10+ dos and don'ts for using Office templates

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.

Keep 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

officetemplates_FigA_010314.JPG

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 template.

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

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

Click the File tab.
Choose Open.
Click Trusted Templates in the left pane shown in Figure B.
Figure B

officetemplates_FigB_010314.JPG

Interface access makes working with templates easy.

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 template

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:

Click the File menu (or Office button). Choose New in the left pane. In Word 2003, choose New from the File menu.
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.
In the resulting dialog, click Blank Document.
Click Template in the Create New section (don't skip this step).
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 follows:


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