Ten Tips for Creating Templates

07Sep10

Many technical writers play document manager at some point in their career. Part of document management includes managing — and many times, creating — templates for colleagues to (mis)use.

For those of us not using FrameMaker, DITA, or other type of single-sourcing, template creation and maintenance can sometimes be the bane of our existence.

I’ve compiled these ten best practices for creating and managing templates. Some are Microsoft Word(R)-specific, but most you can apply to any software you’re using.

1. Create templates for each major type of document.
You don’t need 20 templates, but you probably need more than just a few. Think about what your company communicates (and how), and start there. The ones you will probably need are:

  • Letters, memos, and envelopes
  • “Formal” (long) document for proposals, plans, and reports, etc.
  • Policies and procedures
  • Agendas and meeting minutes
  • Forms and logs
  • Labels for binders, CDs, and other data storage
  • Fax cover sheets
  • Presentations

2. Don’t use a template as a style guide.
When I first started creating templates, I made the mistake of using a template as a way to convey the company’s preference on style issues (punctuation, spelling, etc.). I quickly realized it was getting WAY too long for a simple template, so I created the style guide using one of my new document templates.

However, do give your users some helpful hints on the practical (not theoretical) use of styles, tables, references, captions, bullet lists, headers and footers, page breaks, etc.

3. Use styles and give examples of them.
Many people don’t know how to apply styles, much less which ones to choose. Provide example text in the body of the document so the user gets a good idea of what they’ll look like.

Along with that…remove custom styles you don’t need.
In Microsoft Word, there are many default styles that Word graciously provides (forever). If you have custom styles for your template that you’re not longer using, delete them from the list; that way, colleagues are not tempted to use them.

4. Don’t use the .dot extension in Microsoft Word.
Microsoft was trying to do us a favor by creating the template extension. But I’ve found that when you’re creating templates and you continue making edits after it’s saved, you will have to re-save the template under a new name, and delete all previous versions, which is just a headache when you do this multiple times. (If you really need to use the .dot extension, don’t apply it until after the template is as complete as it will be [it will change, though].)

If you’re annoyed with this “feature” as I am, create a read-only version  .doc or .docx file, which are easier to edit and save. Template users will be forced to create a new document without all the hassle of a true “template.”

5. Perform a few usability tests.
Allow someone on your team to use the template and provide feedback on problem areas, styles that don’t quite work, and other issues that may pop up.

6. Don’t distribute templates until they’re FINAL FINAL FINAL.
If you let it, the editorial cycle can go on forever. So after you’ve allowed the last round of comments to happen, make sure the template is completely final until you let everyone know it’s free to use. It’s not fun when people are using your templates before they are completely ready.

7. Control the versions.
If you’ve ever had to retro-fit documents into new templates, you will know how painfully time-consuming and frustrating it can be. You will never remember what changes you made from version to version of your templates.

Version control is a very important part of document management, and working with templates is no different. If you edit your templates after they’ve been distributed and are in use, save the new templates with a new version number and date.

In addition…store templates in one location.
Can you imagine if everyone had a soft-copy version of the “official” template on their personal machine? Version control goes right out the window! Store your read-only templates in a file share or other document management software, and allow edit access to only a few key people.

9. Know your history.
In addition to creating separate versions, create a detailed change history for the template, as you would with any other document. Update this section of the document with each new version.

If you provide a sample “change history” or “version control” section of your template, it can act as double-duty for the change history of the template itself. Include little things, even spelling and grammar.

10. Don’t overdo the branding.
There’s nothing more annoying than having a logo on Every. Single. Page. What’s worse is if you have more than one logo repeating itself. Does your audience really need to see all the logos, URLs, and phone numbers everywhere?

Okay, I lied. I have 11 tips, but the last one is very useful if you can manage it.

11. Train your users.
No doubt you will have adept, average, and novice users of the tool you are using to author documents. If you have the luxury of time, give them a tutorial on how to get and use the templates. If your users are not writers (i.e., are not involved in the post-authoring part of publishing corporate documents), I strongly suggest giving them a brief overview of your company’s document life cycle.

Your turn!
What are your tips and tricks for managing documents, especially templates?

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