Get a with the styles, please

Styles Example
Look, an instant header!

Any time I begin to collaborate on documents, I inevitably come up against one of the greatest banes of the desktop publishing world, manually formatted text. This is a particular difficulty with website submissions. In submitted web articles text comes in manually formatted with headers, often with line breaks following to make the text look close to the title. This manually formatted text must be unformatted, and then reset in order to make the content match the rest of the site.

Similar problems occur in documents meant for printing, which leads to all sorts of odd behavior when documents get passed between machines. The biggest culprit in “for print” document is a cousin to manually formatted headers, and is a more poisonous beast – manually spaced indents. These creatures create so much havoc I actually have nightmares about deciphering the wake of their destruction. Manually spaced indents are born when a desktop publisher creates a list which has no bullets, such as a schedule, and wants the times to stand out. Most lines will have [time] followed by five or six manual spaces, and finally [content]. These are bad, but it gets really fun when the [content] wraps on to more than one line. In those situations, at the point where the text wraps, the desktop publisher will manually space the text all the way to where the first line begins. If it wraps to other lines, this process will be repeated. When these monsters are copied from a word processor and then pasted into a web-editor, I develop an eye-twitch.

It's not just the fact I have to clean up these messes which makes me hate them so much. What really gets me is how manually formatting all this text is actually more work! Most modern word processors, and just about every editor on popular blogging platforms, has built in styles which can speed up workflow. If the standard styles don't fit, you can edit existing ones, or create new styles to fit your needs.

Let's take a look at some benefits of using styles

Uniform Look

If you use document styles, every element using a style will look the same. In a printed document this looks more professional. On the web, it's absolutely essential to make site-content appear as those it all belongs on the same page. If you manually format text to be headings, for example, you have to remember what font, size, and weight you used for that element. If you get even one point off, the heading will stick out like a sore thumb.

Quick change artistry

With manually fomatted text, when you decide to change your content you must go back through your document and change elements one at a time. When you are using styles, all you have to do is change the style. Then every place that style appears will be changed. Want to make your first heading larger? You only have to change that once. Want to indent the first line of paragraphs in your body text? You only have to change that once. Don't like how much you've indented your blockquotes? Again, that's one change. Without using styles any one of these alterations could take up to an hour, depending on how long your document is. Using styles, all three of these changes can be completed in minutes – even in seconds, once you get used to using them.

Providing structure

With manually formatted headers, a word processor or web editor has no idea what the structure of your content is supposed to be. Sure, you may know one header is the top level and another is the second – but your computer needs to be told that is the case. Again, styles are the answer. This is the easiest way, for example, to create a table of contents. You simple tell the word processor to examine your header styles.

Having a structure in a document is also helpful for moving editable documetns from program to program. A word processor might mess up manually formatted text because it's configured differerently, but if you use styles to create a clear structure to your content the conversion process is made much easier.

The big question

One question I get hit with when I explain styles to people is, “So why do I have all those other buttons, then?” It's a fair question, with a simple answer. The other formatting buttons like bold, italics, and underline are what are known as character styles. They are meant to format characters in the text and alter them in order to make them stand out. This is fine for specific instances where you want a word to stand out, but for the general format of your content, and repeating looks especially, they are a really bad solution.

Styles are found in the toolbars of most word processors and web-editors. Look for them, and start playing around to see how much easier structuring and formatting your documents can be! Over the new few days I'll be writing some tips on how to use styles well. I'll also explain why, in the the information age, I think style and structure should probably have an amicable divorce with shared custody of the data.


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  1. One of the reasons why I build my own doc formats when I can. Control of styles, without knitting the styles so hard to the content that it’s unusable by others.

    • Precisely!

      I’ll cover that in my third article in this arc, but I’m glad you pointed it out. Styles in word processors and web editors give visual clues about structure. The wysiwyg nature of word processors, however, has caused people to think styles really are only about the look of something, and that’s only true when you are printing from a local document. If you want to turn a file into an ePub, put it on the web as HTML, or bring it into a writing suite the only thing which matters is how styles create structure. The look is handled elsewhere, as it should be.

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