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Watch Out for Word’s Based on Styles

Sometimes when you import an MS Word document, the styles just don’t work right. Often you get a plus sign everywhere. There are lots of reasons this may happen. For example, Anne-Marie wrote one post here and I wrote something here. But here’s another pitfall that you should be aware of: InDesign sometimes chokes if Word’s paragraph styles are based on the Normal style, or character styles are based on Underlying Paragraph Properties. Redefining Word’s style definitions before importing the file into InDesign can often help:

  1. Open the original Word document in Microsoft Word.
  2. Choose Format > Style, and in the resulting Style dialog box, change the List popup menu to “Styles in Use.”
  3. Click each style in turn and look at the Description area in the dialog box. If you select a paragraph style and see the phrase “Normal +” in there, or if you select a character style and see “Default Paragraph Font +”, click the Modify button.
  4. If it’s a paragraph style, the Based On Style popup menu in the Modify Style dialog box will read “Normal.” Change “Normal” to “(no style)” (it’s at the very top of the popup menu). If it’s a character style, the Based On Style popup menu will read “Default Paragraph Font.” Change it to “(underlying properties).”
  5. When you’ve updated all the style definitions, close the Style dialog box and save the file under a different name.

Now when you place this Word doc into your layout, see if the plus signs go away.

David Blatner

David Blatner

David Blatner is the co-founder of the Creative Publishing Network, InDesign Magazine, and the author or co-author of 15 books, including Real World InDesign. His InDesign videos at are among the most watched InDesign training in the world. You can find more about David at
David Blatner

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15 Comments on “Watch Out for Word’s Based on Styles

  1. Why do software designers continue to insist on creating import functions that pull in every trivial font trait from the original? If I want a document to look like it looks in Word, I’d print it with Word. What I want is:

    1. Map paragraph and character style names from Word to ID, ignoring font, font size, color etc. With some books, I’ve had to spend hours stripping out Times New Roman and the like. Everything Word exports seems to include Times New Roman.

    2. Import italicized and bold text tagged with those named character styles. When authors don’t use character styles, that’d save stripping all formatting ouand then restoring italic and bold. Again, more wasted time adding back what I had to strip out in order to not import specific fonts.

    All the bother about importing literal formatting made sense fifteen years ago when different fonts used different characters. But with OpenType, that’s in the past. We can directly map an odd character in one font to the same in another. We don’t need to drag the font along.

    We’re trapped in the past. The text features of OS X (ruler bar, fussing over tabs, no named styles, etc) that appear in so many text applications mimic Wordstar from the early 1980s, because for all too many senior corporate execs that’s all they can imagine. And if they escape that mindset–just barely–they’re mimicking Word 4.0. It’s like the early auto makers who were said to include a buggy whip holder on their cars

    There is an almost universal language that could be used to make exporting and importing far easier–tagged text. Word, ID, OS X’s text functions need to be able to move character and paragraph tags between applications. What I mark as a set-off quote (with the Quote style) in Word should become a set-off quote in ID with the same named style but with none of the formatting moving from Word to ID.

    Target applications should determine how something looks not the source. Why is that so hard for programmers to grasp?

  2. NeoOffice notes:

    – In Stylesheets panel, choose popup at bottom from Automatic to Applied Styles.
    – You’ll have to right-click Modify each style and check the Organizer tab to see if it’s based on Default.
    – A character style called “Default Paragraph Font” shows up in the Applied Character Styles list if any are based on that. New Neo docs don’t contain it by default though.

  3. Does anybody have a good starting place for a “Styles Boot Camp”?

    I work in a print shop and am not exposed to character or paragraph styles very much, but they seem to be a very powerful tool. Any suggestions on how I could learn more to use them in my everyday projects?

    Thanks for the great information in this blog, and pique-ing my interest enough to make me want to learn more.


  4. Heh, I think this post was directly related to a question I posed to David last night, as importing MSWord files into an InDesign file have been nothing but a big bag of hurt for me. Thankfully, David’s tip above, a few other tips here on InDesignSecrets, and just some general Google searches got me most of the way there.

