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Mail Merge in 10 Easy Steps

The Mail Merge feature of Microsoft Word is a great way to produce a large number of personalized letters or labels in a short amount of time. The process can seem daunting to a beginner, but if you break it down into a series of steps, is very easy to manage.

The Mail Merge process basically involves taking two files and merging them together. The first file is a letter, which is a basic word document. The second is a list of recipients. This list could be a table in Microsoft Word, but most often it is a worksheet in Excel. In this example, we will use an Excel spreadsheet and a simple letter that has already been created in Word.

1. Prepare the List of Recipients

The list of recipients is simply a table of names and addresses. There must be only one row of column headers at the top of the table, and each column headers should be unique. It will save some time later if you use a few standard labels in the column headers, such as, Last Name, Street, City, etc. I have prepared a very simple table of names and addresses in the file Mail_Merge_Recipients.xlsx. If you look carefully, you will note that the Postal Code column is set as text, which is why the ZIP codes appear on the left side of the cells. Unfortunately, this is mandatory: You must set the Postal Code column as text. Otherwise the leading zeros that are used in certain U.S. ZIP codes will be truncated off by Excel when it exports it to Microsoft Word. (This problem will occur even if you use the special Zip Code format of Excel.) Close the Excel file and proceed to the next step.

2. Prepare the Letter Document

You can use almost any document in Mail Merge. I have prepared a simple letter with the file name Mail_Merge_Letter.docx. The date near the top is set to update every time we create a new batch of letters, which is a good idea for a Mail Merge letter. There is a placeholder for the Inside Address and another for the salutation line. (We could also put some information from the recipient list into the body of the letter. For example, we can add the line, “I hope things are going well in X,” Where X would be substituted by the recipient’s city. But such simple-minded gimmicks impress nobody, and for this example we’ll keep things simple.)

3. Start the Mail Merge

In Microsoft Word, if you want to start a Mail Merge, you will of course go to the Mailings tab. In that tab, click the button: Start Mail Merge. A menu of possibilities appears, and easiest choice is to go to the bottom and employ the Step-by-Step Mail Merge Wizard. So far, pretty simple, right?

4. Choose the Document Type

The Mail Merge Wizard has just six steps, the first of which is the easiest. It defaults to creating a letter, which is exactly what we want. So, all you need to do is go to the next step. Click the button at the bottom right-hand corner: Next: Starting document.

5. Choose the Document

We already have our document open, so all we need to do is click Next: Select recipients. (I told you it was easy!)

6. Choose a Recipient List

Now we choose the second ingredient in our Mail Merge recipe, the list of recipients. Click the Browse button and browse to the Excel spreadsheet that we looked at earlier. A dialog box should open up, showing all of the rows and columns of our Excel spreadsheet. To the left of each row there are checkboxes which we can use to manually select who should receive our letter. Also, note that each of the column headers has a filter button, a drop-down arrow which we could use to select which groups of recipients will receive the letter. (We could also use these filter buttons to sort our letters. In some cases, we can get discounted postal rates if we were to sort the letters in the order of their ZIP Codes.) In this example will leave all our recipient selected so that everyone will receive one of our amazing letters. Click OK to close the dialog box, and then click Next: Write your letter.

7. Write the Letter

Well, our letter is pretty much already written. But we do need to add two things: the inside address, and the salutation or greeting line. Delete the text that says Inside Address and leave the mouse pointer on that line. In the Mail Merge task pane at the right, click the option: Address block. A dialog box will appear asking you to confirm that the name and address information is correct. After you click OK, a merge field code will appear in your letter. This code is distinguished by the double angle brackets that enclose it. As with all fields, Microsoft Word will replace it with some relevant information, in this case, a few lines that list the name and address of the recipient. Because we used standard labels in the column headers of our Excel spreadsheet, Word knows how to combine the name and address information in a suitable way. (If we had not used standard labels, we would now have to tell Word which of our labels corresponds to the standard labels, so that Word could assemble the address block as needed.)

