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How do I... use Microsoft Word's Mail Merge feature to save time and effort?


How do IThis blog post was originally published as an article on September 12, 2006.

Mailing a form letter to all clients living in a particular city. Creating a slew of envelopes addressed to all customers that purchased your latest gizmo. Printing labels for each employee in your organization. What do these tasks have in common? Two things:

  1. Each can be easily created using Word's mail merge feature
  2. Without Word, or some kind of automated system, these items would take a whole lot of time to develop

In this How do I... blog entry, you'll learn how to create simple form letters using lists of names in Word. In my next article, I will show you how to integrate Word with Excel or Access, allowing you to create form letters, labels, birthday cards (anything you can imagine, really) using existing information.

The version used throughout this tutorial is Word 2003.

Jump right in

Let's jump right in to creating a form letter so you can see how much time you could save with Word's mail merge.

To get started, open a new document in Word and, from the menu bar, choose Tools | Letters, and Mailings | Mail Merge. In the sidebar area, Word opens a Mail Merge helper that provides you with a wizard-like interface that walks you through the process.

Step 1: Select document type

Word's mail merge can be used to create form letters, e-mail messages, envelopes, labels, or directories. With a little imagination, these choices let you create just about any kind of document or communication you would need.

Figure A

Mail merge step 1: Determine your document type

Feel free to experiment with the different document types. For this example, I'll be creating a simple form letter and, so, will choose the Letters option from the selection. When you've made your selection, click "Next: Starting Document".

Step 2: Select starting document

Any document you've created can be converted into a form letter. Or, if you want to start from scratch, you can use the current document (which, for me, is a blank document) and type your letter. You can also use any document template on your computer, or on Office Online, Microsoft's Web repository which contains hundreds of templates available for download.

This starting document is often referred to as the "master document" as well. The terms are interchangeable, although other Word features also use the term "master document", so be sure to keep things straight.

The starting document is the document that will ultimately contain the base form letter.

I'm going to use the blank document I have on the screen as the starting document.

Figure B

Mail merge step 2: Choose the starting document.

Once you've decided on the document that gets the honor of being the starting document, click the "Next: Select recipients" option. Notice that the wizard also allows you to go back to the previous step if you need to.

You will be able to modify your letter in Step 4 of the wizard.

Step 3: Select recipients

In the previous step, you chose what document to use as a form letter. In this step, you need to decide to which recipients you want to send the form letter. Word's mail merge feature lets you use a wide variety of data sources. You can use an existing list you created for an old mail merge. Or, you can type in a new list of recipients. You can also use your Outlook address book if you like. Finally, you can use just about any other data source that has the names and addresses of the people to whom you want to send your letter. Supported data sources include Excel spreadsheets, Access databases, SQL Server databases and, if you have the appropriate support, you can probably even directly use your company's customer relationship management system or ERP system. To keep things simple for now, I'm going to type a new list. In my next article, I will show you how to use Excel, Access, and Outlook as data sources.

Figure C

Mail merge step 3: Choose (or provide) your recipients
If you select the "Type a new list" option, as shown in Figure C, Word also provides you with a "Create" option so that you can actually provide your data list. Click the Create option to build your list using the resulting New Address List window.

Figure D

You can type recipient information right into the form.

The New Address List form allows you to easily provide recipient information and includes all of the fields you would expect, including first name, last name, address information, e-mail address and phone numbers. If you need different information, such as an employee's length of service or another piece of information not provided in the window, click the Customize button.

Figure E

You can easily customize the fields that show up on the address list.

On this window, you can add and subtract fields as needed. Don't worry about getting things perfect when it comes to removing fields you don't need. They don't hurt anything if you leave them alone. To add a new field, click the Add button. You'll be asked for the name of the field, which you should provide. Click OK. The new field will show up on the list.

To remove a field, select it and click Delete.

You can change the order in which the fields appear by using the Move Up and Move Down buttons. Select the field whose placement you want to change and, to move it up the list, click Move Up. To move it down, click Move Down.

When you're done customizing the field list, click the OK button.

Now, enter information into the appropriate fields as you saw in Figure D. When you're done with a record, click the New Entry button to complete it. If you want to remove a record, choose Delete Entry. Once you get a lot of entries, you can use the Find Entry button to locate a specific record. Finally, you can also sort and filter you entries. For example, you can sort you entries by zip code, or filter the entries so that just records from a particular city are available. When you're done adding entries, click the Close button.

Word will ask you to save your new list so you can use it again. Provide a name for your list and click the Save button.

Figure F

Save your list for future use.

With your list saved, Word gives you the opportunity to take a look at your list, sort it, filter it, and choose whether to include or exclude specific records.

Figure G

From this window, you can search, filter, and sort records and decide which ones to use in your merge.

If you don't want to make any changes to who will get your form letter, or to the order the letters will be printed, click the OK button on this window. However, if you're doing a large mailing, chances are that you need to at least sort your letters by zip code for the post office. To sort the entries by a particular field, click the heading (the name) for that field. Clicking the heading results in your records being sorted "ascending" by the values in that column. That is, the records will be sorted alphabetically or numerically. Clicking the same heading again results in a reverse sort-from Z to A and from 9 to 0.

You can also filter records-that is, select just a certain subset of records to include in your output. For example, suppose you want to print form letters just for a particular zip code. Notice that each heading has a little down arrow right next to the name. Click the down arrow to get a list of all of the values in that column. When you select a specific value, you will only see records that have that value in that field. All other records are then hidden from view and will not be printed. To remove your filter, click the filter down arrow and choose the "(All)" option.

