10+ dos and don'ts for using Office templates

If your attempts to use Office templates usually leave you feeling stumped and frustrated, read these expert tips to gain a better grasp on how to use them.

Templates are one of Office's least used and most misused features. Office templates aren't particularly intuitive, and misunderstandings regarding their proper use hinder users. On the other hand, once users finally get it right and experience an increase in productivity, they're hooked. These tips will help you generate and apply templates correctly.

This article focuses on user templates. If you're developing, distributing, and administering templates for a large organization, you probably won't learn anything new. However, you can share these tips with the users you support and perhaps thwart a few troubleshooting headaches down the road.

Also read: 10 Word defaults you can customize to work the way YOU want and 10 Excel defaults you can customize to work the way YOU want

1: Do understand the concept

The term template is very old and originally referred to a pattern or model used to reproduce trade pieces. Within the context of business software, a template is a shell document -- it's a starting point for new documents. Some templates contain basic formatting, while others offer customized tools and content that help users work more productively. Templates get you started and sometimes even help you perform routine tasks.

2: Don't customize the default template, at least not much

When you open a new document, you're using the software's default template; many users customize this template to meet their needs. You can change simple formats (see #3) at this level without issue. On the other hand, when your needs are more complex, you should create a custom template and apply it as needed.

Keep changes to the software's default template to a minimum. When you upgrade, you might lose all customizations you made to the default template.

3: Do watch for interface shortcuts

If you change the same format or property for all (or most) new documents, watch for interface options that make the change to the default template. For instance, if you don't like Word's new line spacing default of 1.15 (instead of 1), you can change Word's built-in Normal style for the current document. When you do, you can also make the change for all new documents by checking the New Documents Based On This Document option shown in Figure A.

Figure A



Some properties have interface options that update the default template.

I'm not contradicting #2; I want you to take advantage of the interface default options, but complex changes should go into a custom template.

4: Do use built-in shortcuts for opening and saving templates

Most Office applications offer a shortcut for accessing and saving templates. For example, in Word 2010, you can access your templates as follows:

  1. Click the File tab.
  2. Choose Open.
  3. Click Trusted Templates in the left pane shown in Figure B.

Figure B



Interface access makes working with templates easy.

5: Don't base new templates on blank documents -- or do

If you're using Office 2010 or earlier, you might open a new document as you normally would, make changes, and then save it as a template in the Save As dialog. This isn't the preferred method; however, many users do this without issue. Office 2013 users will find this route is now the preferred method, so your route depends on your version.

6: Don't base new templates on existing documents

If you have a formatted document that meets all of your custom needs, you might be tempted to remove the content and save the underlying styles and other tweaks as a template file. In fact, you'll find the instructions online, even at Everything that's in that document will be in your template and, consequently, all the documents based on the template. You're probably thinking that's what you meant; unfortunately, it can be the route to heartbreak. The source of problems and conflicts will be difficult to troubleshoot later.

Users often choose this route and never encounter problems. I think it's a crapshoot, but I won't argue with success. Just the same, I don't recommend it.

7: Do use the software's preferred method for creating a template

Your software works best when you use the tools as intended. For example, the correct way to create a template in Word 2010 and earlier follows:

  1. Click the File menu (or Office button). Choose New in the left pane. In Word 2003, choose New from the File menu.
  2. Word 2007 and 2010 users should click My Templates in the Available Templates section. In Word 2003, click On My Computer in the New Document task pane.
  3. In the resulting dialog, click Blank Document.
  4. Click Template in the Create New section (don't skip this step).
  5. Click OK.

Other routes seem simpler. Often, those results are problematic, and those templates can be difficult to troubleshoot and fix. (I hope reading that a few times doesn't desensitize you.) If you're using Office 2013, see #5.

8: Don't save a template as a working file

Don't open a template file, add your content, and then use the software's Save As to change the file's format. Instead, apply a template when you create a new document. For example, the preferred method for applying a Word template follows:

  1. Click the File menu (or Office button). Choose New in the left pane. In Word 2003, choose New from the File menu.
  2. Word 2013 displays built-in templates; searching online is easy at this point. Click Personal to choose from templates you’ve created and saved. Or, click one of the many templates already listed for quick download and click Create. Skip to step 5. Earlier versions will offer many template folders. Open a folder and select a template.
  3. Click Document in the Create New section.
  4. Click OK.
  5. Give your new document a name and start adding content. All of the customizations you added to your template will be available to your new document file.

