Defeating the Word Document Gremlins!

Case Study: Pre-Formatted Report Templates

We’ve all been there: your deadline for submitting a report or proposal is Close of Business. You’re feeling some stress, but your team has come up with a solid draft, and you’re generally happy with both the writing and the charts and graphs that go with it. But for some reason – some inexplicable reason – the formatting within the document just won’t cooperate. There’s a blank page between pages 26 and 27, and there doesn’t seem to be anything you can do to delete it. There’s a paragraph in the middle of page 5 that’s stuck indented an extra inch and a half, and whenever anyone tries to move it into the right place, it mysteriously changes into Courier New font, and can’t be changed back unless it re-indents. And you’ve got a bulleted list that looks great, except the last bullet is a square and not a hollow dot like all the others, and there’s nothing you can do to fix it.

I blame these kinds of formatting issues on what I call Gremlins: nasty Gremlins that live deep inside Word and wait for the most disruptive opportunities to wreak their havoc. Gremlins are brought on by too many layers of formatting and too many contributors, causing layout and formatting nightmares and potentially even destroying files. Fortunately, there’s an easy way to avoid the gremlins: standardized templates.

Gremlin destroying desktop

Let’s look at a case study.

A small research and evaluation firm experienced rapid expansion, from about 10 full-time employees to nearly 30 within a 3-year period. The growth was driven by successful bids on new contracts, more than doubling the number of concurrent projects and new clients. As a result, the company faced a substantial upsurge in the number of major deliverables published. The most pressing of these publications were the comprehensive reports on evaluation methods and findings required at the end of every contract (or sometimes the end of every contract year), which often included several hundred pages of detailed text, references, figures, data tables, data collection instruments, and more.

This publication boom presented a number of challenges for the company. An increase in number of authors contributing to these reports led to inconsistency in layout, format, and quality of written products. Varying comfort levels with Microsoft Word formatting and style functionality among authors led to document corruption and version control issues. Perhaps the most disaster-prone practice occurred when an author used the finalized Word file from another completed report, saved it as a new file, and removed all of the content in order to use the document as the basis for the new report. This practice made the new Word document vulnerable to what I refer to as the nasty gremlins that hide deep inside Word, and wait for the most disruptive opportunities to wreak their havoc. When there are too many layers of formatting and too many contributors, these gremlins can corrupt the document, causing layout and formatting nightmares and potentially even destroying the file. (We’ve all experienced that mysterious blank page in the middle of the Word document that just can’t be deleted, or the inexplicable font change in the middle of a paragraph.)

The result of these problematic practices was an overtaxed team of editors and formatters (collectively referred to as the production team) who were frustratingly spending huge amounts of time fixing these layout problems and retroactively applying formatting styles over and over and over again. At times, the files were so corrupt that the production team had to start from scratch, creating a blank new Word document, pasting all the content into the new document as unformatted text, and applying all the formatting styles anew. With already limited hours available for the production team to ensure the document met the company’s high-quality standards in time for the delivery deadline, these recurring formatting issues were costing the company time and money.

I decided that the company needed to implement a standardized report development process. I worked with the production team to develop a series of Word templates for common report types, with standard headers and footers, preferred font settings and styles, heading levels, colors schemes, and other formatting features built in. The goal was for every new report to be generated from one of the Word templates to ensure consistency in appearance across all deliverables and drastically reduce the opportunity for the Word gremlins to materialize.

To accompany the templates, the production team and I also developed a formatting guide and process manual. I developed and delivered a training to all staff on how to use the templates, how to apply styles and how to add additional formatting features, such a tables, bullets, and text boxes, all without opening up the document to vulnerabilities. I also taught them how to avoid common formatting errors.

The project teams loved having the Word templates, as they no longer needed to worry about any of the formatting and design components when writing a report. The authors familiarized themselves with the training materials, which led to a smoother writing process and a reduction in formatting errors. As a result, the production team had more time to devote to making the reports perfect, since they didn’t need to waste time fixing avoidable and recurring formatting issues.

A bonus benefit of the whole change was that the project teams and authors started to see the production team members as useful resources, consulting with them earlier in the writing process about questions or special design requests. The quality of deliverables improved dramatically, the process become much more efficient, and the company became widely recognized for producing sophisticated, flawless reports on time and within budget.

"Computer Gremlin" image by Larry Wentzel licensed under CC BY 2.0.