When you need to apply the same formatting to multiple parts of a Microsoft Word document, there’s no need to go through the same motions repeatedly. Word provides a smogasbord of techniques for formatting a bunch of elements in a document quickly and efficiently.

Using multiple selections

One of the simplest methods is to make multiple selections before applying any formatting. Just hold down the Ctrl key while you use the mouse to select different sections of text (or other elements in your documents, such as pictures), then apply the formatting. Each item you’ve selected will receive the same formatting.

For Mac users

Microsoft Word on the Mac has equivalents for these Windows Word techniques. The Format Painter is available in Mac versions of Word; and the Mac Word equivalent of the F4 key is Cmd-Y.

Using the Format Painter

Word's Format PainterThe Format Painter is the little icon on your toolbar that looks like a paintbrush (it’s located in the Home tab in Word 2007 and 2010, and on the Standard toolbar in earlier versions). The Format Painter “picks up” the formatting of an existing piece of text or graphic and then paints it on the next thing you select. To use it:

  1. Select the item which contains the formatting you want to copy. If you want to copy text formatting only, select a word or section within a paragraph. If you want to copy paragraph formatting as well as text formatting, then select an entire paragraph.
  2. Click the Format Painter. If you want to apply the formatting to more than one element, double-click the Format Painter instead of single-clicking it.
  3. Click and drag over the item(s) you wish to “paint” with the formatting.
  4. If you double-clicked the Format Painter in step 2, click it once more or press the Esc key to deactivate it.

Using the magic F4 key

Pressing the F4 key tells Word to repeat the last action you took, so it’s useful not only for repeating formatting but for repeating many other commands in Word. For example, if you type a paragraph and then press F4, Word types a copy of that paragraph. If you use the table creator to insert a four-column-by-three-row table and then click in another place in your document and press F4, Word will insert another 4-by-3 table. If you apply underlining to a word then click another word, it, too, will be underlined.

There are several important things to keep in mind when using this wonderful key:

  • F4 is incredibly literal. It repeats the very last command no matter how trivial that command. So if you insert a 4-by-3 table, press Enter to move down a line and then press F4, Word won’t insert another table; it will insert another carriage return – that is, it will “press” the Enter key once more. If you select a heading and change the font to Algerian 48pt then select another heading and press F4, the heading’s font will remain the same but its point size will be change to 48pt (that is, if you applied the font selection before applying the font size).
  • It’s not always clear what constitutes the last “command”. For example, if you type two consecutive sentences and then press F4, Word will reproduce the whole two-sentence paragraph. It won’t, as you might expect, simply repeat the last sentence or the last character you typed. Another example: if you select a word and click Bold and then Italic to format it, when you try F4 on another selection, all you’ll get is italic text, without the bold. To get around this, use Word’s font formatting dialog box to apply all the formatting in one go; Word will regard everything you do within the dialog box as a single action.
  • F4 is repeatable. If you italicise a word, you can select another word and hit F4 to italicise it; then select a sentence and press F4 to italicise it; and so on, until you do something other than selecting an item.
  • As you can tell from that last point, selecting an item is not regarded as a repeatable command for the purposes of the F4 key. There are many other unrepeatable commands, including some rather surprising ones. For example, if you select a word and press Backspace to delete it, you won’t be able to repeat that command using F4.
  • Toggles get toggled. Some commands in Word are essentially switches. For example, if you select a piece of normal text and press the Bold button, that text is bolded; if you immediately press the Bold button again while that bolded text is selected, it’s unbolded. Essentially, you’ve toggled the bold switch on and then off again. That’s what happens when you use F4: it will toggle the setting you’ve selected. It’s important to remember this when you apply a group of formatting commands via a dialog box: any settings such as bold will get “toggled”.


If you re-use the same set of formatting repeatedly, you can define a style and then apply that style whenever you wish. Word comes with a slew of built-in styles, including a variety of heading styles. You can use these as a basis for modified styles or create your own styles from scratch. One of the key benefits of using styles is that if you ever want to change some aspect of a style, you change the style definition and those changes are immediately reflected wherever you’ve used the style in your documents.

I’ll go into styles in more depth in future articles.