Posted in Advice

Making Word Templates Work

Word can be a bear to work with. People complain all the time about its glitches, gizmos, and other time-consuming peculiarities. So I had this thought as I worked to develop a template for PDFs to be read online. Why don’t I try to do a template that not only maximizes online readability, but also gets around Word’s problems? I wanted to work with a template that was so easy to use, Word wouldn’t have a chance to screw up the template or the document. The project worked, and I don’t dread working with Word anymore. Now it’s another tool that you can actually use to be productive.

The beginning of my story is suggested in the first paragraph above: my desire to develop a template so simple to use and maintain that Word couldn’t screw it up. It turns out that a template like that also produces easy to read documents.

The boundary line between print and online publications has become pretty fuzzy. Writers recognize that the same ore similar templates can be used for both. PDFs, for example, are intended for both online and print publication, so templates intended for PDF documents cross the boundary at conception. It’s true that a lot of PDF documents are headed primarily for one or the other, but that shouldn’t trouble us.

I keep saying to myself that this is not a sexy topic, but everyone recognizes how important templates are. The other day I found myself comparing the templates we use to an oil refinery. The crude oil that goes into a refinery is thick, sludgy, and unusable by anyone. Out the other end comes a much refined product called gasoline that everyone finds extremely useful. Templates are the same way. So many companies have all this disorganized material around that’s not so useful to anyone. You look at it on the page and your interest in finding valuable information there withers. We use templates to refine crude information that no one can use. With the proper tools built into the template, we can refine the information and make it inviting. People like to search it because they can get answers quickly.

So I don’t think it’s that productive to dwell overmuch on the online vs. print distinction. I’ve considered whether I should say much about the template I use in RoboHelp when I’m doing a help system, as opposed to the Word template that started these thoughts. But it just doesn’t seem that important to me whether the destination document is paper, PDF, or HTML. Yes, those destinations are different, but a lot of the principles regarding good templates are the same. That is, we should think about what makes a template good in various contexts. The comparisons are helpful, and you, I expect, will have a lot to say about those comparisons as you think about your own work.



Grew up in the Upper Midwest, now live in greater Boston. Taught politics in a previous life, now work as a technical writer and illustrator. Other interests: athletics, flying, outdoor activities, writing about politics.

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