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Book review: The Secret Life of Word

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The Secret Life of Word  by Robert Delwood « XML Press

I’ve waited for a long time for a book such as this. It’s very good. It delivers clear information about Word 2010 with writing that’s fresh and human, as though you were being coached by a knowledgeable and helpful co-worker.

The premise is simple. Using the Office scripting interfaces, macros and Visual Basic for Applications (VBA), you can get a lot of good work done quickly and more accurately.  Delwood guides the reader through a series of common tasks often encountered by writers. At each point, you get just enough information to know what you’re doing and how to do it.

Most technical writers avoid Word because, well, it can be messy (particularly if you’ve inherited someone else’s Word files) and because it’s not great for longer documents (more than 50 or so pages). Development teams and managers like Word because it’s always around and they can edit the files when they want to (leading to the first problem). Given that more and more tech writers are working on short-term contracts where they have make sense of files that have been picked at by a half dozen authors, this book can be valuable resource in cleaning up cruft and bringing order to the sources.

Delwood is a fine writer with a reassuring voice. He introduces topics such as building blocks, Smart Tags, and macros with just the right balance of background and practical tips. There are plenty of good code examples throughout the book. Rather than having to retype everything, however, you can pick up the examples at the publisher’s web site.
There were plenty of pleasing touches throughout the book, such as the use of “Hello, Word” in examples. made more poignant as we mourn the recent passing of C’s, Dennis Ritchie.

The section on Find and Replace begins with “It may seem odd to consider Find and Replace as an automation technique.” The examples then go on to show how you can bring back some order to a document with carefully targeted automation. Word is notorious for generating bloated HTML output. This small procedure is part of a larger effort to clean up that bloat and give you a more usable file.

Sub RemoveHTMLTags()
ReplacementText "\<p*\>", "<p>"
ReplacementText "\<span*\>", vbNullString
ReplacementText "\</span\>", vbNullString
ReplacementText "\<o:p\>", vbNullString
ReplacementText "\</o:p\>", vbNullString
ReplacementText "Times New Roman", "Comic Sans MS"[1]
End Sub

Delwood brings out the quirks and inexplicable behaviors in Word. He explains how the changes from Word  95 to the 2007/2010 era really messed people up. The user interface changed, hiding familiar menu options in out-of-the-way ribbons. New elements such as building blocks confounded people who were used to dealing with simple templates. He noted that Smart Tags, which most of us missed when introduced in Office 2003, are an under-appreciated feature. He then goes on to explain why they are useful (treating selected words as more than just characters, but words with a special meaning) and how to use them.

Debugging scripts is hard. The book keeps it simple, providing basic guidance instead of trying to turn a tech writer into a software engineer.

There were a few nits that I noticed, but nothing that diminishes the utility of this fine book.

  • The email address for comments is incorrect, likely the result of a duplicated paste that was overlooked by the editor.
  • Most of the time, the examples are clear and easy to scan. In the section on Smart Tags, however, it gets confusing because the headings for each section and the example captions appear to run together after a while.

This is a very useful book. I’ve already applied some of the material to documents that I maintain.

Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for the purposes of this review. I am not compensated for my reviews nor was my review influenced by the manner in which I received the book.


Written by roasterboy

October 21, 2011 at 5:28 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses

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  1. Thanks for the review of Robert’s book. And thanks for catching the typo in the email address. Fortunately, it’s a simple duplication, so if you take the first half (wordsecrets@xmlpress.net), you get the right address.

    However, you also helped us detect another problem, which was that this email address wasn’t correctly set up. It now is, and you can send email to wordsecrets@xmlpress.net.

    Richard Hamilton

    October 21, 2011 at 1:29 pm

  2. Thanks for your review! Robert Delwood is a valued member of our STC-Houston chapter, and I got him to sign my copy of his book.

    Cathy Bettoney

    October 29, 2011 at 9:40 pm

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