, and so on. You should see a slight difference in the applied formatting if the style in use doesn’t have a meaningful name or there’s no style in use at all.
The Style Inspector is also helpful if users inconsistently applied direct formatting to style content but you don’t need to change the style name. Repeat the first two steps to remove the direct formatting, but don’t rename the style.
When you apply the new style template, Word will replace previously named instances of BoldandItalics with Heading 2, because you applied Heading 2 to those instances before applying the new style template to the old document.
How to update when no styles are in use in Word
When an older document uses no styles, but you find lots of direct formatting, you can remove all the formatting and start over. However, a better choice is to match content levels. As you work your way through the style-less document, review content by its level and apply the appropriate built-in style. But that could be tedious.
Instead of applying styles one at a time, with the content selected, right-click the style in the Styles gallery that matches a new style by name and choose Update heading name To Match Selection. Doing so applies the selected style to all the selected instances of the same direct formatting. You might have to do this several times before applying the new style template, but it should be quicker than starting over. If the Style Inspector is open, you can also use it to select all instances of the same style or formatting.
One final note
Once you’ve renamed all styles using a new style name, apply the new style template. You’ll be amazed at how closely the old document matches your new style conventions. Even if the document needs a few tweaks, you’ve saved a lot of time, effort, and frustration.
In all three cases, you’re matching level usage to built-in styles, not formatting. If your new style template doesn’t use built-in styles, import those new styles into the old document and apply them in the same way.
To learn more about the Style Inspector, read Three ways to expose formatting inconsistencies in a Word document.