Being an occasional web designer, text styles have been pretty deeply ingrained in me since the days of Netscape, AOL, and Lycos. (Did I just date myself?) I’ll operate on the assumption that for most folks, text styles include 3 or 4 categories: bold, underline, italic, and perhaps color. Technically, those are bona fide text styles, but when it comes to accessibility, a more accurate descriptor might be “paragraph style.” Digital screen readers for the visually impaired tend to ignore things like color, italics, and underlining, but what they do pay attention to is the paragraph and document structure of the text they’re reading out loud. A title or a heading conveys different semantic information than a list or a collection of sentences in a paragraph, so those are the kinds of “styles” that screen readers look out for.
(And speaking of semantic information, whenever I use the word “style” to apply to document structure or accessibility features, it refers to a set of characteristics and not a single characteristic, much in the same way that a style of wardrobe isn’t determined by a single accessory, but instead a whole set of clothing choices: A cowboy hat alone does not necessarily mean someone’s outfit is western style — they might just be trying on hats. But if they’re sporting the hat, jeans, boots, a button-down shirt with fringe on the sleeves, and a gigantic belt buckle, then they clearly have embraced the western style.)
I won’t get into the nuts and bolts of document styles in this post (more on that to come, though…) but I would draw your attention to the Style panes in Microsoft Word or Apple Pages, or even a number of other applications across both platforms. The next time you’re formatting a document, play around with the various options: select a block of text, click one of the style links or buttons in the toolbar, and then watch the text instantly change to conform to the style attributes. It’s pretty powerful, just from aesthetic and efficiency points of view: as a writer/creator, you’re freed up from anguishing over minutiae like font face, text size, indentation, etc., during the creation phase when you should be anguishing over much bigger things like ideas and the structure of your thoughts on “paper.” (I even have taken to composing in a plain-text app like Notepad or TextEdit, then copying the plain text into MS Word or Apple Pages for final formatting.)
And at the same time, when the right style options are chosen for the right kinds of text, the real magic happens, from an accessibility point of view: screen readers can then treat headings as headings, lists as lists, and so on. Readers who are listening to the document with their ears as opposed to viewing it with their eyes receive powerful cues for how the document is structured and organized. And that’s what we want, isn’t it, as writers? We want as many people to be exposed to our ideas as possible, independent of delivery method, so the ideas themselves stand out and not any of the distracting surface trappings and clutter.