    The key here to remember is that InDesign and Word consider Character styles *VERY* differently, but they consider Paragraph Styles almost indetically. So if you set up the Char’s like your Para’s, you’re screwed. That’s why I could make a Word file with just Paragraph styles come in fine, but introduce Character styles, and all bets were off.

    An easy way to wrap your head around this is to do the following.

    Make a rudimentary InDesign file with just one Character Style in it (it can have multiple Paragraph styles… I’m just saying one Char style to keep it simple. Also, try to make it visibly different from your standard text so you can find it easily). Apply it to some text in your paragraph and export the story as an RTF. When you open the file in Word, you’ll see it completely ignores your ID Char Style and treats it as just local formatting.

    Here’s the weird bit: highlight that styled text, and create a new Character Style within Word named just as you have it in your InDesign file (keeping in mind what David says above about avoiding any underlying “Normal” or “Deafult Paragraph” styles they are based on).

    Now, when you import that Word file *back* into a fresh ID file, the text will import correctly with no oddball overrides or style breakages.

    And seriously, those Character Styles generated out of Word were not only overriding whatever I had set in InDesign, occassionally they would break EVERY SINGLE STYLE in the InDesign document (I think that was partially due to the Normal and Default Paragraph junk under the Paragraph and Character Styles, respectively). In fact, it was breaking so badly, even removing overrides did nothing. Bizarrely, the Paragraph Style palette would appear correctly with no + signs, and opening the Style itself showed everything was fine, yet on the ID page, it was obeying the linked Word document’s concept of what that style should look like no matter what. The only way to recover was to throw out the ID document and start from a fresh one, as even importing new basic TXT files would adopt the MSWord-mangled style definitions.

    Note, this technique also uses David’s recommendation to use InDesign as a filter to wring out the stupid from Styles BEFORE Word can get its hands on them. Side benefit is that, if your editors have your fonts, they also get to see, in a basic way, how the text will look via the RTF you exported.

    Now, I’m just eagerly awaiting someone to do a big review on Footnotes and getting them to link predictably, too. ;-)

  5. I find that when I’m importing word files (which I do a bit of) that the best course of action is to:

    1. Import the word file to a blank indesign file and export out again as a .rtf, this cleans up rogue styles.

    2. Import the new rtf into the layout. Mapping styles is easier now, as there are less to deal with and saving the Preset in the Mapping Styles helps a treat.

    3. I have a script that was free, preservelocalformatting.jsx that was supplied on this site as a link to Dave Saunders blog. It’s fantastic, you just run the script and it adds the character styles.

    4. Once that is done, you simply select all the text you imported and hit the Paragraph Override button.

    The text is formatted and ready to go.

    Of course it helps to go through the word document and know what styles are what. I usually clean up the Word styles to names similar to my InDesign styles, wherever possible.

    It’s fine though because we create styles in Word anyway first, then have them edited and sent back for importing to InDesign.

  6. But of course, the only *real*solution to the Word mess in the world is to never let anyone who writes content use anything but Notepad! But perhaps, just perhaps, writers need to specify italics and bold? Yes, *maybe* they really /do/. And that’s how that’s done. Exit Word — enter glorious, simple, super-fast, plain ASCII. (Full disclaimer: No, I do not own Microsoft stock.)

  7. Actually, there will be an even better way to deal with these kinds of documents… but it’s not available yet. I gave a “sneak peek” of a new set of plug-ins from DTP Tools at the Seattle InDesign conference that I think will help people. I will be posting more here in the months to come! But judging from the feedback I got there, y’all will like it.

  8. The challenge for me has nothing to do with Word…it’s Excel. I am in charge of creating Directories for publication and the membership data I receive is always in Excel format. How can I apply styles to the Excel data, and make sure that it will import into InDesign and have ID apply the proper Paragraph styles?


  9. @geoff: Ummm… no offense, but did you take your medication today? What are you talking about? The only place on this page that says “words” without an apostrophe is in the URL itself. And, um, do you always equate grammar with expertise?

  10. I wonder if this can also help with markup that sometimes get imported when copying and pasting to a WordPress post. Will try it and see.

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