Setting Up Letter Templates

Home Tutorials My MVP FAQs Useful Links


How to set up a letter template

Whether you use Word in an office or in your home, one of the tasks you probably use it for most often is writing letters. If you’re in a big corporate or law office, you probably have fancy preprinted letterhead and a template set up by some corporate IT person. But if your office is small or you’re a home user, you are the IT person, and you need to know how to set up a template for creating letters.1 This article will explain how to set up such a template, either for printing on preprinted letterhead or to print the letterhead along with the letter.

Important Note: This article was written for Word 2003 and earlier—versions that use toolbars. If you are using Word 2007 or above, please see the corresponding article for Ribbon versions. Both articles use the same principles, and both require a knowledge of how to work with headers and footers, anchored objects, and styles in order to carry out the instructions that follow. Information on these subjects can be found in specific articles (such as "Making the most of headers and footers") to which links have been provided throughout.

Letterhead for a one-page letter

Letterhead for a multi-page letter

More complex letterhead (different margins on first page)

Body of the letter

Letterhead for a one-page letter

In this section you will learn to create or use letterhead that looks like the example below:

A simple letterhead

Figure 1. A simple letterhead

New users often begin by typing a letterhead at the top of the document body. But the default 1″ top margin may put this letterhead too far down, and if you change the top margin, it will be too small on page 2. Moreover, when you create a new document, the insertion point will be at the beginning of the letterhead instead of where you want to begin the letter. The proper place for the letterhead, therefore, is in the document header.

Any text you put in a header appears on every page of the document, and you won’t want the letterhead on your second sheets. Luckily, Word allows you to have a different header just for the first page of any document, and a little later we’ll see how to do that. For now, here’s how to set up a letter template for short (one-page) letters using Word’s default margin settings (1″ top and bottom, 1.25″ left and right, and 0.5″ header and footer).

Printing your own letterhead

  1. View | Header and Footer. If you have never created a header before, take a moment to look around and orient yourself (to learn more about headers and footers, read "Making the most of headers and footers"). If you are already familiar with using headers and footers, skip to item 2.

If you were viewing your document in Normal view, you will have been temporarily thrown into Page Layout/Print Layout view. If you were already in Page Layout/Print Layout view, you will be taken to the top of the page. Your insertion point is now in the header pane of your document. The header pane, which is defined by a dotted line, is an area within the top margin. The header and footer are in a different “layer” from the main document; when you are in the header pane, any text you have in the document body will appear dimmed. When you return to the document body, the header text will appear dimmed.

Whenever you are in the header or footer pane, the Header and Footer toolbar is displayed. By default the toolbar is floating, but you can dock it if you prefer (I like to dock it at the bottom of the Word window), and Word will remember your preferred location. This toolbar contains a number of useful features for header creation, as we will see.

Header pane and Header and Footer toolbar

Figure 2. Header pane and Header and Footer toolbar

Once you have created a header, you can access it from Page Layout/Print layout view by double-clicking in the header area; you can return to the document by double-clicking in the document body area or by clicking Close on the Header and Footer toolbar.

  1. With the insertion point in the Header pane, type the text you want to appear in your letterhead. This can be as simple as the John Q. Sample example shown in Figure 1 or more complex, like the legal-style example shown in Figure 3.

Typical letterhead for a small law firm

Figure 3. Typical letterhead for a small law firm

  1. Many users like to set up a letterhead such as the one in Figure 3 using a table. I have never found this necessary, and tables in headers can be a source of problems, so I would advise avoiding tables unless your letterhead components cannot be arranged any other way. If you do choose to use a table, note that there will be an empty paragraph following the table (Word insists on this); you can use this to create “breathing room” between the letterhead and the body of the letter.

By default, the Header and Footer styles have a center tab stop at the center of the line and a right tab stop at the right margin. (If you are unfamiliar with these terms, see the article “Setting tabs, Or how to prevent tabbed paragraphs from going all over the place when pasted between documents.”) If you have changed the side margins of your document, you will need to move these tab stops so they will be in the true center and at the new right margin. The easiest way to do this is using the ruler. You can use these built-in tab stops to place text at the left, center, and right of your header.

In the letterhead in Figure 3, I removed the center tab stop for the second paragraph since it was not being used. The first paragraph is centered using paragraph alignment since this is simpler than inserting a tab character on each line to center it.

  1. The default header margin in Word is 0.5″, which is ideal placement for most running heads. For a letterhead, especially for short letters, it may appear too high. In the letterhead in Figure 3, I added 18 points Spacing Before to the first paragraph to drop it an additional 0.25″ (Format | Paragraph and use the spinner beside Spacing: Before: or type directly into the box). I could equally well have set the header margin to 0.75″ (which is in fact what I did in Figure 1). I also added some space above and below the second paragraph, to separate the two parts of the letterhead and to allow some “breathing room” between the letterhead and the letter body.

