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Retaining important formatting when importing Word documents

As I’ve written in the past, Word is often an integral part of any InCopy workflow. In many situations, content is authored in Microsoft Word due to its widespread availability as an application on most computers. Editorial staff often keep content in the Word format when working with authors because it’s easy to go back and forth with changes until the final content has been completed. Once the content has been finalized, the designer can flow that Word document into InDesign or an editor can flow the content into an InCopy file in preparation for layout.

Although the process of bringing a Word document into an InDesign or InCopy file may seem like a simple process, retaining the desired formatting of that Word document can present some unique challenges. Notice that I said “desired” formatting. I say this because authors are known for applying their own formatting to documents to “enhance” the visual appearance of the file while they’re writing. Often making headlines bigger or changing their color to make it easier to view and read. This is much more easily accomplished by using styles in Word but that’s an entirely different blog post. When you bring Word content into InDesign or InCopy the goal is to remove the undesirable formatting but retain the formatting you wish to keep such as bold and italic styling.

Preserving Formatting

Many users will select all of the text in a Word document, copy the text, then paste it into InDesign or InCopy. In essence, this strips all of the formatting from the text including any formatting you wish to keep. This can be detrimental because work has been lost and will need to be performed by someone a second time.

Instead of copy and paste, InDesign provides some options for retaining the formatting of text when you choose File > Place. In the Place dialog box, select the Word document that you want to place, then enable the Show Import Options checkbox and click Open. This will display the Microsoft Word Import Options dialog box.

Microsoft Word Import Options

We’ll focus on the Formatting section located at the bottom of the dialog box. This section offers you two main choices for dealing with text imported from Microsoft Word.

  1. Remove Styles and Formatting from Text and Tables – This will strip out all formatting from the Word document and use the current style in the InDesign or InCopy document.
  2. Preserve Styles and Formatting from Text and Tables – This will retain any formatting applied in the Word document and also gives you the option to import any Word styles or map them to existing InDesign or InCopy styles.

Option 1 is tempting but remember, this will remove all formatting including bold, italics, and anything else you actually want to retain. Therefore, more often than not, I take advantage of option 2 in order to retain all of the formatting in the document. Once placed in the InDesign or InCopy document, all formatting is retained.

Cleaning Up the Formatting

Now that you have the Word text in the InDesign or InCopy document, you need to keep the formatting you want and get rid of the formatting you don’t want. To do this, I create a character style for all of the formatting options that I want to retain. Usually this consists of bold, italic, and bold italic formatting although depending on the type of content that you’re working with, you may want to create more. When creating the Character styles, only define the properties necessary within the style. For example, when you create your Italic Character style, only define “Italic” as part of the style. No need to define the font, size or other formatting unless it is very unique formatting.

InCopy Character Styles panel

In order to retain the formatting that you want to keep, open the Find/Change dialog box by choosing Edit > Find/Change. Leave the Find what and Change to fields empty, but click on the More Options button to display the Find and Change format sections of the dialog box. Click on the Specify Attributes to Find button word_003 and click on the Basic Character Formats section on the left side of the dialog box. Now choose “Italic” from the Font Style drop-down menu and click OK. Now in the Change Formatting section, click on the Specify Attributes to Change button word_003 and choose the Italic character style from the Character Style drop down menu.


Click the Change All button and you’ll be notified how many changes have been made. Note that you have options to make this change in all open documents, the current document, the current story, and to the end of the story. Repeat this process for the other styling that you want to retain.

Apply Paragraph Styles

Remember, character styles have more power than paragraph styles. So with your character styles applied to the text formatting that you want to retain, you are free to apply the appropriate paragraph styles, and clear any formatting that you wish to remove. Looking at the figures below, you can see the original Word document that was used as well as the final InCopy file that has been cleaned up using the described method in this article. We’ve highlighted the italicized text to make it easier to see.



Chad Chelius

Chad Chelius

Chad Chelius is an Adobe Certified Instructor, Author, and Consultant in the Philadelphia area and works with clients to improve their creative workflows using Adobe products. He's also the author of several courses on He specializes in PDF accessibility using Adobe InDesign and is a regular speaker at The InDesign Conference and PePcon.
Chad Chelius

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  • - November 30, -0001
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48 Comments on “Retaining important formatting when importing Word documents

  1. Thanks for your informative article.

    I have a problem which my editor and I have not been able to solve.
    Using Word, she is applying a character style — italic based on underlying properties — to words and phrases that I have formatted as italicized in my ms.
    The character style works fine when her edit of my ms comes over from Word in her computer to Word in my computer.
    However, when I flow the text into InDesign, the italicized words and phrases are converted to Times New Roman 10 point regardless of the actual underlying properties. For example, though the surrounding text is Garamond 14 pt. the phrase with the character style becomes TNR 10 pt.
    My editor and I are both highly experienced with Word and I am skilled enough with InDesign to have successfully designed and published a book. But we have tried everything and searched high and low and cannot find a solution to what we are calling our “character conundrum.” Can you help, or recommend a consultant who could?
    Thanks, David Gerstel

  2. Hi David,

    Have you tried mapping the word styles to InDesign styles during import? This would force the Word Styles to map to your italic InDesign styles and should guarantee that the italics are maintained as styles.