9: Do apply a template before you add content

It's tempting to create a document and format it later rather than as you go. Many of us work that way, and there’s nothing wrong with it. However, you might assume that applying a template after-the-fact should be just as easy. It might be, and it might not. The best approach is to apply a template to the new blank document before you start adding content.

The issue in this case is Word's dependency on built-in styles. If the template you apply later doesn't use Word's built-in Normal hierarchy, you might have difficulty applying the template's custom styles. It's not a deal-breaker -- it's just something most users don't fully understand; they end up frustrated when a template doesn't apply the styles they wanted in the way they expected.

10: Do save time with generic templates

Users don't have to create their own templates; there are hundreds of reliable and free templates available via a quick download. If you have a generic need, such as a resume, mortgage calculator, business card, and so on, search online. I recommend that you start your search at Office 2013 has built-in online template access.

11: Do use existing templates when you upgrade

When you upgrade to Office 2013, you can use templates you created in Office 2007 and 2010. You’ll want to move them to the Custom Office Templates. Fortunately, there's a tool for that.

A case for template correctness

Working with templates requires planning and a little specialized knowledge, but it isn't difficult. You create the templates that contain the custom formats and tools you use most often. When you need those formats and tools, you apply the template before you add content, when possible. You'll find this route efficient and less problematic than any other method you're currently using. It isn't the only way, but it's the best way.

I can trace many "I hate this #$*(@ software! Why won't it work the way it's supposed to?" complaints to bad templates. You might ignore these tips and never see a problem. Unfortunately, if you run into a template issue, you might not know what's wrong and blaming the squirrelly software won't help. If you support users, training them to generate and apply their own templates correctly will help them work more efficiently and that will help you as well.

Post your experiences and more Office tips

What are the most common user complaints you hear about Office templates? If you have additional tips about using Office templates, please share them in the discussion.



Susan Sales Harkins is an IT consultant, specializing in desktop solutions. Previously, she was editor in chief for The Cobb Group, the world's largest publisher of technical journals.


I recently enforced a model solution for my company. I followed the Microsoft Custom model technique for office 2010 that uses an XML file to outline the Word and PowerPoint templates details like name, registry and preview and a HKCU register key to instruct the office apps to seem for the XML file. I hold on the model files (potx, dotx), the XML file, thumbnail and preview graphic files on our AD netlogon in order that all users will retrieve the files from a common location. These templates are sorted under a folder with a name of your alternative and therefore the folder seems showing neatness on the second row once the users click File - Open, rather than activity within the default My templates folder on the primary row. the solution works absolutely. however one has got to note for laptop computer users who aren't connected to the office network they'll not be ready to open the netlogon to pull the XML and therefore the model files.


I am in the process of migrating my colleagues from faux templates (formatted documents) to custom templates. I have them remediating all our SOP's from the hotch potch of variously styled word documents to a brand spanking new format with only the styles needed. I taught the first group the other week how to migrate the old to the new and I am now a god in their eyes.

They are diligently working to bring all their SOP's to the new format and do not publish a document without confirming they started with ten styles and finished with ten styles, no strays.


I recently implemented a template solution for my company. I followed the Microsoft Custom Template method for Office 2010 which uses an XML file to define the Word and PowerPoint templates details such as name, thumbnail and preview and a HKCU registry key to instruct the Office apps to look for the XML file. I stored the template files (potx, dotx), the XML file, thumbnail and preview graphic files on our AD netlogon so that all users can retrieve the files from a common location. These templates will be grouped under a folder with a name of your choice (which is the name of the registry key, max 30 characters) and the folder appears neatly on the second row when the users click File - Open, instead of hiding inside the default My templates folder on the first row. The solution works perfectly. But one has to note for laptop users who are not connected to the office network they will not be able to open the netlogon to pull the XML and the template files.

Hope the above information helps.


@glnz -- you can make a copy of your customized file and name it something else, so that you don't lose your customization when the newer versions of office are installed.