Next, we have to add the salutation or greeting line. Delete the text now in the salutation and click the Greeting line option in the task pane on the right. A dialog box will appear asking you to confirm the structure of the salutation. Because this is a business letter, we need to change the punctuation to a colon. Click the list arrow at the right near the comma and change it to a colon. Then click OK.

In this step, we have added two merge fields. Be sure there is a blank line below each merge field. It looks a little cryptic right now, but that will soon change—as soon as you click Next: Preview your letters.

8. Preview the Letters

Prepare to be amazed: In this step, the merge fields have been replaced with actual data. You can use the arrow buttons to move forward or backward in your recipient list to see how each of the letters will appear. If you see any mistakes regarding line spacing or word spacing in the salutation, this is a good chance to fix that. Assuming that everything looks fine, let’s go on to the next step. Click Next: Complete the merge.

9. Perform the Mail Merge

Before we do the actual merge, it’s a good idea to save our work: Press Ctrl + S. Now, as you can see in the task pane on the right, there are two basic choices. If everything looks pretty good so far, you can take a chance and click the button: Print. This will merge our letter with our recipient list and print out X number of letters. But if there’s a mistake someplace in the letter, you may print out X number of mistakes.

If you’re the more cautious type like me, the better choice is: Edit individual letters. This creates a new document which is composed of all the individual letters that are created in the Mail Merge process. We can now go through this batch of letters and correct any mistakes. We could also add a little personalization to a particular letter, for example, “I enjoyed seeing you at the park last week.” After we make our choice, Word will ask you to confirm that you want to print all the letters, which you usually want to do.

In the new “Letters” document that appears, note that each of the letters is separated not by a Page Break, but by a Section Break (Next Page). This means that each of the individual letters are actually sections of the document. I’m not sure why Microsoft chose to break up the letters this way, but it does have an important consequence for us: If we want to print only certain letters in the document, we would specify not their page numbers, as we would usually do. Instead, we must specify the section numbers. That is, instead of entering 1, 4, 7, in the box for Pages to be printed, we would instead enter: S1, S4, S7.

Let’s assume that all the letters look fine, and we have plenty of paper and ink in our printer. What we need to do now is print the Letters document. Once it is printed, the Letters document is no longer needed. We can use the original letter document we just saved a moment ago to create a new collection of letters in just a few mouse clicks. So, close the Letters document without saving it. The original mail-merge letter document will now appear, and that should be saved for possible reuse in the future.

10. Celebrate!

Well, it turned out to be even easier than I thought. Really only nine steps! Practice this a few times, and pretty soon you’ll be able to do it all by yourself—without the wizard.

Of course, there is one more step: If we want to mail these letters, we need to print either labels or envelopes. Sorry, we’ll have to leave that for another lesson.

— Rich Malloy

Computer Security Update

How to Protect Yourself from
Viruses, Worms, Hackers and
Other Computer Lowlife

Greenwich Library, Greenwich, CT
Wednesday, March 22, 2017, 2:00 pm

Computer Hacker: Learn how to protect yourself
Computer hacking has become an all too frequent topic in today’s news reports. It is more necessary than ever that we protect ourselves from the many threats that currently exist and that are sure to arrive in the future.

In this course, you will learn about the various computer viruses and worms that can afflict your computer, smartphone and other equipment. You will hear how hackers can guess passwords for bank accounts or spy on baby monitor cameras. More important, you will learn several valuable safeguards and best practices that can keep your computers and your data safe.

Rich Malloy, M.B.A., works as a computer consultant based in Greenwich, CT.  He also serves as an Adjunct Professor at Norwalk Community College, where he teaches computer applications.  He is a Microsoft-certified Expert in Excel and Word.  Previously Rich served as Executive Editor of Byte magazine and Editor in Chief of Mobile Computing magazine.

Spring Forward, Fall Back—Time to Check Your Backup

Twice a year, we change our clocks. Safety experts tell us that these two occasions are also ideal times to check the batteries in our smoke detectors. Well, there is one more thing we need to check on a semiannual basis: our data backup systems.

