Construct documents like software, please!

I’ll assume that everyone reading this blog has some experience in software development. You understand the principles of good software development, and you use these techniques to build software that’s modular, reusable, and easy to maintain. Yet, I’ll bet that you come across some MS Word documents on a pretty regular basis that are in need of some help in these same areas. If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem, so pitch in and start cleaning up those docs!Most MS Word docs just aren’t built according to good software development practices.

What in the world am I talking about?

Simple. I’m talking about templates and styles. Based on the docs I’ve seen people crank out over the years, very few people know how to use them correctly, and the result is a slow parade of documents that look almost, but not quite completely dissimilar to one another, despite the fact that they have supposedly come from the same company or even the same author.

Who cares? It depends on context and degree, really. In some cases, it’s really important to get formatting just right. These cases usually aren’t a problem, however, because companies employ armies of technical writers and editors to make sure that these important documents come out all right. When document authors are left to their own devices, however, things start to slide. Formats vary from author to author, and in many cases, within individual documents.

Bottom line: this looks sloppy. It’s a bad reflection on the author and the company, and worst of all, it often jumps out at a reader as a first impression, and this colors the reader’s view of the content. Nobody really follows the advice about not judging a book by its cover, you know.

When this problem is really obvious, it’s easy for everyone to see and correct. More often, however, the problem is subtle. A font substitution here, a fuzzy logo there, some headings that aren’t done quite like the others. You’ve probably experienced what real crispness in communication looks like — a relentless pursuit of uniformity and professionalism no matter where or from whom a document comes. It’s typically the hallmark of large, marketing-savvy companies, and it’s the only thing that really casts “almost right” into perspective. In other words, “almost right” usually looks ok until it’s next to “right” — and then, it just looks sloppy.

People usually assume that “right” is only achievable through the application of ten-story über-marketing and PR divisions. Not so. The most important prerequisite is desire. If you want to look like you’re all on the same team, it’s not too hard to do. You know software development techniques, and you can help with this problem.

Yes, you.

Let’s think about this problem like we would a software problem. There’s certainly a matter of standards and documentation. In other words, would you know “right” if it ran up to you and bit you on the ankle? In the case of finding a standard, you may not be able to arbiter what’s desired, but you can help document it once it’s found.

Next, how do you apply this format to all of your documents? Again, you should think of this like you would a coding standard. There are manual approaches, automatic approaches, and ways to check for use of the standards.

The manual approach idea is simple: just tell everyone to use the correct formatting.

Hahahaha, haaa…hahahaaaa….., chortle, giggle, giggle.

Ok, maybe I’m the only one who found that funny. You’ll probably have better luck if you make it easier for authors to do the right thing. Just as with consistency in web pages, the key here is the proper use of styles. If you know anything about Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) in html, you’ll be able to grasp the intent and operation of styles in Word. They operate on selections, just like a DIV tag. They can be cumulative. They are stored either with the document you’re editing, or in a global document template (

One of the most common ways to use styles is to edit them in a master document, and then copy the master document. This can be effective, but it’s not very elegant. You could also copy your styles to the global template, but that’s not recommended because it’s not easy to propagate those changes to the rest of your organization.

Instead, the best approach is to save your styles in a document template (.DOT). Not only does this let you wrap the styles up in a portable fashion, it also lets you present a little example of usage when somebody creates a document from that template. When preparing a template with styles, try to keep the contents of the template as relevant, complete, and accurate as possible. Try not to leave styles in the template that you don’t want to be used, and make the ones that you do want to use as obvious as possible by giving them meaningful names. Consider the user, and keep things as simple as you can.

Finally, there are a couple things you can do to check for correct use of styles. The simplest is to turn on an option that flags formatting that Word recognizes as just a little bit different than the surrounding formatting. This will also check for “direct” formatting, where fonts, paragraph settings, and other formatting is applied directly instead of through styles. To turn this option on, go to Tools…Options, and click the Edit tab. Look for “Mark formatting inconsistencies”, and check it. You’ll see blue squiggly lines where Word sees problems. As a last resort, you can also examine formatting and styles using macros. This is a pretty intense and difficult option, but it’s there if you really feel the urge to dive in.

I’ll leave you with a few links for further reading. If you have any tips you’d like to share, feel free to comment here.

Styles and Reusing Formatting
Tips for Understanding Styles in Word 2002
Microsoft Word: Living with the Beast
Understanding Styles in Microsoft Word