Best Practices for Your Tesla and Your Templates

Posted: December 1, 2016 | By:

According to Wikipedia (as of November 27, 2016), a “best practice” is

a method or technique that has been generally accepted as superior to any alternatives because it produces results that are superior to those achieved by other means…

For example, the best practice for recharging your Tesla Model S is to plug it into the electrical outlet. This is generally accepted as superior compared to affixing a coat hanger to the antenna and waiting for a lightning bolt to strike it. It’s the same way with templates and styles.

Perhaps the most misused, misapplied, and distorted term in the entire word processing vocabulary is “template.” People often refer to a template when they mean boilerplate text, which is true but not entirely correct. Templates do contain boilerplate text, and they also include macros and styles. Therefore, we can define a template as

a document that contains standard text, macros, and styles.

This definition is also unsatisfactory, because Word documents contain the same things. You can save your macros, styles, and boilerplate text inside a document just as easily as in a template. We need a better definition, perhaps based on what a template actually does.

A template is a file that when opened creates a new document with the template’s contents.

This is in fact the only difference between a template and a document. When you open a Word document, you actually open that file. When you open a template, you create a new document with the template’s contents. You can verify this by opening Microsoft Word, clicking File > New, and selecting one of the templates that come with Word. You’ll see all of the boilerplate text in your new document. If the template contains macros or styles, the new document contains them as well.

A template’s purpose motivates my own definition, which ultimately is based on policy more than functionality.

A template is a single authoritative source for an organization’s styles, macros, boilerplates, and configurations used in word processing.

This definition is based on the best practice for managing styles. (We’ll get to macros and boilerplate text in future posts.) The remainder of this post gives motivation for this definition and the benefits of using templates as a single authoritative source (SAS) for styles.

One way to keep your styles consistent is to “save as” from one document to another. For example, suppose you sanitized a proposal to the point where it has no style overrides. When it’s time to write a new proposal, you can start with the previous one, save it as a new one, and you’re ready to go. Mechanically, this is a perfectly good way of keeping your styles intact—but it’s not a best practice as evidenced in the following scenario.

John Masters is a very busy guy. He’s writing proposals all the time, completing about two a week. He uses the “save as” approach to move his styles from one proposal to another.

It was on a Friday afternoon when John was blazing through three proposals at the same time. He started each proposal by doing “save as” from last week’s proposal for supplying industrial-strength gummy bears. (These things are so sticky that an armored personnel carrier can’t break free from them.) The first proposal was for supplying 25 gallons of ballet-slipper-pink nail polish to a day spa. While writing that proposal, he realized that he needed a new style called Intense Underlined—a character style with boldface and underline.

After finishing the first proposal, he cranked out the second proposal for caffeine-free light bulbs which he started at the same time as the first proposal by doing a “save as.” This means that the second proposal does not have the new style Intense Underlined. John’s last proposal was for non-GMO light bulbs. Because it was so similar to the caffeine-free light bulbs, he did “save as” from that one.

Graphically, John’s situation looks as follows:

Template Proliferation Stage 1

Implicitly, John now has two templates for proposals: one with the Intense Underlined style used most recently for nail polish, and another template without the Intense Underlined style used most recently for non-GMO light bulbs. After his final proofreads, John went home for a well-deserved weekend.

In contrast, Jessica McDonald didn’t have much of a weekend. She was pulling overtime duty doing a proposal for non-destructive jackhammers, and called John for the template he uses. John correctly recalled that the last proposal he did was for non-GMO light bulbs, so he told her to retrieve that file from the LAN and “save as.” She did so, but she also needed a style for boldface and underlined. She created that style in her proposal, calling it Boldface-Underline. We now have the following situation.

Template Proliferation Stage 2

The two documents in red are functionally the same, but actually they are different because they have different names for the same style. One calls boldface-underlined Intense Underlined, and the other calls it Boldface-Underline. Furthermore, we now have three documents used to store styles throughout the company.

Even worse, Jessica did work that was unnecessary. John gave her a file that did not include the Intense Underlined style, so she needed to create that style herself.

Worse to the point of catastrophe, each time John and Jessica do a “save as,” they are at risk for proliferating documents containing styles having the same name or incurring the effort of creating styles that already exist somewhere else. Surely there must be a better way, and there is. It’s called version control, which a software term for discipline, self-restraint, delayed gratification, and lots of other unpopular behaviors.

When implemented correctly, version control ensures that all authors have the same template. Each template is identical and the latest one available. Authors can use the template when they create a new document, or they can attach the template to existing documents and update their styles accordingly.

Let’s review John and Jessica’s proposal writing scenario under version control. John is responsible for maintaining the template, making it available to all the other authors on the company’s LAN.

John started his first two proposals (nail polish and caffeine-free light bulbs) by double-clicking the template. Word created two new files that contain the identical styles. He completed the first proposal for nail polish, and started work on the proposal for light bulbs. While working that proposal, he realized that he needed a new style for boldface-underline. He created that style in the document, and ensured he marked the option for saving the style in the document’s template.

Updating styles in a document's template

John’s last proposal was for non-GMO light bulbs. Because this proposal was so similar to the one for caffeine-free light bulbs, he double-clicked the template and then pasted in the text from the caffeine-free version (instead of doing a “save as”).

Lastly, Jessica called John for the new template, which he duly provided. This template includes the style for boldface-underline that Jessica needs for her narrative. We now have the following situation.

Template Non-Proliferation

Referring to the above figure, we have one template shared by both authors. This guarantees consistency of styles’ appearances among all documents, and also guarantees that no author is creating styles already developed by another author. This is why a single template is a best practice–certainly better than the “save as” approach.

The scenario developed in this post is not contrived. It happens all the time and I’ve been as guilty of participating in it as anyone else, and I’ve paid the price for it just like everyone else. Let’s stop the madness. If you sit in a bullpen with other writers, and you folks are supposed to be “collaborating,” then having a single template for the entire department is a must. When one person maintains a template, everyone saves time and avoids rework. Even if you are the solo writer in an organization, ensuring your templates are current will save you the effort of recreating duplicate styles.

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