Avoiding Style Bloat

Posted: December 12, 2016 | By:

Suppose Georgette came to you and said, “You can drive my Ferrari for as long as you want and as far as you want.” Would you go out and buy a Ferrari? No, you’d use Georgette’s Ferrari. (I don’t know anyone named Georgette and worse I don’t know anyone who owns a Ferrari, but that’s my own social limitation.) It’s the same thing with Word—it comes with piles of styles, so there’s no need for you to go out and create your own.

Here is an interesting observation about styles: you don’t need too many of them to be happy. The table at the end of this post lists common types of non-fiction and their associated styles. For example, blogs require just a few styles, mostly because there is no title page, no header, no footer, and no table of contents. Bloggers (depending on the content) can live quite a comfortable life with styles for body text, one level of numbered paragraphs, one level of bulleted paragraphs, and some character formatting. Authors of academic publications create slightly more complex documents, and they need styles for numbered headings, headers, footers, and page layouts. Attorneys need what academics need and also styles for signature pages. Authors of reports, proposals, and user guides need a rich library of styles for title pages, typefaces, publication information, table of contents, and much more.

One thing to watch out for is style bloat. In spite of the emphasis I place on using styles throughout this blog, you don’t want to have too many of them. That’s because styles are the equivalent of moving parts: the less of them you have, the less maintenance you need to do on them. More than 10 styles for blog pages is a sign of bloat, as is more than 50 styles for format-rich user guides. To write my (sadly unpublished) book about using word processors I used 50 styles, and that covered every type of formatting appearance and behavior.

One cause of style bloat is creating new styles instead of using the built-in styles that come with your word processor. Some companies have their own style sheets, and create new style names to implement those styles. For example, the Ace Moving Company may have styles names Ace Heading 1, Ace Heading 2, Ace Body, Ace OMG Use This Style On The First Page of Every Chapter, and so on. This practice is, as far as I can tell, unnecessary for two reasons:

It’s Unjustified There is only one instance in which defining your own styles may be justified: when pasting text from a collaborator’s draft to identify which author did which section. For example, Coyote Storage Company and Ace Moving Company are jointly bidding on a proposal, and the proposal evaluator wants to see which parts were contributed by Ace and which were contributed by Coyote. In this case, it is a best practice to have two sets of styles identified by a company name. However, this scenario is so hypothetical as to border on science fiction. As noted, the more unnecessary styles you have, the more unneeded maintenance you need to do on them.

It Wastes Time What’s even worse, if Ace and Coyote are jointly bidding on the same proposal, then they need to paste their content so that it all has the same formatting. When Coyote pastes in Ace’s content, it will need to replace all the Ace Body styles with Normal—something that could have been avoided had Ace used the built-in style for body text. This excessive type of rework is a direct violation of the Carpal-Tunnel Test.

LibreOffice Writer comes with over 100 paragraph styles, over 20 character styles, 10 page styles, and 10 list styles; Microsoft Word comes with even more styles, over 260 of them for use in paragraphs, characters, tables, lists. Instead of creating your own styles, modify the ones you receive free of charge. This is a best practice that accommodates the following common scenarios:

Collaboration In several posts we’ve discussed how collaboration can cause more trouble than it’s worth, and style bloat is one of those causes. Suppose Joe set his headings using built-in Heading 1, Heading 2, and Heading 3, and if Jane did the same. When Joe paste’s Jane’s text into his file, all of Jane’s headings will look exactly like Joe’s. In contrast, if Jane uses JHead1, JHead2, and JHead3, then when Joe pastes in her text, he will see a) three new styles in his document (JHead1, JHead2, and JHead3) and b) those headings will not look like his.

Efficiency More likely than not, you don’t want to use Word’s styles “out of the box.” The styles for Heading 1, Heading 2, List Number, Date, and all the rest are reasonable guesses at how a report, contract, or proposal should appear, but they often don’t reflect an author’s specific needs. For example, Word’s ubiquitous Normal style has no spacing after each paragraph, so authors are forced to press the Enter key to separate paragraphs (a primal sin we discussed in Carpal-Tunnel Test). If you are writing a user guide that needs 50 styles, there is no point in creating 50 brand new styles. Instead, modify the built-in styles that come with Word, and create new ones as necessary. Authors writing reports, proposals, and user guides often need styles for tables, and authors writing contracts needs styles for signature pages. Word’s built-in styles do not address those needs, and in this case it’s perfectly legitimate—and even necessary—to create your own styles.

Types of Non-Fiction and Associated Style Requirements

Type User Guides Reports Blogs Contracts Proposals Academic
Title

Subtitle

Author

Revision Number

Italics

Publication date

URL

Keycaps

Boldface

Body text

Heading 1

Heading 2

Heading 3

TOC 1

TOC 2

TOC 3

Image

Caption

Table Header

Table Body

Table Body Centered

Numbered list – first level

Numbered list – second level

Numbered list third level

Bulleted list – first level

Bulleted list – second level

Bulleted list – third level

Indented text underlined first-level list

Indented text underlined second-level list

Indented text underlined third-level list

Header

Footer

Bibliography

Validator Messages


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