Unless you’re, say, nine years old, you probably don’t pepper your documents with the stars and banners and circles and arrows offered on Word’s Drawing toolbar. But you still might use certain objects for a specific purpose fairly often. For instance, I use Word as a quick-and-dirty page layout program to create documents that I turn into PDFs (such as the PDF version of this article). My go-to object for that layout process is the text box, which lets me put in sidebars and captions and position them in the right spot on the page.

Here’s the problem. By default, Word doesn’t insert the text box I want. Word applies a .75-point rule around the text box, sets its position to In Line With Text, and applies internal margins that throw off the alignment.

So after dozens of laboriously tweaked text boxes, I began my quest to cut a few corners. This led me to a couple of obvious — but inadequate — workarounds.

First, I created and formatted a text box with the desired characteristics and saved it as an AutoText entry. That worked great except for one thing: Among the characteristics Word remembers is the position of the text box on the page. So every time I inserted a text box using the AutoText entry, I’d have to go on a snipe hunt to track it down and drag it to the right location.

My second approach was to simply set the default characteristics of the text box. This is a piece of cake: Just click the Text Box button on the Drawing toolbar and draw the text box in your document. Then, format the text box however it suits you, right-click on it, and choose Set AutoShape Defaults. When you create subsequent text boxes, they’ll have the formatting you set — but only in the current document. That makes this feature pretty feeble, in my book.

By now you probably see where we’re going with this. The key to setting defaults for drawing objects and having the defaults persist even in new documents is to monkey with the template. And that’s a pretty simple task. We’ll use the text box example to demonstrate the steps.

One word of caution before we get underway: When you change the default formatting for one type of drawing object or AutoShape, you change it for all of them. The formatting we set for text boxes in this example will also apply to ovals, rectangles, arrows, etc.

The technique

First, you need to locate your Normal.dot template. (Word 2007 is a little different. We’ll deal with it in a minute.) This will vary from one system to another, but the typical default location is C:\Documents and Settings\Username\Application Data\Microsoft\Templates. You can run a search for Normal.dot in Windows Explorer, if necessary. Note: The template may be in a hidden folder, so make sure Windows Explorer is set to display hidden files before you go hunting it down. (You can also use Word’s Open dialog box to navigate to Normal.dot and open it, but you have to know where you’re going and it may take a lot of hops.)

When you locate Normal.dot, right-click on it and choose Open from the shortcut menu. Once Word opens the template, display the Drawing toolbar (right-click on any toolbar and choose Drawing). Now, click the Text Box button and draw the object (Figure A).

Figure A

To format the text box, double-click on it. Word will open the Format Text Box dialog (Figure B).

Figure B

Obviously, the formatting you apply is entirely up to your discretion, but here are the specs I use:

  • On the Colors And Lines tab, choose No Line from the Color drop-down list (in the Line section).
  • On the Layout tab, choose Tight, click Advanced, and deselect Move Object With Text on the Picture Position tab.
  • On the Text Box tab, set all the internal margins to 0.

Once you’ve got the text box looking the way you want, right-click on it and choose Set AutoShape Defaults (Figure C).

Figure C

Now you just need to do a little tidying up: Click on the text box to select it and press Delete. You don’t want to leave any actual objects behind or they’ll appear in all your new documents. Close Normal.dot and save your changes, and you’re finished.

Not so fast…

Yes, you’re finished, but we still need to touch on a few peripheral issues before we wind this up.

The first issue is templates. We made our changes to Normal.dot because that’s the template new documents use unless you specify a different one. But in reality, it may make better sense to set the defaults in some specialized template and leave Normal.dot alone. For example, I use a homemade template that includes the styles and elements I need for the articles I’m going to PDF. That’s where I need my customized text boxes, so that’s where I set my text box defaults.
The second issue is reversing your changes. What if you’ve set all these formats, but then you decide that you preferred Word’s formatting after all? Well, there’s no reset button. If you want to revert to Word’s set of text box attributes, you’ll need to repeat the process we just outlined, specifying the original formatting:

  • Black in the Line Color drop-down list
  • In Line With Text on the Layout tab
  • 0.1″ left and right margins
  • 0.05″ top and bottom margins on the Text Box tab

If you’re especially enterprising, you can just create an original-format text box in some untainted template, copy it into the template you want to reset, right-click on it, and choose Set AutoShape Defaults to override your custom defaults.

The third issue is Word 2007. For starters, opening the Normal template in Word 2007 is easier than in earlier versions. Just choose Open from the Office menu and click Templates in the left pane. (Under WinXP, click Trusted Templates.) You’ll see the Normal template listed in the right pane. If you use compatibility mode, you’ll see Normal.dot and Normal.dotm. Open Normal.dotm.

With the template open, select the Insert tab, click Text Box, choose Draw Text Box, and draw the object. When the text box is selected, Word 2007 will display Text Box Tools on the Format tab. Because I’m a Word Luddite, I don’t try to pick out all the options I need from the Ribbon. I just right-click on the text box and choose Format Text Box to get to a familiar dialog box. (Clicking the dialog box launcher in the bottom-right corner of the Text Box Styles group accomplishes the same thing.) After you format the text box to your liking, right-click on it and choose Set AutoShape Defaults, delete the text box, close the template, and save your changes.

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