Don’t be normal!

Microsoft Word is a wonderful product, and I’m not joking at all. It’s easy to forget that not so long ago, back in the days of BW (“before Word”), creating documents for any purpose was a long and tiresome process. Microsoft Word has made things a lot easier for many people who produce many kinds of documents, from school homework to business letters. Microsoft Word is great many kinds of documents, but it isn’t suitable for everything.

If you do find yourself using Microsoft Word there are a few things you do well to look out for. Two of those things are called “Normal”, and my advice is to stay away from both of them.

Avoid the Normal template

When you start Microsoft Word the application launches a new blank document based on the Normal template. A template in Microsoft Word can contain styles, page layouts, text, autotexts, macros and so on. The Normal template is the “default” setting – the object that the application uses if you don’t specify anything else. The problem about using the Normal template for all your documents is that when you save a change in formatting in the Normal template, every document that uses that template may be affected next time you open it. If you want different documents to appear differently, you should have your own template for each type. For example, when I started trading as a company and needed to issue invoices, I created an Invoice template, so that all invoices looked the same. It would have been very unprofessional if they hadn’t been consistent. So I would recommend having your own templates for every type of document you create, and never using the Normal template at all.

It’s easy to create a template – you can simply save a document as a template, which has a *.dot suffix in Word 2003, and a *.dotx suffix in Word 2007. You should save the template in the default location (which is usually C:\Documents and Settings\[user name]\Application Data\Microsoft\Templates). Next time you want to start a document, open Word, ignore the document that it launches and select File>New (in Word 2003) or Office Button>New (in Word 2007), and select whichever template you want to use.

Remember that the one thing you can’t do with a Word template is apply it to an existing document. Some other applications do allow you to do this, but unfortunately, Word doesn’t.

Avoid the Normal style

The second thing called Normal that I’d advise you to keep away from is the Normal style. Once again, this is the “default” setting for all your text, unless you specify a different style. It is very important that you use styles for all your formatting, and avoid the temptation of formatting text with the toolbar (Word 2003) or the ribbon (Word 2007). Every time you change the formatting of a style, every paragraph with that style gets changed. To make sure that you are in charge of what changes get made, use your own styles.

In Word you can base styles on other styles, which can be useful. If Heading 2 is based on Heading 1 and you change the font for Heading 1 from Times New Roman to Arial, then the font for Heading 2 gets changed as well. Unfortunately, lots of styles are based on Normal, so if you change the formatting of Normal you may get some unexpected results.

Use the Modify command to make sure that styles you use frequently are based on “(no style)” unless you deliberately want to have them inherit characteristics from a “parent” style. When you create your own styles, base them on “(no style)” as well. Here are two more quick tips on styles:

  • you should never select the Automatically update option in the formatting dialog
  • you should never select the Keep track of formatting option in the Options dialog (on the Edit tab in Word 2003, in the Advanced section of Word options in Word 2007)

So remember when you are working with Word – don’t be Normal!

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10 Responses to Don’t be normal!

  1. Good advice David. It is SOOO easy to knock Word but for some things it is exactly the right tool for the job.

  2. Nick Gendler says:

    Thanks David, I’ve been using Word for years and never really got my head around dealing with the normal style thing. Templates yes, but not style. I’ll be doing something about that now.

  3. Adam says:

    To stop Word from always opening blank docs based on the Normal template, add the /n switch to the shortcut that you’re using to run Word. For example:

    C:\Program Files\Microsoft Office\Office10\WINWORD.EXE /n.

    This will open Word, but without the blank doc. Then, you can choose to create a new doc based on whatever template is appropriate.

    Alternately, you can create shortcuts to Word that open blank docs based on a template other than Normal by using the /t switch.

    One other thing you can do is to customize your toolbar so that all shortcuts for creating a new doc force the user to go thru the template selection dialog.

  4. Cecily says:

    While I think it’s excellent to make people consider the implications of amending Normal, there are times when I find it useful to do so.

    For example, in many templates I want all styles to use the same font, with the possible exception of headings, so changing the font of the Normal style is a useful way to avoid changing it for numerous styles. Then I just have to change it again for Heading 1 and that takes care of the other heading styles.

    Incidentally, in Word 2003 you could apply a different template to a document (though the result was often messy); I hadn’t noticed that functionality had been removed in 2007 until I read this post.

  5. David Farbey says:

    Adam, Cecily,
    Thank you both for your comments. It is possible to modify Word to force users to use a particular template, but to deliver that sort of solution across a corporate environment requires co-operation from different groups which isn’t always easy to achieve.
    As for “applying a template”, nothing has changed to my knowledge between Word 2003 and Word 2007, but the process is laborious and the results to say the least are “messy”. You can add a template to make use of autotexts, and use the Organiser (now well hidden in Word 2007) to copy styles and Macros. Most users expect “applying a template” to mean “changing the page layout” and that doesn’t happen in Word 2003 or 2007.

  6. Cecily says:

    Sorry, I used the wrong word (I no longer have Word 2003). You could “attach” a different template from Tools > Templates and Add-Ins. I didn’t realise the functionality was still in 2007 till I looked just now: as you say, it is well-buried (on the Developer ribbon, which is disabled by default). It was more trouble than it was worth, so I haven’t missed it in the interim. I wonder if many people do use it?

  7. janine stein says:

    Thanks for the help with formatting documents.
    Now can you help me with following instructions.

  8. Alice Jane E says:

    Thanks for these tips. They are eerily timely for me. Great post and great site, David!

  9. David, I appreciate hearing someone in our profession advocate for Word. I made my living for years designing Word templates and developing Word macros for organizations. I have always appreciated the fact that Word has built-in scripting and can thus be extended quite a bit. It’s also flexible when interfacing with other apps. I use MadCap Flare a lot these days, and Flare and Word play very well together. Now that I’ve gotten used to Word 2007, I especially like it.

  10. Jean says:

    I had always thought that you should never base any styles on the Normal style. But Shauna Kelly calls this an urban myth and debunks it.

    I found her post very interesting:

    I will probably no longer shy away from basing a style on Normal, although I’ll still be very careful in going about it.

    Any thoughts on the matter?


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