Yes, I know. Computer backup systems are about as exciting as insurance policies. We set them up and then just assume they continue to work. Then one day, when we need them the most, we find out that they stopped working two years ago!

So, let’s take a quick look at your backup system. The exact procedure varies depending on which of the many backup programs you are using. But the general process is the same and it’s very simple:

How to Check Your Backup System

  1. Think of a file that you updated a few days ago.
  2. Open your backup program.
  3. Start the Restore process.
  4. Browse to the desired file.
  5. Restore it to a test folder on your desktop.
  6. Open the file to be sure it is intact.
  7. Then delete the file in the test folder.

That’s it. If everything works fine, you’re all set for the next 6 months. If not, well, you need to find out what’s wrong with your backup system and correct it as soon as possible.

By the way, if you are among the 75 percent of computer users who don’t back up their data at all, consider this a wakeup call. You are skating on thin ice, and it is only a matter of time before you lose irreplaceable photographs and other files. Start setting up a backup system right away.

 

Passwords Don’t Make Sense …

What Shakespeare Could Tell Us About Good Passwords

shakespeare-fr-wikipedia-250pxYes, passwords don’t make sense, or more accurately, they shouldn’t. What I mean is, if you have a password that is easy to remember, it is probably no good. If your password is a simple word or name, you might as well publish it on Facebook. Even if the password is combination of words, or maybe even has a number or two, you and your data are skating on thin ice.

Hackers are cobbling together super-powerful PCs from parts such as old video-game consoles. What do they use them for? Play games? Predict the weather? No. They are used to guess people’s passwords, at the rate of gazillions a minute. And they are getting faster and better every day.

Actually, in a sense they already probably know your password. Thanks to companies with lax security, millions of in-use passwords have been stolen and are freely available on the Internet. Many of our favorite passwords are no doubt in this collection. If your password is your child’s name followed by the year she was born, they probably already have that. If you cleverly switch the “a” with the symbol “@”, they probably have that as well. We are seeing, as security expert Steve Gibson termed it, “The Death of Clever.”

The best passwords are long strings of completely random characters, upper case, lower case, numerals, and symbols. And, we should have a different password for each of our accounts. But who can handle that? Well, there is a nice way of doing that – a password manager. I will mention more about that in another post. But right now, I’ll describe a handy way of creating pseudo-random passwords that are memorable.

Take one of your handy books, songs or poems. Look at the second line (the first may be too obvious). Take the first letter of each word. Capitalize the words that are already capitalized and any long word. Be sure to include punctuation marks. After the punctuation, include a numeral (say, the length of the word preceding the punctuation). Stop when you have at least 12 characters. (Experts now recommend at least 14 characters.)

So, for example, here is the second sentence from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116:

Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.

The password might be:

LinlWawiAf,5

Now, don’t use this technique exactly as I described it. Customize it in your own way. Just be sure to remember how you did it.

 

3 Ways to Fix Mail Merge Number Formatting in Microsoft Word

[Originally posted June 2012. Updated May 2017.]

Sidebar for Mail Merge postThe Mail Merge feature of Microsoft Word is one of my favorite parts of the program. It is extremely powerful for creating labels and customized letters, emails, or reports. Once you learn how to use it, you can save countless hours of work. Unfortunately, the task of learning to master all of its idiosyncrasies can give you countless headaches.

One of the perennial annoyances of Mail Merge is its inability to format numbers from an Excel spreadsheet correctly. For example, a sales result in Excel appears as 100 but in Word it suddenly becomes 99.99999999996!

Fortunately, there is a way to fix this. In fact, there are three ways. We can modify the spreadsheet, modify the Mail-Merge document, or simply modify the way the two files connect to each other. Although this last approach is little known and no longer works for Word 2016, for many users it is certainly the best.

[Note for users of various versions of Microsoft Office: The steps presented here are for Office 2013, but the steps needed for older and newer versions of Word and Excel are very similar if not identical.]