  3. Is your editor using a Word style to create her italics? When you import the Word doc if it is importing a style for the italics it will retain italics in ID, I believe. Another strategy is to give the styles in Word the exact same name in InDesign, so no matter what the formatting is in Word, if you keep InDesign’s style formatting when importing text it will take on your InDesign style formatting.

  4. Hi
    I’ve given my book to be formatted in InDesign. It has a lot of Arabic transliteration, with symbols, dots and lines above and below letters. When the text is pasted in InDesign all these symbols change into boxes and characters, which can’t be read. How can this problem be solved? Should I just format the book in word, which would be undesirable but much more time-consuming then changing each character back to its original form in InDesign.


    • This sounds like a font problem. What font format is being used? Are you using the same font in InDesign as you are in the source application? Same computer platform? More details please.

  5. Same problem with Zahra. The writer used used the font “Symbol” in word. And I used “Adobe garamond” for my body text. It sometimes occured in special variables when importing formulas or equations.

  6. It’s a sbame you don’t have a donate button! I’d certainly donate tto this
    outstanding blog! I suppose for now i’ll settle for bookmarking and adding your RSS feed to my
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    Talk soon!

  7. I have written a book in Word that involves a lot of tables. My publisher has imported it into In-Design and he says all the formatting has gone. The table and words that were in the table and the only solution is to re-input the data manually. Does that sound correct or could he do something different to overcome the problem?

    • The formatting of the table itself won’t be retained when placing it in InDesign, the text formatting however should be retained. When they place the InDesign document, they should enable the import options and choose “Preserve Styles and Formatting from Text and Tables”. That should retain the formatting of the text within the tables.

    • It sounds like your flowing the word doc only onto the first page. You probably have a red + sign in the lower-right corner of the text frame. You need to flow that content onto the other pages. All of the Word content is being placed, you just need to give it a place to go.

  8. Perhaps off topic, but…I have a blog on wordpress that I would like to turn into a book. So far, all of the blurb-to-book sites only allow text on top or bottom of photos. Will InDesign allow me free text/photo formatting?

    • Yes, you’re pretty much unrestricted in InDesign. You could certainly just copy paste text from the blog but you may also want to look into a HTML > XML > InDesign solutions.

  9. We have been able to link docs and have no issues with the updates coming in through inDesign. Our issue lies in that when there is an edit to the doc, and ID updates the link, our paragraph styles all go out the window. Is there any way to retain the styles already placed or are we stuck having to reapply the saved styles every time there is an edit?

    • What kind of docs are you linking? Word? InCopy? InCopy and InDesign should have no problem retaining formatting when updates are made. If you’re having that issue, then there’s definitely something wrong. If you’re referring to linking Word docs, then what you are experiencing is as expected. You can link to the Word doc and update changes made to the Word doc in InDesign, but your formatting will be lost. The only way to maintain the formatting is using a 3rd party produce such as WordsFlow by Em Software.

  10. Great article, as always. I think the “Not” in this sentence should be “Note”: “Click the Change All button and you’ll be notified how many changes have been made. Not that you have options to make this change in all open documents, the current document, the current story, and to the end of the story.”

  11. Hi Chad,
    I’m trying to get the Word character style “Emphasis” to come over as italics in InDesign. I set up a character style as well as a paragraph style. I followed the steps above and then click “Customize style import” and map the styles from Word to the ones I created in InDesign. The paragraph styles come over, but the character styles do not. They italicize, but they remain in the font used in the Word doc (Calibri) and the paragraph style is not applied to them. I’m stumped, do you have any ideas what I could be doing wrong?

  12. Hi Chad! Thank you for the helpful guide!

    However, my problem with copying word files to indesign is that images tend to move away from their original position. Is there anyway way out of this problem? Thank you very much!

  13. Hey Chad, you seem like my best hope at a credible answer – this is a bit left field:
    I’ve written an document in word which will be brought to life using InDesign (text layouts/adding images etc.)
    The book needs to be translated into 25 languages which will naturally impact some layouts – although the design will aim to be as flexible as possible to accommodate most languages comfortably. The translations will be carried out by an external company. What would you recommend is the best format to create the master copy for translation e.g. Word/PDF? I won’t have access to InDesign after the translations are completed, can I edit the layouts easily without it if they are affected by the languages?

