paragraph & character stylesThe secret to typographic success

Im­ple­ment­ing good ty­pog­ra­phy is of­ten a chore and a bore. But para­graph and char­ac­ter styles elim­i­nate most of the drudgery.

A full tu­to­r­ial on im­ple­ment­ing styles, ei­ther in your word proces­sor or in CSS, is be­yond the scope of this book, be­cause so many de­tails are software-specific.

But I can tell you the ad­van­tages of us­ing styles, which are the same everywhere.

Styles are the DNA of doc­u­ment lay­out. Styles make it easy to con­trol ty­pog­ra­phy across a doc­u­ment or web­site. They can also be reused across mul­ti­ple doc­u­ments or web­sites. The re­sult is bet­ter, more con­sis­tent ty­pog­ra­phy with less work each time.

Thus, it’s al­ways cu­ri­ous to me that so many writ­ers don’t know how to use styles. They for­mat their doc­u­ments the old-fash­ioned way: word by word and para­graph by paragraph.

Do you check your spelling by hav­ing a hu­man be­ing read your draft? No, you use an au­to­mated spelling checker. Do you copy a doc­u­ment by putting each page on the pho­to­copier glass? No, you put the whole thing in the sheet feeder.

If you plan to have a long-term re­la­tion­ship with good ty­pog­ra­phy, I rec­om­mend you learn how to use styles too.

  1. Styles let you de­fine sets of for­mat­ting at­trib­utes that get ap­plied to­gether. So in­stead of se­lect­ing a head­ing, chang­ing it to 13 point, bold, and all caps, you can de­fine a style that in­cludes these three at­trib­utes, and ap­ply the style to the heading.

    What’s the ben­e­fit? When you come across the next head­ing, you don’t need to in­di­vid­u­ally ap­ply those three at­trib­utes. You ap­ply the style you de­fined be­fore. The head­ings will then match.

  2. Styles let you change for­mat­ting across a class of re­lated el­e­ments. Sup­pose you want to change your head­ings from 13 point to 13.5 point. In­stead of se­lect­ing each head­ing sep­a­rately and chang­ing the point size—a te­dious project—you can change the point size in the head­ing style de­f­i­n­i­tion from 13 point to 13.5 point. Head­ings us­ing that style will be au­to­mat­i­cally updated.

    What’s the ben­e­fit? Up­dat­ing the for­mat­ting is cen­tral­ized and au­to­matic. You can ex­per­i­ment with for­mat­ting and lay­out ideas with lit­tle man­ual effort.

  3. Styles can in­herit for­mat­ting from other styles. A change to the par­ent style will prop­a­gate to all the sub­styles. But a change to the sub­style will only af­fect that one style.

    What’s the ben­e­fit? In­her­i­tance adds an­other layer of cen­tral­ized au­toma­tion—it’s like hav­ing styles of styles. You can de­fine a set of foun­da­tion styles and use them as the ba­sis for more elab­o­rate styles.

As a rule of thumb, any time you have two doc­u­ment el­e­ments that should be for­mat­ted iden­ti­cally, you’ll want to use a style.

In word proces­sors, char­ac­ter styles can in­cor­po­rate at­trib­utes of words and sen­tences, like font, point size, let­terspac­ing, bold or italic, all caps, and small caps. Para­graph styles can in­cor­po­rate those at­trib­utes and also lay­out at­trib­utes like line spac­ing, first-line in­dents, and rules and bor­ders. (CSS doesn’t make a dis­tinc­tion be­tween these two kinds of styles, but it’s anal­o­gous to styles ap­plied to in­line el­e­ments (like <em>) vs. block-level el­e­ments (like <div>).)

Ini­tially, you may be in­clined to de­fine styles likeCaslon Bold 11.5 point.” That’s bet­ter than ap­ply­ing the same for­mat­ting man­u­ally. But it over­looks an­other ben­e­fit of styles, which is to de­fine for­mat­ting in terms of what each para­graph is used for, rather than how it looks. If you’re cre­at­ing a style for a block quo­ta­tion, the nameCaslon Bold 11.5 point” is not as good asBlock Quo­ta­tion.” And later, if you change the for­mat­ting, the name will still be accurate.

Word proces­sors come with a long list of built-in styles. Word, for in­stance, has Heading 1 through Heading 9, Quote, Caption, Header, Footer, and so on. Many of these styles are wired into other func­tions. It’s good prac­tice to mod­ify the built-in styles when pos­si­ble rather than cre­ate new ones.

When you do this, you’ll also no­tice that many built-in styles are hor­ri­bly ugly. For ex­am­ple, Word’s Header 1 is 14-point blue Cam­bria, a style with no re­deem­ing qual­i­ties. I’m not wor­ried that you’d use it with­out fix­ing it first. At this point, you know better.