1. Modify the Excel Spreadsheet

The first way is to avoid the problem: In the Excel worksheet, insert a column with a formula that converts the Excel numbers or dates into a text format that is exactly the same as what you would want to appear in your Mail Merge document.

To do this, you need to use Excel’s TEXT() function, which enables you to convert a number or date into its equivalent text formatted exactly the way you desire. The downside is that you need to know certain formatting codes. Although these codes are identical to those used in the Custom Number formatting feature of Excel, they are rarely seen by most Excel users.

For example, the formulas TEXT(B3, “$#,##0.00”) and TEXT(C5, “M/dd/yy”) convert number and date data into text data (in this case, “$12,345.67” and “12/01/10”).

(Tip: While you are in Excel, format the cells containing these formulas in a different style, say, italic, or some unusual color to remind you that these numbers are simply text. In older versions of Excel, these “numbers” cannot be used in calculations. But, in Excel 2016, they can.)

The advantage of formatting numbers and dates as text is that text is transported from Excel into a Word Mail Merge document unmolested. Well, almost unmolested. Formatting options such as font, size, and color do not make the trip.

Format Codes for Excel’s TEXT Function

Table of Excel TEXT function format codesA collection of the most commonly used codes is presented at the right. A key thing to remember is that “0” signifies a digit that will always appear even if zero, while “#” specifies a digit that will appear only if it is not a leading or trailing zero. Thus, the code “00000” will ensure that the leading zero is not truncated from New Jersey postal zip codes.

These codes for numbers, dates, and times can be used in the TEXT function or in Excel’s Custom number formats. As an extra bonus, they can also be used in the “Numeric Switches” in Word Mail-Merge Fields described in the next section.

Unfortunately, there is a slight difference between the way these codes work in Excel and Word in Microsoft Office 2013. In Excel, you can use either “M” or “m” for months or minutes. In almost all cases, Excel is smart enough to figure out which units you are talking about. But Word is not so smart, and you must use the capitalized letter to refer to months. Also, Excel has an additional code, “MMMMM”, which returns a single letter abbreviation for the month (e.g., “J, F, M, A, …”).

Supplementing a spreadsheet table with a few TEXT() functions is a simple and direct approach. If you are using more than one or two these functions, however, your spreadsheet soon becomes cluttered with seemingly redundant columns. Analyzing the spreadsheet becomes impossible, and there is great likelihood that you will mistakenly use a TEXT() function as input for a calculation, thereby yielding nonsense results. Our advice here is to put all your TEXT() functions on another worksheet, entitled something like “Data for Mail Merge.”

Handle with Care: The ROUND Function

Instead of the TEXT() function, some users prefer to use the ROUND() function to trim off extra decimal places. As its name implies, Excel’s ROUND() function will permanently round a number up or down to the number of decimal places you specify. The advantage is that the rounded number is not text and can still be used for further calculations. In many cases, the ROUND() function will work well with Mail Merge, but you may want to steer clear of it because of the following reasons:

  1. The ROUND function will not preserve the dollar sign or the thousands separator (comma)
  2. The ROUND function will truncate trailing zeros
  3. The ROUND function sometimes causes Mail Merge to display the wrong number of decimal places. For example, a Mail Merge document occasionally shows 4 decimal places when the ROUND function had specified 2 or 3.

In rare cases, the ROUND function causes Mail Merge to show a slightly different number. For example, instead of displaying 1.0014, Mail Merge showed 1.0013.

Okay. But let’s say that you don’t want to change your Excel spreadsheet. Well, there is something we can do in Word:

2. Use a “Numeric Switch” in Word

The second way to cajole Mail Merge into displaying numbers from Excel correctly is to modify the Word document. Specifically, this means applying the desired number format code to the Merge Fields in the Word document. (The merge fields basically tell the Word document which column in the Excel table has the desired data.) To apply a format to a field, you must include a numeric switch (formerly called a picture switch) in the field’s field code.

