Avoiding Black Holes, Plague, Vampires, and Style Overrides

Posted: October 30, 2016 | By:

We’ve emphasized several times in this blog the headaches style overrides engender and how to purge them. Obviously, following the maxim “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” a better approach is to avoid style overrides altogether—the subject of this post.

Generally speaking, if you apply formatting by clicking on the toolbar, ribbon, ruler, the Font and Paragraph dialog boxes, pasting, or using the Format Painter, you are introducing style overrides. Let’s explore each one individually.

Ruler Word has a ruler visible horizontally and vertically. The horizontal ruler provides a visual cue regarding a paragraph’s indents and tab stops. With the cursor inside a paragraph, you can move the ruler’s triangles to change the indents (see following image). You can also click on the ruler to add tab stops. All of these actions introduce style overrides. (You can confirm this by viewing the list of styles in use; see the post Exposing Your Style Overrides.) Instead of using the ruler to adjust indentation, create styles that specify the required indentation, and apply the styles to the paragraphs as necessary.


Ribbon Word’s Ribbon has a Home tab with a Font group and a Paragraph group. Clicking on any of these buttons introduces a style override. See the following image. (For more details about the ribbon and formatting, see the post Style Overrides: Seduction on the Ribbon.)

left portion of Word's home tab

Keyboard shortcuts A keyboard shortcut is a combination of keystrokes that performs a task which normally takes five, 10, or 15 mouse clicks. For example, applying italic typeface to selected text requires five mouse clicks in Word (if going through the Font dialog box). You can achieve the same effect by pressing Ctrl+I, which is just two keystrokes or one keyboard shortcut. If you use the ribbon, you can get away with just two mouse clicks to apply italics. This is why many users prefer keyboard shortcuts: they prevent interrupting the typing motion caused by lifting the hands from the keyboard, clicking with the mouse, and returning the hands to the keyboard.

Word has many keyboard shortcuts for formatting at the character level and the paragraph level. Using these keyboard shortcuts introduces style overrides; it’s best to avoid them.

Pasting Text One special case of keyboard shortcuts is Ctrl+V—the equivalent of Large Hadron Collider’s bullying practice of bashing protons into each other. The fear over the LHC’s 2008 experiment was that it may create a black hole so devastating that it would consume the entire earth and, compounding the travesty, your Word file along with it. Ctrl+V will paste in toxic style overrides from the source file that can take a few hours to remediate, so using this keyboard shortcut may create a temporal black hole that will absorb hours of your time.

Indiscriminate pasting can be devastating to non-fiction authors who are under the gun to finish a contract, proposal, or report and are waiting for “contributions from collaborators”—which at times are neither. While you may have been disciplined enough to use styles in your manuscript, your partners were very possibly clicking away on the ribbon in an effort to make things look just right. When you press Ctrl+V, you are pasting in all of your partner’s bad habits: empty paragraphs, excessive tabbing or spacing, style overrides, and all the other evils that we have discussed so far in this blog and those that we have yet to explore. Like clicking on suspicious links in an email, it’s best to avoid Ctrl+V when pasting from a source you do not recognize; a future post will explore the correct ways of pasting text.

Font and Paragraph Dialog Boxes The toolbar buttons, ribbon buttons, and keyboard shortcuts discussed in this post usually apply a single formatting characteristic. For example, Ctrl+I applies the italic formatting to selected text and none of the other attributes such as boldface, color, or underlining. To apply a combination of formatting effects at once, you can start by opening the Font or Paragraph dialog boxes. These dialog boxes expose all the settings at the character and paragraph level, so it is “more efficient” to apply complex formatting through a single interaction with a dialog box. Nevertheless, using these dialog boxes introduces style overrides. Because style overrides created this way have more characteristics and are more complex than a simple one-characteristic override, they take more time to rectify.

Format Painter If there is one feature in word processors that can be compared to plague, it’s the format painter. In epidemiology, disease is caused by a bacteria, virus, or fungus. If the disease is infectious, it is transmitted by touch, cough, or animal bite. It’s the same thing with the format painter. It takes a single segment of text infected with a style override, and communicates that override to those other texts with compromised immune systems and therefore defenseless to counter the onslaught. To support this analogy, let’s review how the format painter works.

The purpose of the format painter is to copy the formatting from selected text and apply that formatting to subsequently selected text. When used correctly, the format painter takes the style from the source text and applies it to the destination text. This requires one mouse drag to select the source text, one mouse click to activate the format painter on the ribbon, and another mouse drag to select the destination text. (You can apply a style with one mouse drag to select text and one keyboard shortcut to apply the style. Therefore, claims that the format painter is easier to use than applying styles is as much an urban myth as Mr. Rogers was a Navy SEAL.)

In contrast, when it comes to replicating pernicious style overrides, there is nothing better than the format painter. Suppose you are designing the signature page of a contract on which the buyer and seller must affix their signatures. To format the word Buyer, you invest 20 mouse clicks and four key strokes to give it a boldface, underline, centered alignment, and font and font size that distinguish it from the contract’s body text. That is a large formatting effort, and there is no point in repeating all those clicks and key strokes to format the word Seller, the word Signature under Buyer and Seller, and the word Date under Signature for the buyer and seller—totaling a devastating 100 mouse clicks and 20 key strokes for those additional five words. Why go to all that work when you can use the format painter to select the source word, click the format painter’s button, and the select the destination word? That is a mere 10 mouse drags and five mouse clicks to format those five additional words.

The problem with this approach is that every time you use the format painter to copy and paste a style override, you are doing just that—effortlessly proliferating style overrides throughout the document. This is why the format painter is should be taught as part of epidemiology and not part of high-school keyboarding classes. Patient zero is the initial text with the style override, and that style override is communicated through the format painter.

This post summarized the techniques by which we introduce and propagate style overrides throughout our Word files. In terms of world tragedies this doesn’t rank very high. Nevertheless, if you have a steady job that you like, you can keep it that way by avoiding the techniques described in this post, and do your best to constrain formatting to the styles you have in your document.

The next post will explain how to get rid of style overrides.

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