Writing tip: Use Styles for accessible web content and PDFs

When writing in MS Word or Open Office Writer, have you noticed a feature called Styles? If not, check it out and start using it immediately: Styles is surely the most under-appreciated, underused miracle of word-processing software.

'Styles' is a stupid name for this amazing tool. 'Styles' suggests a design feature. The word 'styles' in various closely allied contexts offers us a choice of using plain, bold, italics, underlining or capitals for text.

A previous tip explained how Styles ensure consistent formatting

But there's much more at stake, because Styles formatting is based on structure. Styles can tag every piece of text according to its function in a document. Styles can tag information according to its role in the structure of a document.

Here's an example. Every piece of text using a 'Heading 1' Style carries an invisible tag that says: 'This piece of text is a top-level heading.' It is labeled a top-level heading regardless of whether the font is big or small, bold or italics, spaced or cramped.

These invisible tags are a gift for accessibility.

  • Documents using Styles correctly can automatically produce a well-structured Table of contents.
  • Documents using Styles correctly can be more easily skim-read and navigated with special technology used by people with disabilities.
  • Long documents using Styles correctly are easy to manipulate using the Navigation Pane or Document Map feature of MS Word.
  • Documents using Styles correctly can be converted to an accessible PDF.
  • Documents not using Styles (or using them incorrectly) cannot do any of the above.

It's (almost) that simple.

For staff who write web content and documents of any sort, using Styles correctly is Step One towards creating accessible web content and PDFs. If you're managing a web or intranet authors team, start by training them to use and appreciate Styles—and watch light dawn.

All web content and PDFs from government agencies are expected to comply with government web content accessibility standards—if not now, then very soon. It makes no difference whether your government web standards are based on WCAG 2.0 or Section 508: this writing tip will help you and your team to achieve web content accessibility.


Jun 08, 2012 • Posted by Rachel McAlpine

As you say, this revelation is more likely to motivate writers than the accessibility cue. I hadn’t spotted the term ‘cascade’ applied to Word Styles before, but Jim explains that clearly. Thereby preparing writers for the wonders of CSS.

Jun 08, 2012 • Posted by Alistair McAlpine

Once again a great blog – thanks.

Another reason for using Styles (and one that often motivates) is that they can save you a lot of work!

This entertaining article by Jim Henderson explains how:


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