Would using a Heading1 here help?
September 1, 2009 6:54 AM   Subscribe

Aside from ease of editing and maintaining individual documents, are there arguments for the use of styles in Microsoft Word?

Specifically, I was thinking about this from a semantic markup perspective and company-wide document search and retrieval. Would using a stylesheet make finding documents easier / more relevant / more accurate than if the stylesheet was not employed?

My Google-fu is failing on a search that tells me either way. Lots of info about semantic HTML out there, not having much luck on semantics in Word docs.
posted by chocolate_butch to Technology (6 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I use them extensively, but then I'm a bit anal-retentive about my stylings. I have a carefully-defined "Normal", a "Quotes", a "Task", an "Overdue", a "Caption" (customized), and of course, "Header 1...7"
posted by IAmBroom at 6:59 AM on September 1, 2009

In theory yes, consistent use of styles to denote things like titles, chapter and section heading as well as linking captions to figures and images can all make... whether or not there are tooling out there that exploits this or that it makes a difference outside of specialized verticals is more debatable. The quality angle is going to be highly dependent on the corpus of work that needs indexed and the types of queries you want to ask of it.
posted by mmascolino at 7:05 AM on September 1, 2009

When documents are repurposed for publication, styles can be very helpful. You can automatically tag and structure a document into XML with styles, embed bookmarks and such in PDFs, and streamline workflow into desktop publishing apps like InDesign. It's also pretty common for custom programs to parse word docs by style and output to a database/website/whatever, since fluency in Word is the lowest common denominator of office computer skills. In terms of archiving, PDF and plain text (XML) are better than the DOC format for a few reasons, chiefly backwards-compatibility, digital obsolescence, and adaptability. Whatever a DOC can do to make those other formats richer if (or when) the conversion occurs, the better the result.
posted by cowbellemoo at 7:35 AM on September 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

It can be very difficult to use custom styles in any way. For example, you'll set up a nice and logical set of styles. Someone else will open up the document, make a minor change, and save it.

When you open it, that change won't be in your default style, but in the default style of the Word than opened it. A whole bunch of garbage styles will be listed in addition to your nice neat ones. And so forth.

You best bet with Word is to never change any defaults of any kind, and only ever allow documents to be edited by the same version of Word, also set to the defaults. Never use anything but the basic, built-in fonts, either.

While styles are indispensable for working with complex documents in Word, a more important question is: Why are you using Word for complex documents? I use it because I absolutely have to, and learning its stone-knives-and-bearskins way of dealing with cross-references and fancy field codes and complex styles was necessary for me. Necessary, but painful. And forget it if you need to deal with graphics; I have never used a word processor as singularly bad at positioning graphics as Word.

Finally, to answer your question directly, no, there's no way to use Word for anything semantic in the way you describe.
posted by yesno at 7:41 AM on September 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

There are publishing tools that compile large regulatory submissions from many, many Word documents. Such submissions need things like a meta-Table of Contents, reconciled cross-references to certain points in certain documents (some of the referenced documents may not have actually existed at the time the referencing document was written), section-Tables of Contents, etc.

These tools prefer to use Word styles as definitive statements of what a given chunk of text represents (usually a heading at a given level of the various Table of Contentses). While these tools can also typically analyze font formatting, etc. to achieve the same results, an author often uses such font formatting within body text, or a diagram, a table, etc., or accidentally uses a subtly different font formatting for a given level of heading, so styles are preferred, as they convey intent as well as formatting.

(As an aside, for the regulatory submissions I work with, I use the following comparisons for visual fun: if one copy were printed on paper it would typically stack as high as the Titanic was long, and if the paper were laid end-to-end, you would have a six-hour drive from one end to the other).
posted by blue_wardrobe at 8:52 AM on September 1, 2009

When Word is used to generate mountains of documentation for company-wide use, the company will generally have a template that everyone uses that contains styles that everyone uses. That way, you have consistency of documentation across the company. It's the difference between everyone producing good, clear and readable documentation (even if they do have to be slapped around a bit at doc-review time) and only 1% of the employees producing anything vaguely close to useful.

Besides, how do you get TOCs, tables of figures, references and all that stuff to work without using the right tools? Please tell me you don't write your TOC out by hand. Or that you type in Figure numbers...

When writing, one decouples content from structure from formatting. It is the right thing to do, for more reasons than I could possibly have time to list here.
posted by polyglot at 6:11 PM on September 1, 2009

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