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Two ways to change document defaults in Microsoft Word

How to change the ‘Blank Document’ defaults like font etc. in Microsoft Word. Either ‘Set Default’ choices or update Word’s core template. What to do when the usual tips don’t work. In other words, all about Normal.dotm in Microsoft Word.

Microsoft 365 customers are getting new default fonts called Aptos, which means many people are asking how to change their default font back to the old default Calibri or some other fonts for body text and headings.

Back in 2015 Microsoft made another update blunder which deleted the key Microsoft Word normal.dotm file.   That led to some questions from readers about normal.dotm and why it matters so much.

Where does Word get its initial doc settings?

When you choose ‘Blank Document’ where does Word get the initial settings from?

After all, a ‘blank’ document isn’t really blank.  It might not have any visible text, but Word has to know what page size to use and many other basic settings.  All the basic styles (Normal, Heading 1 etc.) need a font, font size, justification and a myriad of other adjustments.

On top of all that, there’s other personal configuration items like Ribbon, AutoText and Building Blocks that have to be saved somewhere.

Most, but not all, Word default settings are saved in the normal.dotm template.

Normal.dotm is the key

It’s all in Normal.dotm (before Word 2007 it was  Normal.dotm is the foundation for many Word documents.

A change to normal.dotm will affect any document (new or past) that’s based on that template.

Mostly you’ll never have to change normal.dotm directly (though that’s possible, see below). Most common changes you can update from the Word dialog boxes and choosing the correct option (default font settings, page size, orientation etc).

Changing Settings – current or all docs?

When you make default changes to Word document settings, you’re given a choice about where to save it.  Do you want it as the default setting for the current document or all documents based on the current template?

For example, the Font settings dialog has a ‘Set as Default’ button.  Click on that and you’ll get this choice.

People get confused at this and probably click OK not realizing its importance.

This document only – the setting is saved in the current document only. It has no effect on any other document.

All documents based on the Normal.dotm template – changes the setting in the template (in this case normal.dotm). CHOOSE THIS if you want to change Word’s default.

Once you’ve changed a setting in Normal.dotm that setting will take effect in all documents based on that template.  That can be great for consistency across many documents.  But it’s most noticeable in a new document based on that template.

We’re going to focus on normal.dotm in this article.  The same applies to other templates that are the basis for other documents.

Changing defaults for ‘blank document’

There are two ways to change the defaults for ‘Blank Document’.  You can use ‘Set as Default’ buttons available in some Word dialogs or edit normal.dotm directly.

Set As Default

A common request is to change the default font for a blank document.  Put the cursor on a line and make sure the Normal style is selection from Home | Styles.  Then go to Home | Font and click the little arrow in the bottom right of that section.

That opens the full Font dialog box that’s little changed for many versions of Word.

Choose the new font, style and size you want then click ‘Set As Default’ at bottom left.

This is where you choose how to apply the new default.  If you want the changes to apply to all future new documents, choose the “All documents based on the Normal.dotm template” option.  Click OK.

You’ve actually changed the style Normal stored in Normal.dotm.

Styles in a Template

Style settings are stored in a template.  Just like font settings, you can change a style and then choose whether that change applies to the current document or all documents using the underlying template.

At the bottom of the Modify Style dialog are the two options:

Only in this document – save change to document only

New documents based on this template – this text is a little misleading. It says that the change will only apply to new documents from the template.  That may or may not happen because is depends on the ‘Automatically Update’ option on the line above. 

Automatically Update – the style settings will apply to all documents which use that template and linked style. If NOT selected, the existing style settings in the document will remain untouched.

Edit the template directly – the ultimate fix

Sometimes the ‘Set as Default’ or ‘New documents based on this template’ settings don’t work. Word stubbornly refuses to change the settings no matter which of the above options you try. That’s when you have to take more direct action.

The direct way to change defaults is to open the template directly.

This usually is NOT necessary because the options in Word dialog boxes should do it all for you. But sometimes the whole thing gets too messy and it becomes more direct to just open the template file and change it.

First you have to find normal.dotm .  It’s normally at

C:\Users\<Windows user name>\AppData\Roaming\Microsoft\Templates

Check the template location at Options | Advanced| General | File Locations

User Templates has the location of your main templates.

Open normal.dotm from File | Open.  Change the file type to Word Macro-Enabled Templates.  Choose Normal.dotm then Open.

We strongly suggest you make a backup copy of normal.dotm, just in case your changes have unintended effects.

Now you can edit the template directly. Change the styles, page size or orientation and many other things.   Save the template then open a new document to see the results.

NormalEmail.dotm for Outlook emails

As you can see in the above picture, there’s also a NormalEmail.dotm template in the same folder as Normal.dotm. That’s the basis for Outlook emails because the Outlook email editor is really Microsoft Word in disguise.

Changing NormalEmail.dotm will change the defaults for new emails in Outlook.

Word Document Inheritance 101

Document settings (as opposed to settings for the Word program as a whole) can be saved in template files (dotx or dotm) as well as the document itself.

Word will check the document for a setting.  If there’s nothing, there it’ll look in the template for the setting.

This is called inheritance because the document will ‘inherit’ a setting from a template.

(yes, there can be multiple templates involved with one template linked to another and so on.  To keep it simple we’ll stick with one document and one template.)

For example, the font choice for a paragraph.  That can be saved in the document itself but, if it’s not then Word will check the template to get the setting.

(yes, we know that there can be direct formatting, then document based styles, then possibly multiple templates.  We’re trying to keep it simple – OK?)

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