  14. Hi Heather,

    I’m not an expert in foreign language translation but I know it can be tricky since some languages are right to left languages which presents certain challenges. Contact me offline and I can refer you to some sources that might help!

  15. Hi Chad,
    Not sure if you are familiar with Smashwords epub but in essence, to prepare a manuscript you have to strip it of all formatting (called a ‘nuclear method’). While I have done this, all superscripted numbering to the references (and there are many) was lost. My q- how to retain or reinstall the superscripted numbers in a post-nuclear manuscript?
    Thank you

    • Hi Ela,

      It sounds like you don’t actually want to strip all of the formatting if you want to retain the superscripted numbers. The easiest approach to this would be making use of paragraph and character styles. Use character styles to apply the superscript formatting to the numbers and use paragraph styles for the global formatting of the paragraphs for your project. Then when it’s time to go nuclear on your text, you can just apply a generic paragraph style to the paragraphs to strip all of the formatting except for the superscripted numbers which have the character style applied. The character styles will be retrained when you apply the generic paragraph style. I hope this helps!

  16. Hi, thanks for the blog post.
    I am having an issue placing text into indesign from word – no matter what kind of mapping i try, once text is placed in indesign, to make any kind of change (i.e. change a characteristic in a paragraph style, select certain text to go under a certain style…) anything to do with styles – the file starts working realllllllllly slow, each change takes 5 min to register!
    (the file happens to have loads of footnotes, and a couple hebrew phrases too – think that can be contributing to this particular issue?

    • Hi Esther,

      It definitely sounds like those footnotes could be the culprit. I’d troubleshoot by deleting the footnotes from a copy of the Word doc and re-import the file into InDesign to see if the problem persists.

  17. Thank you, I tried deleting all footnotes and it was indeed the issue!
    Question is, now what? Think there is any way for me to retain the footnotes and info, as it is a very important part of the document?

  18. Very helpful site. You say in May:
    It sounds like your flowing the word doc only onto the first page. You probably have a red + sign in the lower-right corner of the text frame. You need to flow that content onto the other pages. All of the Word content is being placed, you just need to give it a place to go.
    I have the same problem, with the red+ sign. How does one get the content to flow to other pages? I’ve read that ID will automatically create the needed pages, but it doesn’t (I imported with Options, and turned off Page Breaks).

  19. Esther, I don’t have a definitive solution for you. As you’ve determined, the footnotes are in fact the issue. Would it be possible to break the Word doc into sections? This way you could determine if it’s one area of the Word doc or the whole thing.

  20. Mike there are a few ways to deal with this problem. In order to get the content to automatically flow to other pages, you can use the traditional auto-flow method. To do this, dimply click on the red + sign (overset text indicator) and then move to the next page. Hold down the shift key on your keyboard while you click in the upper left corner of the page where the margins intersect, and InDesign will flow all of the text and add pages as needed.

    For a more robust solution, you can use InDesign’s Smart Text Reflow feature. You can read more about that feature here

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  22. Thanks, Chad. It is working now. Not sure what I did wrong before, but I’m using “Place” with the Word file into page 1 (maybe I inadvertently was putting into the Master before or somehow was not in a proper text box) and the dozens of pages flowed in and created automagically the pages in ID. As advertised. Thx again.

  23. Is there a way to import Apple Pages documents to InDesign? There is of course the options first to export from Pages to Word and then to InDesign, but a direct import would be great. Thanks.

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  25. Thank you so much! I have been struggling to figure this out for a week and you were and are a lifesaver. May all the good karma possible come your way!

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  27. Hi Everyone,
    thank you for the great article about that, and it worked well in my indesign.
    I have one bit trouble, that I’m not able to solve. When I make changes in the word document and I’m going to update in iD, it appears that I will lose al the edits that I have done. Is there a way that I can avoud that, I did all with caracter style.

    Hope in your help


  28. I am new-ish to InDesign, but am reasonably experienced with Word, other formatting/typesetting systems and styles in general. Like others, I need to get Word content into InDesign and try to preserve as much formatting as possible. I set up Word and InDesign to have matching style sheet names, and tried to replicate the formatting as much as possible (font, size, color, etc.).
    Most of the content involved multilevel enumerated lists because it is steps for student exercises or labs. I have (I believe) successfully slayed this beast in Word, and also set it up in InDesign (much easier!).
    The problem: when I “place” the Word file in InDesign, I only kind of get the styles. The enumeration is there, but the indents are all off. When I click on a line with a particular style, in the InDesign style panel, it reads “MyStyle 1+”. If I click the style, the + goes away and the correct indents are applied. Does anyone know how to avoid having to do this for every single item in the document?

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