Susan, I have had some issues around trying to attach a template to existing documents (rather than new ones). Our corporation went through a whole "brand refresh" and, as a consequence, all our formatting changed, from typeface to heading styles to table styles. We have templates with all the new styles set up, but I have yet to be successful in a global "refresh" of the styles by attaching those templates to an existing document. Rather, the existing document then has a hodge-podge of styles, some old, some new, and the formatting appears to be random.

For example, new style has Heading 1 as 14-pt Calibri, in red, left-justified; old style had Heading 1 as 18 pt Arial bold in black, centered. If I manually detach the old template and attach the new template, I still have to go through to apply the new Heading 1 style to instances of Heading 1. That seems to work all right, but then if I create a new section with a Heading 1 and select that style for the new heading, that new heading has the old styles applied. This is one of the things about Word templates that makes me want to tear out my hair, because I don't understand the apparent inconsistencies.

Thanks for any light you can shed on this behavior.


By the way, Ms. Harkins - it has become absolutely impossible to log on to TechRepublic from Firefox with security (NoScript, AdBlock, Disconnect, etc.) even if I try to disable all my security settings when I'm on TechRepublic.

If this were a site specializing in Fly Fishing, I would sort of understand.  But as TechRepublic caters to a crowd that is VERY security conscious, it is amazing that TechRepublic requires that I switch to IE with NO security in order to log on and post a comment.  (And I'm a lawyer, not a techy!)  Please forward this note to your CEO and ask him to consider making it possible for folks to log on from Firefox while maintaining their security restrictions.

PS I care because I very much like your articles.


Sent the following to the IT - word processing head of my law firm:

"Sometimes these articles from TechRepublic [your article here] are helpful, or at least informative.  As probably we'll all have a learning curve whenever the firm upgrades Office, maybe this kind of thing is helpful. 

"(Don't get me wrong, I wish we did not have to upgrade from Office 2003, which is bad enough.  I'm sure each later version just makes Word worse and worse.)

"By the way, in my own template, left and right margins are at 1", I have special styles for footnote references and text, etc.  From this article, it seems we'll have to adjust the future back to 1 line spacing, not this new 1.15.  (Whose idea was that?  Can our litigation group sue MS?)  In my, another thing that helps is that Heading 1 - 9 are based on Body Text, not Normal, but that's probably too much for most folks."


@feral And just think how efficiently they're going to work moving forward! Nice job!


@alex.woo Sounds like you're working from an administrator/developer side of things. Thanks for adding your experience to the mix.


@denise.lee I'd start by verifying that the Styles names are the same. Second, is the Automatically update document styles option enabled when attaching the new document? It's on the Templates tab, right under the Document Template control. Let me know and we'll continue to troubleshoot if necessary. ssh

NickNielsen moderator

@denise.leeI've had to do this once or twice over the years, but only with a handful of documents. What I wound up doing was creating a new document with the updated template, then selecting Paste Special and Text Only, then applying the styles from the new document using a printed copy of the old document as a reference for inserting breaks.

It's time-consuming, but it's more reliable than any other method I've found.

NickNielsen moderator

@glnzI am able to get in to the new site with Firefox by whitelisting the following sites in NoScript.  Yes, it's a pain in the butt. / / / / / / /


Please also work with Tammy, even if it does work for you.  For whatever reason, some of these sites did not show up in my blocked sites list.  I had to allow all scripts, then block sites until TR stopped working to arrive at this list. 

tcavadias moderator Staff

@glnzI do apologize for this issues you are having trying to login to the siute from Firefox.

I have been trying to reproduce the issue but not having much luck.

Would you kindly email me at: so I can gain additional information from you to get this issue resolved.



Community Manager

TechRepublic, ZDNet, Smartplanet


@glnz Margins are still set to 1 inch in Word's template. The 1.15 default I mentioned is for line spacing, and easily adjusted by following the instructions I supplied. The change was made to accommodate the march on to web-published materials. Apparently, they believe web content is more readable at 1.15 and since they believe more content is being published to the web than printed, they changed the default. 


Thanks, Nick. That is, unfortunately, the best way I have found as well. With longer and complex documents, it is indeed time-consuming.

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