A template is a set of predefined format instructions that can be quickly applied to a document.
An authoring tool is any software that supports authoring (writing) a document and formatting it before generating a PDF, HTML, or ebook output.
Any authoring tool, including Microsoft Word®, has the capacity for using a template.
Templates address three basic levels of formatting:
- Page addresses parameters for page size, margins, headers and footers and columns.
- Paragraph controls the typeface and size, line spacing and space between paragraphs, as well as indents and justification. Paragraph formatting can also be used to set automatic numbering or bullets.
- Character is used to apply bold, italic, underlining and any other special formatting for a single character, word or group of words within a paragraph.
More sophisticated authoring tools allow for additional style definitions, graphic images, tables, and so on. But the above are pretty much universal to all authoring tools.
The advantages of using a template are:
- Speed—Formatting with a template tag usually requires a single click.
- Consistency—All documents formatted with the same template have the same look and feel.
- Clarity—A well-designed template will enhance the communication.
- Ease of update—With a well-made template, it doesn’t matter whether the same writer does the updates or someone else, because there won’t be an issue of trying to match the formatting or figuring out how (or even why) the writer used the formatting he or she did.
Direct formatting versus style tags
Writers who are not template-savvy tend to use direct formatting, that is, changing the formatting directly instead of using style tags. An example would be adding bolding and increasing the font size to “create” a heading instead of applying a Heading 1 style. This kind of formatting can create multiple issues if a document is more than a couple of pages.
For example, in Word (and most other authoring tools), you can automatically generate a table of contents (TOC), but only if the headings are standard style headings. Otherwise you would have to build the contents by hand and insert the page numbers by hand. If the pagination changes because of edits, the TOC would require manual updating—a complete waste of a tech writer’s valuable time.
You can also set up running heads and feet that change automatically with a new chapter or section, but again, only if style tags are applied correctly.
Direct formatting is an indication that the writer does not fully understand the power of his tools.
When interviewing a potential new writer, I always ask to see a sample of his or her writing in a source file—usually Microsoft Word. I ask for a sample to see how he handles language, but I ask for the source doc instead of a PDF to see how he handles formatting. If it’s a Word doc, I will turn on the hidden characters. It’s sometimes amazing to see what turns up.
Common errors include:
- Pressing the space key to center text.
- Pressing the space key to make a paragraph return.
- Pressing the space key to make a hanging indent.
- Directly formatting text to change font size, bolding, and so on, instead of using style tags for headings.
Such errors show me that the writer doesn’t have a clue about how to use a template.
Templates are a joy to build and use when understood. A failure to use a template and use it correctly literally doubles the work for the next writer on a project.