Three common errors users make with Word templates

You'll want to avoid these common errors when working with Word templates.

Templates help you work more productively and confidentially. Unfortunately, they're a bit of a mystery to most users. If you're working on your own and you find yourself making the same changes to every document, learn how to create, alter, and apply templates. If you're supporting users, make sure they know how to use templates appropriately so they're getting the most of Word's template feature.

Over the years, I've noticed users making the same mistakes with Word templates. Here are the three most common.

1. Creating a template

There's only one right way to create a Word template, but most users don't use it - they don't even know how to do it! Instead, they do one or a combination of the following when they need a new template:

Customize Word's Normal template

If you have special template needs, create a new one from scratch. Altering Normal seems harmless enough, and if you add only a few customizations, you'll probably be fine, at least until the new upgrade. At that point, Word might replace your Normal template with a new one. You stand to lose all of your template's customizations.

Base a new template on Normal

It's tempting to open a blank document file (doc), customize it, and then save it as a template file (dotx, dotm, dot). It seems almost intuitive - isn't that how you're supposed to do it? Unfortunately, this route has repercussions that you might not consider. Every customization that you've applied to Normal is now in your new template.

Base a new template on an existing document

If you have a formatted document that meets all of your custom needs, you might be tempted to remove all the content and save it as a template file (dot, dotx, dotm), but don't. You're working backward. Create the template first and then apply it to the documents as necessary. The reason is the same as #1 and #2 - you get more than you bargained for, and it won't be good.

Base a new template on a blank document

Okay, I'm being redundant, but I wanted to impress on you the importance of generating the template from scratch the way Word intends. Doing so ensures that you're starting with a blank slate, which is what you want, even if you don't realize it.

At this point, you're probably asking - how do I create a Word template correctly? It's best to start a new template from scratch, as follows:

  • Click the File menu. Choose New in the left pane. In Word 2003, choose New from the File menu.
  • Click My Templates in the Available Templates section. In Word 2003, click On My Computer in the New Document task pane.
  • In the resulting dialog, click Blank Document.
  • Then, click Template in the Create New section - don't skip this step!
  • Click OK.


2. Altering a template's default style properties

When altering the default font, users often make the mistake of changing the font properties via the options in the Font group, but that doesn't work. (This is a common call to support and help desks - I changed my template's default, but it didn't save it – I know I clicked Save!)To change a template's default font properties, you must change the template's default style, which is Normal. Open the template and make the necessary changes to Normal using the Styles dialog. Remember to save the template before closing it!


3. Applying a template

Another common error is opening the actual template file and then saving it as a doc file. That's not the right way to apply a template. The process of applying a template to a document is similar to the one discussed earlier for creating a new template:

  • Click the File menu. Choose New in the left pane. In Word 2003, choose New from the File menu.
  • There are many template folders available. For this example, I clicked My Templates in the Available Templates section.
  • In the resulting dialog, select a template. In this example, I chose (a Word 2003 template).
  • Then, click Document in the Create New section.
  • Click OK. 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 (doc) file.


Applying a template to an existing document is a bit more complex and there's no doubt why users don't use it:

  • With your existing document file (docx, doc) open, click the File tab.
  • Click Options (under Help) in the left pane.
  • Click Add-Ins in the left pane.
  • Choose Templates from the Manage dropdown (at the bottom) and click Go.
  • If the default is the template you want, skip to #6. Otherwise, click Attach, select the template, and click Open.
  • Check the Automatically Update Document Styles option.
  • Click OK.

This is one area where Word totally bombs! There's no reason this process should be so convoluted! (I wonder if it doesn't point to one of those Oh crap! We forgot to… moments deep within the Microsoft trenches.) Of course, this organizational flaw also keeps Word developers in business. Fortunately, once you get the hang of working with templates, you'll rarely need to apply a template to an existing document - you'll start out with the right template from the start.

