Writing With Style

Many of us developed our computer skills in the business world. Although we are comfortable using word-processing and spreadsheet applications, we are often familiar with only a small number of the features available. Those features served us well to create letters, reports and memos. For those of us who wish to tell the stories our family research has discovered, our business apps can still support our efforts. However, it will require learning and using some additional features.

Many of these features relate to formatting text. They are called “styles” and they make it easy to maintain a consistent look throughout a long document. But that’s not all. Styles can also simplify table of contents generation.

Styles are pre-defined collections of format settings which can be quickly assigned to selected text. Not only does this speed initial formatting, it becomes even more useful when you want to make formatting changes to an existing document. Instead of setting each main heading with the font, alignment and color requirements you want, you create a main heading style with those settings. Highlight the text that is your heading and click on the main heading style. Your word-processor will do the rest.

Formatting panel in Pages for Mac

In this example, the selected text has been assigned the “Heading” style. The formatting panel shows all the settings related to this style – from font, color and size to alignment and spacing. Just trying to remember all these settings from one section to another would be a challenge. With styles, you set them once. Now your only decision is which style to use.

But that’s just the beginning. What happens if you decide you don’t want those headings in that color? Do you have to go through the entire document and change each one? No! You just change the color in the style and every title styled with that style is immediately updated.

There’s more! Most word-processing applications use heading styles to automatically build tables of contents. You can even have multiple levels of headings (heading, sub-heading, etc.) included in your table. The app pulls in the page numbers automatically and even adjusts them when your editing shuffles everything around.


Yes, building a set of styles for a document can be tedious. That’s where templates take over. A template defines all the formatting options needed to create a specific type of publication. In the example above you see templates for newsletters, photo albums and even a small placard. Your word-processing program comes with a small set of templates for various document types. There is also a growing market for custom templates. Find a template that fits your project, then make the changes needed to personalize it. It’s a whole lot easier than creating it all from scratch.

Where do you go from here? Pull out your word processor’s user guide and read up on styles, templates and table of contents. Then start experimenting.

You’ll soon discover how delightful writing with style can be.

e-Style: Special Characters

A sure sign of a professional publication is the use of appropriate special characters in the text of your project. From copyright and trademarks symbols to appropriate money symbols and even the degree symbol for temperature, each of these can be easily created thanks to your word processing application. You just need to know where to find them.

In Microsoft Word, look for the Insert > Symbol command. This will open a pane showing you several collections of symbols that can be selected and inserted in your document. In Apple’s Pages for Mac it’s the Edit > Special Characters command. The displayed characters pane allows you to browse the various categories of symbols and, once a symbol is selected, view it in the font you are using. This is very handy since a growing number of fonts don’t include many special characters.


If you find you are regularly using certain symbols, take advantage of your word processor’s auto-correct feature (in spell-checking) to set up an easy-to-type abbreviation which will be replaced with the symbol. For example, many spell-checkers are already set up to replace (c) with © or 1/2 with ½ so all you have to do is follow their example to add your own.

Bloggers and web publishers have their own set of special character codes for including symbols in web content. You’ll find a great chart for these codes at the Web Design Group. WordPress users can access a special characters panel from the editing toolbar.

WordPress editing toolbar showing icon to display special characters panel.
WordPress editing toolbar showing icon to display special characters panel.


Yes, it takes a bit more effort to include special characters and symbols in your publishing project, but it shows that you are serious about your work. Your readers probably won’t notice that you’ve made the effort to present a professional publication, but they will surely notice when you haven’t.

Word processing for publishers

Publishing our family histories is a goal for many of us. There are many resources to help research, organize, write and edit those histories, but one necessary skill many of us lack is construction. This step is necessary if you are planning to publish your history yourself. By construction, I mean the layout skills necessary to format and style your publication and build the footnotes, tables of content and indexes needed to make it a finished work. Although most of today’s word processing applications have the features needed to perform these layout chores, you may not be aware of their existence let alone how to use them.

With a few exceptions, the layout effort happens after the manuscript is finished – written, proofed and edited. Yes, images and graphics are selected during the manuscript phase, but size and placement are part of layout. In publications with complex layouts full of images, graphs, tables and other precise components, one tiny edit can cause a lot of layout adjustments. For this reason, book designers seldom begin their work until everything else is ready.

What kind of word processing skills do you need to construct your own family history? Here’s a basic list:

  • Styles. A style is a saved collection of formatting options – font family and size, color, alignment and white space are just a few examples. Your word processing app lets you save any number of styles for things like titles, headings and sub-headings, captions, paragraphs, bulleted lists and much more. Once you’ve set up your styles, all you have to do is select the text to be styled and choose the appropriate style. Styles not only insure formatting consistency throughout a long document, they save you a lot of time and effort. And, should you decide that lime green isn’t the right color for the 74 major headings in your publication, all you have to do is edit that heading style and your word processor will immediately update those 74 headings for you. Whether you’re working on a publishing project or not, you should make styles your word processing BFF.
  • Templates. A template is a blank document file that has page sizes, margins, styles and other formatting settings ready for whatever purpose this document is used. Most apps come with a large template collection ready for you to use. The Lulu.com self-publishing platform has downloadable templates for each book size it offers. You can modify existing templates to add or edit any formatting or style options. You can even include boilerplate text – like the legal front matter found in books or the “About the Author” text – to save yourself work.
  • Section breaks. Longer, more complex documents have more demanding requirements. You may find you need to insert a table or chart as a landscape page within a portrait document. You may also want to customize the page numbers to show both chapter and page. You can do these things, but you will need to take advantage of special functions like section breaks.
  • Table of contents generator. Most word processing apps include the ability to automatically generate – and update – your table of contents for you. In order to do this, you must use styles to format headings and sub-headings within your document. You then tell the table of contents generator where you want the table of contents to appear in your document and which heading styles to include in it. The generator goes through the entire document and finds those styled headings, calculates which pages they are on and builds the table of contents for you. And, when you make editing changes that change where those headings are located, either the generator will automatically update the pages numbers for you or, worst case, you click a button to force an update.
  • Footnotes and endnotes. Citations are usually added at the point of the reference using a command (like Insert > Footnote in Apple’s Keynote app). The word processing app will then place it wherever you prefer via your document settings. Your available options will depend on your app. Keynote allows footnotes at the bottom of the page and endnotes either at the end of a section or the end of the document.
  • Bibliographies. If you are already using a bibliographic application like EndNote, check to see if your word processor works with it. Not all apps provide bibliography support and you may need to build yours manually.
  • Index generation. Once again, not all word process apps support index generation. Even when they do, you will need to manually mark each text entry you want included in your index. Like the table of contents generator, you will identify where you want the index to appear in your document and the index generator will find all the marked references and calculate their page numbers. It will also update those page numbers when additional editing moves things around.

None of these features are difficult to learn, but you will want to get comfortable using them before you begin a large writing project. Experiment with each feature, playing with options and learning how you can make them work for you. Even so, if you’re like me, it will take a working project to really discover how these tools function. Once that first project is complete, you’ll find new projects much easier to manage. Tackling a big project has enough hassles. If you know how to use your tools, they can make your project easier and your final product much more professional.