No matter how deep you make your header, and regardless of your top margin setting, the header will not (except in very special circumstances) overlap the document body; it will push it down. So it is not necessary to change the top margin, a fact we will take advantage of later on.

Creating a header for preprinted letterhead

If your letter will be printed on headed letter paper (preprinted letterhead), all you need to do is assure that the body of your document will not overlap the printing. If the letterhead is confined to the top (header) and bottom (footer) of the paper, this is relatively simple. If the letterhead includes elements at the sides of the page, see “More complex letterhead” below.

For one-page letters, you might find it easiest to increase the top margin enough to clear the letterhead. There is nothing wrong with this method except that it is not what you will want to do when you have longer letters. So you will be better advised to follow the procedure that follows.

On a sheet of the preprinted letterhead paper, measure from the top to the point below the printed portion where you want your letter to begin; be sure to allow some “breathing room” because the letter will start at the top margin you establish. Let’s say that measurement is 2″.

The default header margin in Word is 0.5″, and the default top margin is 1″. This allows half an inch for a header, but a header can be as deep as you want it to be; it will push the document body down to make room for itself. (But a deep header on page 1 will not affect the top margin on page 2, where your header may be only one line deep.) So what you want to do is add enough Spacing After to the Header paragraph to make it push the top margin down to the 2″ mark (Format | Paragraph and use the spinner beside Spacing: After: or type directly into the box). This may require some trial and error, but it helps if you know that there are 72 points in an inch. The Header paragraph (in Word 2000 and above) is in 12-pt type and is already half an inch from the top. So if you multiply 1.5″ by 72 and subtract 12, you get 96 points, which turns out to be about right. Test by returning to your document and looking at the status bar to see what the “At” measurement is for the top line.

If there is printing at the bottom of your letterhead that requires a larger bottom margin, use the same technique to increase the footer: add Spacing Before to the Footer paragraph to push the document body up. Note, however, that a 1.5″ bottom margin is conventional on business letters, and this is adequate to accommodate most preprinted footers.

Letterhead for a multi-page letter

Whether you’re using preprinted letterhead or creating the letterhead as part of your letter, you may run into the problem of what to do when your letter is more than one page long. Whether you have inserted your letterhead in the header or just allowed a deeper margin to accommodate it, you don’t want the letterhead or deeper margin on the second page. Users sometimes go to extraordinary lengths to work this out, but the procedure is really quite simple. The following steps will outline the most efficient way to do it, which is not necessarily the way you will want to do it the first time you try (I’ll address that at the end).

  1. View | Header and Footer as in Step 1 above.

  2. The first thing you will do is set up the header you want to appear on the second and subsequent pages (this is counterintuitive, but, as I said, it is the most efficient way to tackle this task).

For many letters, especially personal ones, a simple page number will suffice. Use the Insert Page Number button on the Header and Footer toolbar to put one in (see Figure 4). Although it will be displayed as “1,” the page number is a { PAGE } field that will update on each page (when you’re finished with your template, the first place it will appear will be on the second page, so it will say “2”).

Header and Footer toolbar showing Insert Page Number button

Figure 4. Header and Footer toolbar showing Insert Page Number button

If you don’t want anything in the header but a page number, you’ll probably want to center it or put it at the right margin; the easiest way to do this is to center or right-align the whole header paragraph, but if you have the ruler displayed, you’ll see that Word has provided two tab stops—a center one in the center of the line and a right one at the right margin—as part of the Header style.2 You can use these to create a more complex header. Perhaps you’d like it to include the date and the letter recipient’s name as well as the page number, something like this:

John Doe                                                            2                                                 March 19, 2004

You can use a CreateDate field to insert the date automatically. Be wary of using the Insert Date button on the toolbar, as this inserts a Date field, which will update every time you open the document, and this is rarely what you want. The CreateDate field inserts the date the document was created, and it will never update (the template itself will always reflect its own creation date, and the field in your document may not update until you print, but it will reflect the document’s creation date).

As for the recipient’s name, there are various ways to get Word to insert this automatically, but they are beyond the scope of this article. You may want to type in a placeholder and then replace it in the actual letter as needed.

  1. After you have the second-page header set up to your satisfaction, press the Page Setup button on the Header and Footer toolbar (see Figure 5). This should takes you directly to the Layout tab of the Page Setup dialog (if it does not, select that tab). Under “Headers and Footers,” check the box for “Different first page” (see Figure 6), then click OK.

Header and Footer toolbar showing Page Setup button

Figure 5. Header and Footer toolbar showing Page Setup button

Layout tab of Page Setup dialog

Figure 6. Layout tab of Page Setup dialog

If you are using printed letterhead that begins 0.75″ from the top of the paper, you may want your second-page header to be at that position as well. In that case, while you are in the Page Setup dialog, set your header margin to 0.75″, then switch to the Margins tab and increase the top margin to, say, 1.5″. This will reduce the amount of space you’ll need to add to the Header paragraph on page 1 (as described above).

