Mail merge made simple: Quick labels from a data source

Investing a little time in learning to mail merge labels can yield huge dividends in productivity.

Word’s mail merge tools make it possible to generate an entire batch of labels using names and addresses stored in a data source—a far more efficient proposition than addressing labels individually. Yet a lot of Word users still create labels one by one simply because mail merge scares them silly. Many trainers also sidestep this feature on the assumption that it's too daunting or complex. But learning how to mail merge labels will give your students a huge, boss-pleasing productivity payoff, so it's a topic worth covering. And you can actually get a class up to speed pretty quickly via a simple walk-through. All you need is a small sample data source (maybe 10 names and addresses). Then, you can set up the main document and demo the process.

The preliminaries
  1. Open a new document, and choose Mail Merge from the Tools menu.
  2. When the Mail Merge Helper dialog box appears, click Create, select Mailing Labels, and click Active Window.
  3. Click Get Data, and select Open Data Source. Select the file containing the names and addresses for your labels and click Open.
  4. Click Set Up Main Document to open the Label Options dialog box. Here, you can select a label style from the Product Number list box. A good, all-purpose choice is 5160 - Address.
  5. Click OK, and Word will open the Create Labels dialog box. Now you can set up the main document.

You can specify a label style in the Label Options dialog box.

Label setup
To create the main document, you need to insert merge fields that determine what pieces of data will appear on the labels. This is a potentially confusing topic, so you may need to spend some time explaining that each item on the Insert Merge Field drop-down list corresponds to a column in the data source. (For some reason, the idea that Word can draw information from another file tends to baffle students, so the more visual the demo, the better.)

When you're ready to add the merge fields, follow these steps:
  1. Click Insert Merge Field, and select FirstName from the drop-down list.
  2. Type a space, click Insert Merge Field again, and select LastName.
  3. Press [Enter] to start a new line, then use the Insert Merge Field list to add the rest of the address fields (Address, City, State, PostalCode) to the Sample Label box.

Set up the Sample Label box with merge fields that will print the desired information on the labels.

  1. When you finish, click OK, then click Close. Word will create the label main document with the selected placeholders on each label.

After you insert the merge fields and close the Create Label dialog box, Word will set up the main document according to your specifications.

Time to print
To generate the labels, you can take a couple of approaches:
  • Click Merge To Printer to send the data straight to the printer.
  • Click Merge To New Document to create a document containing the merged data laid out just like a label sheet. You can print this document by clicking Print on the Standard toolbar.

In general, the second approach makes more sense because it gives you an opportunity to fine-tune the position and formatting of the label text. You can also save the document and print when it’s convenient (like when the printer isn’t tied up).

The Mail Merge Couch
In the early days of Word, so the legend goes, Microsoft support technicians had a couch they dubbed "the Mail Merge Couch"—a place to get comfortable when users called with mail merge problems that were invariably time-consuming to resolve. Mail merge has certainly come a long way in terms of ease of use—yet it still strikes fear (or boredom) in the hearts of today's Word users. Do you have any experiences to share regarding student reaction to mastering mail merge techniques? Have you discovered any tricks for demystifying the procedures and making them interesting? Send us an e-mailmessage and let us know!


Jody Gilbert has been writing and editing technical articles for the past 25 years. She was part of the team that launched TechRepublic and is now senior editor for Tech Pro Research.

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