Mail Merge and Reports in Word

Filed under Office, VB Feng Shui

If you have a need to generate documents, and I mean lots of documents, you’re likely the eventually investigate the Word mail merge functionality.

It’s ok, but there’s lots of things that it can’t do, especially with respect to generating tables or dealing with table oriented data.

You next stop might be a report generator, like Crystal Reports. But the big problem with those kinds of packages is they require you to use a proprietary report template editor, usually band oriented (the typical “header/body with repeating lines/footer” type reporting system). Not terribly bad, but not great if you actually want to generate mail merged documents.

Word Documents as Templates

But there are alternatives out there. Two of the most intriguing I’ve seen are an open source package called FlexDoc and a commercial application called Windward Reports.

Both of them allow you to use standard Word documents as “report” templates”. But keep in mind, “report template” in this sense is a pretty open ended concept. You could generate everything from a mass mailing letter, to legal documents, to actual reports with tabular data, and even graphs and charts.

And both are lightning fast, since they work directly on the Word document file itself (or more precisely, the DOCX file format, older DOC format files aren’t supported).

The Commercial Product

Windward Reports is polished commercial product. It’s not cheap, but it’s incredibly flexible, supporting everything from XML to SQL data sources, charting, graphs, tabular report type elements, formatted content (ie insert a field into your Word document that consists of formatted HTML, for example), and a lot more.

Windward uses standard Word Mail Merge fields for its tags, specifically the AUTOTEXTLIST field. Those field types have been in Word since even before Word 2000, and it’s very unlikely they’ll change any time soon, so you’re pretty safe there.

One really nice element of Windward is that they have available a “tagging helper” addin for Word called AutoTag. It can really help speed up the design of your Word report templates. It’s optional. Technically, you don’t absolutely have to have it, but it’s a lot more painful to create reports without it.

The Open Source Project

Flexdoc is open source and not quite as polished as Windward. But it’s got much of the same functionality. It can connect to just about any data source, it’s fast, and it can do tabular data very well, but it can’t do charts or graphs, and it can’t handle formatted data (hmtl or otherwise) at all by default, though there are mods that can be made to improve that situation.

The biggest problem with Flexdoc is that it currently relies on the CustomXMLElements functionality of Word that has, as of Jan 10, 2010, been removed from the product because of the lawsuit with I4I.

The author of FlexDoc indicated that there were plans for a ContentControl-based version in the future, but that might be a while off. Still, it’s an open source project, so you could always throw in and help make those changes if you really needed them.


  1. Mike says:

    i’m using mapilabs add-in for mail merge from outlook:

    • Darin says:

      I’m guessing this is just a spambot, BUT I’ll leave the message up to point out a significant difference. This MapiLabs product appears to be specifically targeted to generating merged EMAILS, not complex merged Word documents. Completely different target results.

      The products I’ve mentioned above all target generating complex Word documents using merge capabilities far beyond what’s available in Word itself.

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