The blame

Users aren't stupid; I am often astounded at how quickly users learn to use Word with little (usually no) training. Unfortunately, creating and applying templates - a process that's incumbent on working productively and efficiently in Word - remains untapped. Word buries the feature instead of offering the options on the ribbon, where they should be.


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.


How do I do this in Word 2011 on a Mac? There is no choice to click on "document" or "template' after choosing File>new> my templates> blank document.  My only choices are File> New blank Document or New from Template.


As a user of Word templates since 1995 (when dragged kicking and screaming from WordPerfect), I'm going to disagree with two points:

Don't  "Base a new template on Normal" - I've done it both ways. In almost 20 years I have never had a problem with a template I based on Normal. OTOH, when our office server mappings changed, documents based on a custom template would chug and chug and chug for as much as 5-6 minutes without opening while Word looked in vain for the underlying template before finally giving up. Same was true for any such documents opened on a different computer, such as after being transferred to a laptop. I finally created a macro to change the base template in "templates and Addins" to Normal. Stopped the problem immediately. Basing a new template on Normal and then changing those few formatting items one wants never caused a problem for me and avoids mucho headache.

Don't "Base a new template on an existing document" - In addition to the problem of creating a custom template, this just isn't the way business works. If one is, for example, a lawyer drafting a 20 page commercial lease from scratch, the last thing he or she needs is the distraction of leaving out transaction-specific details just so the document can be genericised for template use later. Much more efficient from a real world business perspective to draft what you need now and create the template later. 


#3. Applying a template An alternative method of getting to the <Templates and Add-ins> menu item is to activate the Developer tab on the Ribbon. Then select the Document Template option or use key presses Alt, L, U



This topic cleared many problems I faced recently.

Many unclear issues concerning creating,using and converting existing document to template


In my opinion any discussion of templates in MS Word 2007 at least should touch on themes.  Document parts is another aspect that I wish I personally had more time to explore and teach and that would add immeasurably to time savings for people working on the same or similar docs all the time.

The sad truth is that there is still a tonne of confusion out there as to what a template really is or can be.  Most people still seem to create electronic versions of static paper based forms - you can't edit the document to add things to it without breaking the formatting.  This is surely more important to ending up with a few errant styles that come from using Normal or another template as a starting point. 


I'm still trying to discern the difference between opening a new blank document followed by a Save As Template versus clicking the Create New Template radio button to begin with.  I can see that the second method is much more straightforward.  But how is the final template file different?  Any wisdom and clarification would be very appreciated.


Great article Susan, thank you. I never thought about templates this way. 

It seems to me that the post needs an Office 2013 update, what do you think?


It would indeed be a great suggestion to include a couple of "template management" tabs on the Word ribbon. I have written manuals and given trainings in a former life, so I have known how to unleash the power of templates when they were still called "style sheets" in Word for DOS, and it has saved me many hours of formatting and re-formatting, checking page breaks, etc.

Microsoft, are you listening?

Mark W. Kaelin
Mark W. Kaelin moderator

Susan and I have had several questions lately about the proper way to use and save Word templates. Has this article helped you better use Word templates? What additional questions do you have?


@mwb78 The first option is available to you, but I don't personally recommend that you use it. I think most users can get away with using it, especially if they're creating new templates for themselves. The problem is, as I stressed -- what else is in that document before you save it as a template? Possibly, a lot of harmless properties that won't ever cause a problem. However, it can be difficult to troubleshoot if something does go wrong. The second method, the preferably method, starts you off with a truly clean, blank document -- no hidden issues. Hope that helps to clarify my position. 


@jean.gerrekens Fortunately, the lack of interface access makes work for lots of Word developers. So, there is a good side to it -- if you're the one doing the developing. :) I do agree, templates need to be an easy option from the ribbon. Working productively and efficiently in Word depends heavily on styles and templates, but both are... awkward features to use (at best). 

Editor's Picks