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.

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