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Macros and Wildcards: Essentials or Added Extras?

On certain editing forums, few topics are more likely to inspire passionate debate than the use of macros and wildcards. For many years they have gradually been seeping into our editing practices, and they are now essentials for some editors while for others they remain irrelevant complications – perhaps even distractions from the ‘true’ business of editing: engaging with a text.

I will admit straight away that I’m of the first camp, but my aim here is not to demand that all who have not thus far bowed at the altar of macros and wildcards do so immediately. Instead this article offers some reasons for editors to consider using macros and wildcards, or to think about new ways of using them.

Technical bit

This is not a technical article: many other resources offer comprehensive introductions to the use of macros and wildcards, and many editors have created commercial and non-commercial banks of both (search for ‘wildcards’ and ‘macros’ on KOK Edit’s Editing Tools page for a list of resources).

Briefly, though, macros are bits of computer code that automate tasks and that can be initiated via a keyboard shortcut or button press. They can be written from scratch in the coding language VBA, or it is often possible to record macros within Word, with no coding skills required.

Wildcard searches are performed using Word’s standard find-and-replace box and involve the use of certain characters to find strings of text that fit a particular pattern (such as [A-Z][0-9], which finds any capital letter followed by any numeral).

Macros can involve the use of wildcard strings (e.g., to automate a set of finds-and-replaces) but can do almost anything you can think of – even run tasks that involve Word talking to other MS Office applications. Or a macro can do something as simple as applying a style, or inserting a word, or fixing double spaces, or all three at once… you get the idea.

Here, then, in no particular order, are some suggestions as to why macros and wildcards are worth investigating further.

They make you look super-human

Unlike humans, software doesn’t get tired or lose concentration. Your computer will find every single instance of a pattern of wildcard characters, and, provided you input the right macro parameters, it will perfectly execute whatever automated task you want it to do. This high level of accuracy makes you look good to your clients. And, increasingly, savvy clients and project managers may be able to tell when you haven’t used macros and wildcards – and wonder why.

They help the project as a whole

The more accurate you are, the easier you will make the typesetter’s job and the proofreader’s job. For example, if you ensure all the punctuation and formatting is pristine, the typesetter will thank you. And, similarly, the cleaner the proofs, the more easily the proofreader can concentrate on their job of finding actual errors, not cleaning up things that should have been addressed during copy-editing. All of this makes it more likely the project will run smoothly, with no extra stress or clean-up costs, and consequently your client will be happy.

They can make a so-so budget into a reasonable proposition

When a project has a fixed fee on the iffy side but you really want (or need) the work, macros and wildcards can provide the additional speed necessary to make your hourly rate acceptable. Keyboard shortcuts that automate specific tiny tasks can add up to a significant time saving over the course of a project, and you can even set up workflows that automate whole sectors of jobs, such as styling or aspects of reference editing. Such tricks can make the difference between enjoying a project and resenting it for the measly hourly rate it might otherwise pay.

They can help you to deal with an overwhelming brief or style guide

I think of my macros as tools that turn off the possibility that I might miss something. Used judiciously, they ringfence a particular issue and simply switch it off, meaning I can completely forget about it. This is helpful when you have a lot of style points to remember, as you can deal with some of them in advance, whittling down the information that you need to keep in your head as you edit.

They let you focus on the actual editing

In a recent article I talked about the robotic and human sides of editing, and how they work in concert to deliver an edit that respects and nurtures the content. Macros and wildcards can take away some of the robotic work, allowing you to devote more time to the aspect of editing that really provides the client with value and (presumably) gives you enjoyment: your human evaluation of and engagement with the text.

Learning about them is good for your general professional knowledge

More and more, it is necessary for editors to be experts in software and applications as well as in language and grammar. Whether working with a client’s Word template or formatting an ePub file, we need to at least have at least a passing knowledge of what’s going on among the bits and bytes behind the words on the screen. Learning about macros and wildcards is a good way to generally increase our digital literacy and potentially a completely free contribution to our CPD.

You don’t have to use them like others do

Some people will find certain workflows essential to certain tasks. They may praise those workflows to the skies. But you don’t have to do exactly what they do – indeed, it may be totally inappropriate to your kind of work for you to do so. I have sometimes found, though, that existing macros and wildcard tricks can be repurposed to fit the specifics of how I work and what I work on. If you’re of a certain geeky mindset (like me), this can be a fun and creative challenge.

You don’t have to dive in at the deep end

Dip a toe. Paddle. Wallow in a nice, warm, shallow-looking bit. You don’t have to convert wholesale to the use of macros and wildcards in everything you do. Try out something simple, with the aim of getting a feel for whether it benefits you and can be accommodated into your style of working.

Wildcards have a gradual learning curve and, after mastering basics such as replacing hyphens between numbers with en dashes, you can gradually work your way up to complex automation of reference-list editing (for example).

Macros have a slightly steeper learning curve, and it’s advisable to start with basics such as how Word stores them (there’s nothing worse than finding Word’s deleted all your macros for a reason you don’t understand). From there, simple (and sometimes more fancy) macros can be recorded. Then, those with a bit of savvy can learn to code simple macros themselves with a bit of Googling, or there are macros available for purchase (again, see KOK Edit’s page). Some of these ready-made macros have built-in user interfaces, allowing you to bypass learning about the underlying technical stuff.

Macros and wildcards have the potential to add enormous value to your business, both directly (through saved time and thus increased hourly rates) and indirectly (through increased quality of work and thus higher client satisfaction). Long an emerging and optional extra, their use is gradually becoming a central component of professional editing.

A final caveat is necessary: both macros and wildcards should be used with great care. They can just as infallibly make an incorrect change as a correct change if improperly typed or coded.

How useful do you find macros and wildcards to be? Could you (bear to) edit without them? Or are they irrelevant to the kind of work you do?

Hazel Bird edits and project manages upwards of 5 million words a year across the humanities and social sciences, working globally with publishers, individuals and businesses on nonfiction ranging from personal genealogy projects to multi-volume encyclopaedias. The thought of doing this without macros and wildcards brings her out in a cold sweat. She blogs at

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