Working more efficiently with Word 2007's new building blocks

With Word 2007's building blocks, you can assemble consistently formatted documents in a snap. Susan Harkins explains how to use built-in elements, such as headers, footers, and cover pages, and how to create, reuse, and share your own building blocks.

Building blocks arrived with Word 2007, but they're really just a new take on an old idea: namely, AutoText. However, don't cheat yourself by equating building blocks with clerical tasks. This new feature has something for everyone. Consultants and other freelancers can use this feature to build custom quotes and fee schedules on the fly. With the right building blocks, you can hand that prospective new client a customized fee schedule and contract before you leave their office.

Note: This article is also available as a PDF download.

Built-in building blocks

You might be surprised at what Word 2007 considers a building block. Familiar features, such as headers, footers, watermarks, equations, page numbers, and text boxes, are all building blocks now. Almost all automated entries fall under the building block umbrella. In a nutshell, these built-in building blocks are predesigned components you insert into a document.

First, let's look at a built-in building block that's new -- the cover page. On the Insert tab, open the Cover Page gallery (click the drop-down list) as shown in Figure A. (A gallery is a collection of similar templates and building blocks are stored in templates.) Click your choice and Word 2007 inserts a page and a number of placeholders. Figure B shows the Annual cover page -- simply fill in or delete the placeholders.

Figure A: Choose a cover page.

Figure B: Word 2007 inserts a cover page at the beginning of the document.

Now, let's move on to some old friends, such as headers, footers, and page numbers, which are now building blocks. Word 2007 corrals most of these familiar features on the Ribbon's Insert tab. However, not everything on the Insert tab is a building block, so here's an important clue: If there's a gallery, the item is a building block. That means you'll be using a lot of old features in a new way. Once you get the hang of it, you'll build better documents faster.

These familiar features offer the same functionality as they did before, and a bit more. Figure C shows the result of adding a page number to the bottom of every page in the document. To add this page-numbering scheme, move to page 2 of the document, open the Page Number drop-down list, and choose Triangle 2 from the Page Number gallery.

Figure C: Quickly insert a page number building block.

To see how the building blocks work together, we'll add a header. Figure D shows the Annual header (notice that the header's name is the same as the cover page). The header also has a placeholder, which Word 2007 automatically filled in using the text from the matching placeholder on the cover page! Building blocks communicate -- earlier versions can't do this.

Figure D: Old features, such as headers, are now building blocks.

Placeholders aren't the only components that share properties. You might have noticed that the galleries share names. You can mix and match, but sticking with a theme (as indicated by the names) makes it easy to put a consistently formatted document together quickly. If you don't like the result, just swap it for another theme. Figure E shows the example document after swapping Mod for the Annual cover page and header. You can quickly change a document's look without losing content and other layout properties, such as page orientation, page size, and margins.

Figure E: Quickly change an entire theme by switching building block themes.

Custom building blocks

Built-in building blocks save time, but you can also create your own. The more complex the document, the more you might benefit from custom building blocks. For instance, legal contracts are filled will clauses that repeat from one contract to another. With the right custom building blocks, you could put a contract together in minutes, instead of hours. There's room for building blocks in simple documents as well -- a logo and signature are perfect candidates for this feature. Anytime you find yourself inserting the same content (or element), consider creating a custom building block.

When you create a custom building block, you add it to an existing gallery -- usually the Quick Parts gallery (on the Insert tab). Simply select the content and press [Alt]+F3 to display the Create New Building Block dialog box. Here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • The feature attempts to name the building block using the first few words in the selected text. Assign a descriptive name.
  • Most of the time, you'll save custom building blocks in the Quick Parts gallery.
  • Creating a category isn't necessary, but it makes them easier to find in the Organize Building Blocks dialog box. (To access this option, select Building Blocks Organizer from the Quick Parts gallery.)
  • The file format for building blocks is .dotx, and it's a good idea to stick with the default, BuildingBlocks.dotx.
  • The Options setting lets you determine how Word 2007 inserts the content. You can insert the building block at the cursor (Insert Content Only), as a new paragraph (Figure F), or even as a new page.

Figure F: Determine how Word 2007 inserts a custom building block.

After setting all the options, click OK to create the custom building block.

To insert a custom building block, click the Insert tab and open the appropriate gallery, which will usually be Quick Parts, shown in Figure G. Simply select the building block, and Word 2007 inserts it.

Figure G: Save custom building blocks to the Quick Parts gallery.

Worth noting

The content you save as a custom building block doesn't have to be in the current document. You can cut and paste from other documents. You can even open a blank document, enter and format the content, and then save it as a building block for later use. As long as you save the building block to Building Blocks.docx (Figure F), it will be available in your other documents. If you forget the [Alt]+F3 keyboard shortcut, select Save Selection to gallery Gallery (it's visible, but dimmed, in Figure G).

If you can't remember a building block's name, look for it in the Building Blocks Organizer. AutoText entries from earlier versions are still available: Click the Insert tab, open the Quick Parts drop-down list, and choose Building Blocks Organizer.

Deploying custom building blocks

There's a good chance that others in your organization will benefit from the custom building blocks you create. As mentioned earlier, Word 2007 stores your custom building blocks in templates -- that's where the Save In option (see Figure F) comes into play. By default, Word 2007 saves all custom building blocks in Building Blocks.docx. You'll find this file in the directory named Building Blocks in the Microsoft path. Simply share this template with other users, making sure to store it the proper directory on the target system. (Don't overwrite anyone's original Building Blocks.docx file; rename it so you can reclaim it later if necessary.)

Building blocks for efficiency and flexibility

By combining building blocks, you can make short work of legal contracts and other complex documents. However, try not to let the technical aspects of the feature intimidate you. Like the example, you can use this feature to format documents quickly. Or create custom building blocks using content that you enter frequently.