The first thing you have to do is to see the actual field code. Open the Mail Merge document and click the Mailings tab at the top of the window. Be sure the Preview Results button is toggled off so that you can see the Mail-Merge fields. Then right-click a Mail-Merge field (such as «Donation») and choose the Toggle Field Code option. You should now see the actual field code for that field, which is designated by curly braces as in { MERGEFIELD Donation }. Now edit the field code by simply inserting a numeric switch code to the end of the field code, as in

{ MERGEFIELD Donation \# $#,##0.00 }

There are many picture codes available. Here are four examples with their respective results:

{ MERGEFIELD Cost \# 00.00 }              01.00
{ MERGEFIELD Sales \# $### }               $ 15
{ MERGEFIELD Sales \# $#,##0.00 }    $ 1,500.00
{ MERGEFIELD Date \@ "MMMM d" }     November 26

As you can see, the numeric switch codes are identical to the Excel formatting codes except that they are preceded by “\#” for numbers and “\@” for dates. To see more of the codes available, refer to the table above, or see the online help for “numeric switch” in Microsoft Word.

Here are some examples of how the numeric field codes work with data in a column labeled Sales in an Excel spreadsheet.

Numeric Switches for Mail-Merge MergeFields

Table of Microsoft Word Mail Merge Numeric Switches
In light of the fact that Word and Excel use the same formatting codes, we could not help wondering why they don’t use the same function format. For example, why not have the MergeField function look something like:

{ MERGEFIELD(Donation,"$#,##0.00") }

Good question. You’ll have to ask Microsoft.

Note: Before you start cursing me out, try to remember that when you add or change a numeric switch, the effect is not shown immediately. You either have to update the field (right-click it and choose Update Field), or click the button Mailings > Preview Results 2 or 3 times, or if you are using the Mail-Merge Wizard, you will have to go back a step and return to see the effect of your changes. (I am not making this up. Remember, only geniuses work at Microsoft. We are just not smart enough to appreciate their brilliance.)

The numeric switches in merge fields work well, but I find the process very difficult to remember. (“Is it a forward slash or a back slash?”) Also, it is very easy to make a mistake. Fortunately, there is another way:

3. Use a DDE Link

The above approaches are relatively simple, but if you have more than a few fields that require formatting, they can drive you into early retirement. At the very least, they require you to remember format codes that, while similar, are used in very different ways.

A much more elegant and simple solution is to have Word link to the Excel workbook via a DDE (Dynamic Data Exchange) link rather than the usual, presumably non-dynamic, linking process. That sounds a little daunting, but if you are smart enough to do Mail Merge, then DDE is a piece of cake. It is a simple two-step process, and the first step — enabling Word to open a file via DDE — has to be done only once.

[Note for Excel/Word 2016 users: Microsoft appears to have pulled the plug on this relatively old DDE technology. Unfortunately, you will have to use one of the other two techniques.]

To set up Word 2013 for DDE links, do the following:

  • Click: File > Options.
  • Click the Advanced tab on the left and scroll down to the section General.
  • Check the box labeled Confirm file format conversion on open.

That’s all for the first step, and you never have to do it again. From now on, your copy of Word can open up many different types of files, and can open these by different avenues, including DDE. Microsoft Word Mail-Merge Confirm Data Source dialog box 1The only side effect of the above is that every time you open a non-Word file with Word, the program will give you a chance to change your mind. No problem.

The second and last step has to be done each time you select a data source for your Mail Merge operation (either in Step 3 of Word’s Mail Merge Wizard or after you press the Select Recipients button in the Mailings ribbon). Relax. It is just three additional mouse clicks:

  • After you have chosen the data file you would like to use, a new “Confirm Data Source” dialog box will appear.
  • The default type of link is by OLE, but that is not what you want.
  • Microsoft Word Mail Merge Confirm Data Source dialog box 2In the Confirm Data Source dialog box, click the check box to Show all.
  • In the expanded list of file types, choose MS Excel Worksheets via DDE (*.xls). (Choose this even if you are using the newer Excel file format: *.xlsx.)
  • If asked, confirm that you are selecting the Entire Spreadsheet.

