While there are various writing tools a writer can use, Microsoft Word remains the default for most people. Even when written in a different app, final copy often needs to be sent as a .doc or .docx file. Occasionally, a client or team might opt to work with Google Docs, but Word still reigns supreme.
So, it baffles me how many people still don’t use MS Word effectively, particularly when it comes to working with styles and templates.
Usually, the Word doc isn’t the final form the copy will take, which might be a webpage or e-book, a print brochure or email campaign, and so on. So, there’s plenty of room for error when someone else translates that copy into its next stage of production.
And when there are multiple people in the production line, how one person assumes the copy fits within the layout or design can be different to the next, leading to consistency issues.
I’ve worked on major content hubs that have involved multiple stakeholders and teams, with different people uploading content to the CMS every day. But even when the layout and design is fixed in code and documented in design guidelines, inconsistencies can easily arise.
I’m not saying everyone should stop using Word. That’s just not going to happen. Instead, it’s possible to reduce or even eliminate two common issues by working with project-specific Word templates.
One of these issues is caused by cut and paste. For example, when copy is uploaded to a website by cutting and pasting the text from a Word doc into the CMS, a lot of unwanted extra code and information can also by carried across, impacting the webpage layout or design.
For example, many Word users still start a new paragraph by hitting Enter (or Return) twice, to create a one-line space. But when this text is cut and pasted into a CMS, all of those extra line breaks render as paragraphs too – along with whatever paragraph spacing is already specified in the design. What might have looked fine when rendered in Word suddenly looks very odd online, with the copy broken up by huge amounts of white space.
Some of you reading this may already know to check the HTML view of a new page to find and delete any extraneous code. But experience has taught me not everyone does – or, if they do, not everyone knows how to fix it.
Far better, therefore, to eliminate the issue by customising the Word templates used by your team so that extra lines between paragraphs are unnecessary. For the record, all of my Word templates have the line spacing options set to include 6pts of space before and after each paragraph. That way, paragraphs still look suitably spaced in Word without having to double-tap the Enter key all the time. And if someone does use cut-and-paste to drop my copy into a CMS or layout design, they don’t need to hunt out and delete any extra formatting code that might muck things up, saving them time and frustration too.
The other issue templates help with is reducing ambiguity.
For example, a draft article in Word might include a few words in bold on a separate line. Most of us might assume this is intended to be a heading or subheading.
Except, sometimes subheadings nest inside each other while other times subheadings can serve a different purpose. So should the bolded text be coded with H1, H2 or H3 tags? Perhaps it indicates a new section, the next list item or a separate boxout or sidebar? The words and context within the article may provide clues, but not always.
And there’s the possibility that those bolded words are intended just as bolded words.
Knowing how the writer intends the words to function within the page matters. Copy intended to be reviewed, processed and/or designed by someone else needs to be clear and unambiguous about what’s what.
Templates are also massively useful as ways to reduce friction within workflows which can also occur when information is missing or ambiguous.
One of the most useful templates I’ve ever created was a one-page cover sheet attached to each article before sending for legal review. These few form-fields and checkboxes dramatically reduced the questions and feedback from legal, because we could indicate with a tick that; yes, the quotations had all been approved by the interviewee; yes, the appropriate disclaimer would be attached; and so on.
A similar template for upload ensured whoever added the article to the website had a single document containing everything they needed; from the meta information to the image descriptions, along with every heading, subheading, embedded element and link clearly spelled out.
However, a good template doesn’t necessarily have to be a text box-heavy beast of form fields and checkboxes. Sometimes, that can be just as frustrating to work with: Type too much text inside that text box or hit Enter in the wrong place and suddenly everything can break as Word reorders every other element on the page!
For simple projects, a little copy markup can reduce confusion by making design or layout instructions crystal clear. A few square-bracketed labels may be enough, such as [TITLE] [BYLINE] [INTRO] [BODY] [SUBHEAD] [BIO], etc.
Sometimes, these labels can include instructions, such as character or word counts, which can be helpful for writers and editors when producing copy to fit a specific design. For example, [INTRO <150 CHARS] gives every writer on the team a clear guide to how to write that section, reducing the need to edit the copy later to fit into an established design.
Correcting errors after they happen – particularly after a page or content asset is published – can be time-consuming and frustrating. But even the best of us will make mistakes every now and then in the rush to hit the button and get the content out there.
By implementing clear templates and markup within your copy processes, you might just prevent some of those mistakes while also reducing some of the issues that can arise from relying too heavily on MS Word.