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The Excel part of mail merge

Hey, the holidays are fast approaching, which means you’ve got to get your cards signed, sealed, and delivered! This post goes out to those of you who keep your address list in Excel and need to figure out how to use it to create mailing labels in Word.

Creating labels can be intimidating, mainly because there are a number of intricate steps to follow and you’re typically working with different programs—in this case, Excel and Word. And if you create labels infrequently, it’s hard to remember what to do and what to watch out for.

Learning how to make your Excel address list magically show up on your sheets of labels boils down to five basic steps:

Overview of five-step process for creating labels

This post is about that first step—the one where you prepare your address list in Excel so that you can use it in Word. If you get this part of the process right, things will run more smoothly when you’re setting up your labels in Word.

Preparing your addresses in Excel

The key thing to understand is that your column headers, or categories, in Excel will become merge fields (placeholders) in Word. Each merge field corresponds to a piece of the address on the label—first name, last name, street address, and so on. Word pulls out the information in your Excel columns and plugs it into the corresponding merge fields, with an end result that looks something like this:

Data from Excel columns appearing on label

When setting up your address list in Excel, consider the following tips:

  • Use “friendly” column headers such as First Name, Last Name, Address, and City instead of Column 1, Column 2, Column 3, and Column 4.
  • Set up your address list so that each column represents the smallest possible piece of information. For example, use separate columns for First Name and Last Name rather than just a Name column. This practice gives you more flexibility if you end up creating cards or letters in addition to labels.
  • Avoid blank rows and columns in your address list. During the mail merge, these blanks can trick Word into thinking that it has reached the end of the address list, when in fact there is more information after the blanks.
  • To make it easier to pick the address list you want Word to use, give it an easily recognized name in Excel. To do this, select the range of cells that make up your address list. Then, in the Name box next to the formula bar, type a name like Holiday_Cards and click OK.
  • Postal codes can be tricky. If you have a column containing postal codes, make sure you format that column as Text. Otherwise, Excel will strip out any zeros from the front of the postal code. If you’re creating a new address list from scratch, be sure to format your column as text before you type the postal codes. If you’re importing addreses into Excel from a .txt file, use the Text Import Wizard to format the appropriate columns as Text (as opposed to leaving them in the General format or in another number format that might mess up the mail merge).

By the way, if you want to create labels from your Outlook contacts, you can do that without first importing the contacts into Excel. Word can access your contacts directly from Outlook during the mail merge process. For the details, download this Mail Merge Made Easy guide. It will tell you exactly what to do, based on where you keep your contacts (Excel, Outlook, or another email program) and where you plan to print your labels (Word or Publisher).

Now, on to Word

Once everything is set up in Excel, you’ll need to open Word and start your mail merge (Mailings tab | Start Mail Merge group | Start Mail Merge). The following articles do a good job of walking you through that process.

Do you have tips to share?

I know darn well you do! Please feel free to leave them in a comment.