If you have already selected a spreadsheet for your Word document, you may have to select it again, this time via a DDE link. That’s it! From now on, your Excel formatting will travel over to Word Mail Merge documents fairly intact. One huge caveat here: Make sure that the data you want to merge are in the first sheet of your Excel workbook. (It took us two hours to finally figure out that DDE does not see anything but the first Excel worksheet!) Sounds good. So, you ask, if this is so good, why didn’t the geniuses at Microsoft simply do this by default?

Another good question.

In previous versions of Word, there were a few minor downsides to this approach. But in my tests with Word 2013, these problems seem to have been fixed. But for how long? It is perhaps significant that the DDE link option refers only to the old “*.xls” file format rather than the new one used by more recent versions of Excel. Sure enough, Microsoft did deactivate DDE in the 2016 versions of Word and Excel. Let’s hope they come up with nice replacement.


If you had any questions or problems with the above, please let me know. Click here to post an anonymous comment.

Summer Classes at NCC

NCC campus sign fr norwalk-eduThis summer I will be teaching three valuable evening classes at Norwalk Community College. These courses will give you some great hands-on experience with two amazing programs: WordPress and Microsoft Access.

  • The One-Hour Website: How to Create a Website with WordPress

    WordPress Transp logo_500x500WordPress.com is the fastest and least expensive way to get a professional looking website up and running. No programming language is involved. Join thousands of photographers, bloggers and  small businesses creating new WordPress sites each day. In this hands-on course, you will learn how to get a site up quickly, how to refine it with the right design, how to add new content quickly, and how to format pictures for the best impact. We will also discuss how to get your new site noticed by Google. Students need to have an email address/account that they can access from the classroom.
    2 Sessions, Tuesday 6:00PM-9:00PM Begins 6/7/2016
    Tuition: $89

  • Microsoft Access 2013

    MS-Access-logo fr MSDatabases are indispensable for businesses, and the most popular database program for small businesses is Microsoft Access. This object-oriented relational
    database enables even non-technical users to organize, analyze and report on large amounts of complex data. Students will learn the essentials for planning and
    designing databases, building and modifying tables and forms, defining table relationships, producing reports, working with queries in Access and integrating with Microsoft Word and Excel. During this six-week class, each student will create a complete database application for managing contacts. Prerequisite: Computer Basics, Intro to Windows or equivalent. Please bring a
    flash drive to class.
    6 Sessions, Tuesday 6:00PM-9:00PM Begins 6/28/2016
    Tuition: $249

  • The 2-Hour Database

    clock-clip-art-alarm-clock fr ClipArt PandaSmall businesses need a database to keep track of hundreds and often thousands of clients, inventory items, and transactions. But most databases are too complex for
    business owners to handle on their own. Using simple templates, this course will show you how to get an efficient database up and running in a relatively short time. The course will engage students in handson
    training in Microsoft Access, a powerful general-purpose database system. Students will learn how to import data
    from Excel, manage data tables, create informative queries, redesign data-entry forms, and generate effective reports. The course will conclude by pointing students
    to online resources that will help with their future database challenges.
    2 Sessions, Thursday 6:00PM-9:00PM Begins 6/30/2016
    Tuition: $89

Spring Forward: Time to Check Your Backups

Congratulations! You are part of the 25% of computer users who back up their data. Unlike most people, you will not lose all your precious pictures and documents when your computer suddenly breaks down.

Or will you?

The fact is that many backup systems stop working for one reason or another: A software upgrade causes compatibility issues, the backup drive fails, or the credit card for the cloud backup account expires. For all these reasons, people who thought they had a good backup found out too late that the backup system had stopped working

So, whenever we change the clocks, it is a good idea to check not only the smoke alarms, but also our backup systems. You never know.

— Rich Malloy