Figure H

A filter is a handy way to print just a selection of records.
There is another way to include or exclude specific records, too. Take a look back at Figure G. To the left of each record, notice the small checkbox. Normally, each record has a check in the box. This means that the record will be included in your output. If you want to skip a specific record, remove that checkmark by clicking the box. Presto!

When you're done with your record manipulation, click the OK button. The right-hand sidebar now indicates which data file you're using. Click the "Next: Write your letter" option to continue.

Figure I

You're ready to move on to writing your letter.

Step 4: Write Your Letter

Congrats. You've told Word what you want (form letters) and to whom they should be addressed (the address list). Now, you need to type your letter. Or, if you've opted to use an existing letter, you need to provide Word with "fields" that are replaced with the information from your address list. Remember that each form letter will be addressed to a different person. So, you don't want to type your letter to a specific individual, but want to make it generic and let Word do the heavy lifting for you.

Before you start typing, notice the addition of a new toolbar to your arsenal. It should look similar to the one in Figure J.

Figure J

The mail merge toolbar makes form letters easy.

I'm not going to go over every option on the toolbar in this article, but will provide details on which buttons you need for most mail merge operations.

The first three buttons are pretty important. In order from left to right:

  • Main document setup: This is the same as step one of the wizard in that you select the type of document you intend to create.
  • Open data source: Again, this button loosely matches a step in the wizard; in this case, step 2. When you click this button, Word opens up a dialog window asking you to choose the data file you want to use. If you want to connect to a different kind of source, such as an Access database, click the New Source button.
  • Mail merge recipients: This button opens the window you saw in the previous step where you can decide which recipients should be included in the final output.

Notice in the side bar, now entitled "Write your letter", there are a number of options, including "Greeting line", "Postal bar code", and "More Items..."

Figure K

Using the More items... link, you can include the merge fields you populated earlier.

Type the beginning of your letter. As an example, I'm going to write a sample letter-a very short one-that starts with "Dear so-and-so: We have the following address on file for you: Address. If this is incorrect, let us know. Thanks!" The parts that need to be personalized are the "so-and-so" and "address".

When you type you letter, it's important to keep in mind that, when you're inserting the fields from the list you created earlier, you still need proper punctuation and so on. I've gotten a lot of help desk calls in my career from mail merging folks asking why all of their addresses are coming out "citystatezip" (i.e. "GermantownMD20874" instead of "Germantown, MD 20874". The answer was simple: You still need to include the command and the spaces. An example will make a lot more sense.

Well start simple. In your letter, type the word "Dear" and then hit the space bar. Now, click the More Items option. The Insert Merge Field window opens with the same list of fields you saw earlier (Figure L). Choose the field you want to insert-in this case, the First Name field-and click the Insert button.

Figure L

Choose a field
In your document, you will get <<First Name>>. The brackets around the field indicate to Word that this is a field and not straight text. So, each time Word sees this indicator, it will replace "<<First Name>>" with information from your data table. In Figure M, I've show you what this looks like in your document.

Figure M

Note the space (indicated by a dot) between "Dear" and "<<First Name>>".
Easy, eh? Now, do the same thing for the rest of the letter. One bad thing about the way Word handles putting fields in the letter is that Word will not let you add spaces and commas at the same time the Insert Merge Field window is open. To add spaces and commas, you would need to add a field, close the insert merge field window, put in the space, open the insert merge field window, add a field, close the insert merge field window, etc. Since this can be tedious, you can add all of the fields at once and then manually place spaces and commas in the appropriate locations. The final product looks something like Figure N.

Figure N

All of the fields we want are on the letter.

Step 5: Preview your letters

With your letter written, it's time to see the results. From the sidebar, click the "Next: Preview your letters" option. The result should look similar to what you see below in Figure O.

Figure O

Word shows you a preview of what your letter looks like.

Notice that the merge fields have now been replaced with actual information. You can see what each record looks like by clicking the "<<" and ">>" buttons in the sidebar. Or, if you don't want a letter printed for this recipient, click the Exclude this recipient button. You can also make mass changes to the recipient list (as you saw earlier) by clicking the "Edit recipient list" option.

Once you're verified your recipients, click the "Next: Complete the merge" option.

Step 6: Complete the merge (you will be assimilated)

This part is easy! Your sidebar again changes to match the step you're on and looks a whole lot like what you see below.

Figure P

Step 6: Finish this thing!

At this point, Word has not officially performed the merge. That is, your letter and data file are still mostly separate. When you click one of the two options-(1) Print; or (2) Edit individual letters-Word asks you what you want to merge.

Figure Q

What records do you want to have printed?

Your options here are to merge all of your records, in which case you will get one page per recipient, or choose which records you want to include. When you choose the print option, Word sends your letter right to your printer. If you made a mistake, you have to reprint the letters. By choosing the "Edit individual letters" option, you make Word create a huge document that includes every letter just as if you'd typed the letter manually for each recipient. I usually prefer to use the latter option so I don't have to reprint things.

About

Since 1994, Scott Lowe has been providing technology solutions to a variety of organizations. After spending 10 years in multiple CIO roles, Scott is now an independent consultant, blogger, author, owner of The 1610 Group, and a Senior IT Executive w...

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