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.

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

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

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

  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

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 Microsoft.com. 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

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

  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 Microsoft.com. 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

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.