  1. When you return to the header pane, the Header you just set up will have vanished. In its place will be the First Page Header. This is where you will create your letterhead. Word will remember the Header you created, though, and will use it whenever your letter reaches a second page.

I acknowledged that this order of creation is unintuitive because it requires you to start with page 2. Beginners are often skeptical about or confused by this. If you doubt that your Header has been saved, enter a manual page break (Ctrl+Enter) and View | Header and Footer or view the page in Page Layout/Print Layout view to reassure yourself that the Header is still there (be sure to Backspace to remove the page break before saving your template). Or you may be more comfortable starting out with two pages of text so you can see how it will look with the headers and footers in place. For this purpose you may want to insert some dummy text.

More complex letterhead

As you’ve seen, having a different header and footer on the first page allows you to, in effect, create a different top and/or bottom margin on the first page. But what if you need a larger left or right margin to accommodate letterhead elements at the side of the page? This is where you have to get really creative.

The standard method of accomplishing this is a borderless3 text box or frame in the margin, anchored to the header paragraph. In other words, while the insertion point is in the header pane, draw a text box or frame at the side of the page. For this purpose, it won’t make much difference whether you use a text box or a frame; use whichever you are more comfortable with. You don’t have to get the size and position exactly right when you first insert it; you can fine-tune these using Format Text Box or Format Frame. The idea is to make the text box or frame overlap the document body area just enough to push the letter text out of the way of the printed letterhead. This may require some trial and error. Text will automatically wrap around a frame; to make it wrap around a text box, you may have to change the wrapping on the text box from “In Front of Text” or “None” (the default in some versions of Word) to “Square” (Layout or Wrapping tab of the Format Text Box dialog).

Note that the text box or frame will, by default, have a border or outline. To remove this:

  • For a text box, right-click and choose Format Text Box. On the Colors and Lines tab of the Format Text Box dialog, for Color, choose No Line.

  • For a frame, go to Format | Borders and Shading and click None.

Once you have removed the outline from a text box or the border from a frame, it will be invisible except when selected. To make it easier to see and work with, you may want to display text boundaries by checking the box for “Text boundaries” at Tools | Options | View.

If you’re replicating actual letterhead with elements at the side, then you will need to be more precise in sizing and placement of your text box or frame and formatting the text inside it. You will also have to be more careful in setting the “Distance from text” to allow space between this text and the letter body. With some practice you can get results such as those shown in Figure 7.

Example of a letterhead with side elements

Figure 7. Example of a letterhead with side elements

One caveat about this type of layout: In most versions of Word, left indents and hanging indents either will not work at all or will not display properly (but may print correctly) when used next to the text box or frame. Again this will require some trial and error. Another approach to this type of layout, then is to use indented styles (instead of the text box/frame) on the first page of the letter, reverting to normal, unindented styles on page 2. This would require always allowing a paragraph break between the two pages, however.

Body of the letter

Word contains a number of built-in styles that you can use in your letter. These include Date, Salutation, Body Text, Closing, and Signature, which you can customize as you like. You may want to add Inside Address, Subject Line, Copy List, and Enclosures. You can save yourself a lot of work by setting these styles up carefully.

Since the body of your letter is going to have a single empty paragraph in it anyway, apply the Date style to this. If you send most letters the same day you compose them, you can save even more time by inserting a CreateDate field in this paragraph (see “Making a date”). Whether you leave the paragraph empty or have Word fill the date in for you, you can make Word set up your next paragraph for you. Go to Format | Style, press Modify…, and change the “Style for following paragraph” to Inside Address (or whatever you have called the style you use for this purpose). Now, when you press Enter at the end of the Date paragraph, you will be in a new paragraph formatted with the Inside Address style.

In similar fashion, set the following style for Inside Address to be Salutation (or Subject Line if your letters usually include one). The following style for Salutation should be Body Text.

You may want to create empty paragraphs in all these styles that you can just click and type in. Whether you do this or not, you may want to type in your complimentary close (Closing style) and signature (Signature style), followed by an empty paragraph formatted in the Enclosures or Copy List style if you use these often.


1If you have never created a template of any kind, you may want to first look at this article, which explains the basics.

2If you have changed your left and right margins, you will need to move these tab stops so they are in the center and at the new right margin.

3To remove the border from a text box, go to the Colors and Lines tab of the Format Text Box dialog and select No Line for the line color. To remove a border from a frame, choose None in the Borders and Shading dialog or No Border on the Borders palette on the Formatting toolbar.

This article copyright © 2002, 2004, 2008, 2014 by Suzanne S. Barnhill.