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Apply new styles to an old document in Microsoft Word

Word logo on paper texture.
Image: Araki Illustrations/Adobe Stok

Update old Microsoft Word documents is tedious work, but you still have to get the job done. If the old and new documents have the same style names, you’re in luck. If the difference between old and new is style names, you’ll have a little more work. If the old documents don’t use styles at all, your job will be a little more difficult, 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 with a new style template. You may still need to review and adjust the results a bit, but it won’t be the arduous task you initially thought.

SEE: Google Workspace vs. Microsoft 365: a side-by-side analysis with checklist (TechRepublic Premium)

I use Microsoft 365 on a Windows 10 64-bit system, but you can work with older versions of Microsoft Word. Word for the web lets you change styles, but you can’t bulk rename styles like you can in the desktop version. Also, the number of built-in styles is limited.

View styles in Word

Simply put, a Word style is a combination of formats that you apply together. When you update the style, you also update all instances of the applied style in the document. They are easy to create and apply, but are often misunderstood, leading users to 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 level of content. For example, all titles have the title style, all heading 1 contents use the heading 1, all heading 2 contents use the heading 2 style, all quotation marks use the quotation mark style, and so on. When this is the case, simply apply the new style template and you’re done.

Unfortunately, that may not be your reality. When you update older documents to new formatting conventions, you can run into a few problems:

  • The styles of the old document do not match the style names of the new style template.
  • The old documents may not use styles at all, but rather are a chaotic mess of direct formatting, which may not be consistent within the same document or from document to document.
  • The old documents may be a mix of the first two.

The solution is to match style names in the old document with style names in the new style template. When you apply the new style template, Word replaces the old formatting with the new format.

To clarify, you don’t match sizes. You match style names.

To start, open the old document and see what you’re dealing with:

  • Does the document use style names, built-in or custom?
  • Does the document use style names consistently?
  • Can you match the styles used with the styles in the new style template?

Keep Word’s style inspector open to work more efficiently. To do this, click the dialog launcher for the Styles group on the Home tab and click the Style Inspector icon at the bottom center of the Styles pane. I don’t know of a shortcut to display this panel. Once opened, the inspector stays open until you close it, so it is very convenient to use.

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 to do with those findings.

To determine which styles and direct formatting are in use, highlight text to view the style applied, as shown in Image A with the help of the inspector. As you can see, the inspector displays paragraph and text-level formatting and direct formatting. The term direct formatting applies to any formatting that you apply manually.

Image A

Use the Style Inspector to determine styles and direct formatting in the old document.
Use the Style Inspector to determine styles and direct formatting in the old document.

Formatting is less important than the style names used. That’s because the template updates the styles for you. The key is the style names and how they are applied to the levels of the document.

For example, let’s assume an old document uses a style called Heading 2, which is font 12 with a bold italic font. Heading 2 of the new style template is font 12, bold and not italic. You have determined that the old document uses Heading 2 to format second-level content headings. This is the best setup to find. When you apply the new style template to the old document, Word removes the italics from all heading 2 text in the old document. That’s what you want.

If all 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

If the old document uses style names, but they don’t match those in the new style document, you’ll need to do some work in the old document before you can update it.

Repeat the above process and review 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 headline 1 is, what a headline 2 is and so on. You want to rename the old styles with new style names.

To quickly rename all instances of the same style in the old document using the style inspector, do the following:

  1. Right-click the Paragraph Formatting control and choose Select All N Instances. Word selects all content with the same style.
  2. Remove all direct formatting from all selected instances by clicking Clear All next to the second control in the Text Level Formatting section.
  3. Choose a different style from the Styles gallery to rename the selected instances – a simple click.

Let’s look at another example. An old document uses a custom style called BoldandItalics for level 2 headings. Use the style inspector to select all instances of the BoldandItalics style. Remove any direct formatting if necessary. Then choose the built-in Heading 2 style from the style gallery.

Formatting can be important when 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 used has no meaningful name or has no style at all.

The Style Inspector is also useful when users inconsistently apply direct formatting to style content, but you don’t need to change the style name. Repeat the first two steps to remove the direct format, but do not rename the style.

When you apply the new style template, Word replaces previously mentioned instances of BoldandItalics with Heading 2, because you applied Heading 2 to those instances before applying the new style template to the old document.

Update if no styles are in use in Word

When an older document doesn’t use styles, but you find a lot of direct formatting, you can remove all formatting and start over. However, a better choice is to match the content levels. As you work your way through the unstyled document, review the content by level and apply the appropriate built-in style. But that can be annoying.

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. When you do this, the selected style is applied to all selected instances of the same direct format. You may need to do this several times before applying the new style template, but it should be faster than starting over. When the Style Inspector is open, you can also use it to select all instances of the same style or format.

One final note:

After you have renamed all styles, apply the new style template. You’ll be amazed at how well 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 adjust the level usage to the built-in styles, not the 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.

For more information about the Style Inspector, read Three ways to identify formatting inconsistencies in a Word document.

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