Julian Maynard-Smith on how to design a Microsoft Word template that works for you
In the first article in this series (The Actuary, March 2020), we looked at a basic approach to writing any document. In this and subsequent articles, we’ll examine the various stages in greater depth – starting with designing Word templates.
Why Microsoft Word?
Love it or hate it, Word is the default tool most companies use for creating documents. If you’re like most actuaries I know, you can play Excel as effortlessly as Miles Davis played the trumpet, but struggle to keep Word in tune. I sympathise: I’m useless with Excel, and even after decades of using Word I still hit the odd bum note. But there are some good tips I can share with you, and quite a lot of pain I can spare you.
Keep everything simple
The main thing about designing a template is to keep the formatting simple, because the template’s genes will be passed to other documents – meaning that anything defective or elaborate, anything fiddly and irksome, will multiply into a major headache and timewaster.
Choose suitable typefaces
First, some terminology: Arial, Times New Roman, Garamond etc are typefaces, a font being the typeface plus attributes such as size and weight (for example Arial 12-point italic v Arial 10-point bold). When choosing which typefaces to use:
- Keep to two typefaces: You rarely need more than two, namely one for body text and (optionally) a contrasting typeface for headings. A good idea is to use a sans serif typeface for headings and a serif typeface for everything else – serifs being extra strokes on the tips of letter shapes. Look at the cover of this magazine and compare the title The Actuary (sans serif) with ‘The’ in the subtitle, where the capital T has little ‘hands’ and ‘feet’ on its ends – those are serifs.
- Consider legibility: Modern typefaces such as Georgia are optimised for legibility both on screen and on paper. The key factor is often a tall x-height (the height occupied by a lowercase x) in relation to ascenders (the bits of a letter that stick above the x-line, as with b and l) and descenders (the bits that point down, as with g and y). The taller the x-height, the ‘fatter’ the typeface looks – and the more legible it is when text is small or the screen resolution low, in comparison to low-x-height typefaces.
Minimise and simplify styles
Minimise the number of paragraph and character styles, and keep them simple: no weird line spacing, borders, frames and so on. Accepting Word’s defaults is often the safest course.
It’s also often wise to lock down formatting to prevent other authors from being ‘creative’ with a template. You can do this using Word’s ‘Restrict Editing’ function.
Use table styles
Most people know about Microsoft Word’s paragraph and character styles, but did you know you can also create table styles? They’re really handy for ensuring that all your tables look the same – same lining, shading, font, etc.
It’s a good idea to create a table layout exactly the way you want it, then save it as your default table style. That way, every time you insert a new table it will already have the table attributes you want. Also:
- For tables that run over more than one page, you can make heading rows appear at the top of every page, by ticking (in the table’s properties) ‘Repeat as header row’.
- You can get a table’s columns to automatically stretch and shrink to the optimum width for the contents using ‘Autofit’.
- You can sort the contents of a table alphabetically, numerically, or by date, using Table > Sort (and it works for text outside tables as well).
Use regular line spacing
Make the line spacing for the Normal paragraph style the same above and below (for example 6pt above, 6pt below) to ensure an even amount of space above and below tables, graphics, and other document elements.
For heading styles, it’s a good idea to use Normal spacing or a multiple thereof (for example 12pt above, 6pt below – ideally with more spacing above than below, so that headings remain visually anchored to the paragraph they apply).
Consider not only the spacing above and below paragraphs, but also the spacing between lines. This is known as leading (pronounced ledding), because in the days of hot-metal printing the extra line spacing was created with thin strips of lead. Leading lets in a bit of visual ‘fresh air’: without it, text tends to look cramped. A typical amount of leading is 1.15 times the font size.
Consider line length
In the previous article I explained that the optimum line length is ‘40-70 characters, roughly eight to 12 words’. To achieve this length, you have several parameters to play with: font, margins, and columns/tables (but one column only is usually best).
Avoid fancy text wrapping
Avoid using any text-wrapping setting other than the default of Wrap Text > In Line With Text. In Word, text wrapping around objects is very slippery in that if you add or delete text, the object and text tend to slide all over the place. An expert Word user may be able to sort out the mess, but average Word users probably can’t. Best play safe.
Automate headers and footers
To make headers and footers zero-maintenance, a good strategy is to avoid headers (or have something simple such as your company’s logo) and restrict the footer to only the most essential information. It’s usually wise to:
- Centre headers and footers: This means they’re always correctly positioned, irrespective of mishaps such as a portrait-width footer appearing in a landscape section (or vice versa) or a recto-verso layout (left- and right-hand pages mirror each other) looking weird when documents are printed single-sided.
- Include page counts: Rather than having Page <n>, you have Page <n> of <N>, where N is the total number of pages. This way, readers can tell where any page is located in relation to the whole and, more importantly, which is the last page (something that’s not always obvious).
- Include <filename> and <last saved> field: This saves you from having to hand-type the document’s name in the header/footer, and means that every page is automatically date/time-stamped with when the document was last saved – great for version control.
Use boilerplate text
If you regularly produce documents that are variations on a theme, such as policies, consider creating a template with standardised headings and body text – and guidelines on what information writers should provide.
It’s pragmatic to make any boilerplate text as generic as you can get away with, to reduce or even eliminate the need for manual adjustments (and to shorten the text). For example, rather than, ‘Our recommendations for [client name] are’ (meaning you have to change the client name each time) simply ‘We recommend’.
For even more Word tips, check out bit.ly/2OLZ1Dj
Julian Maynard-Smith is an independent business writer specialising in financial services and IT. www.better businesswriting.info