The Proofreader's Parlour
A blog for editors, proofreaders and writers
The latest from the Macro Chat column by editor Paul Beverley ... In this post, Paul shares the story of his programming and editing journey. Talking of which, his latest videos on wildcard find-and-replace techniques are gems: Wildcarding techniques 1; Wildcarding techniques 2; Wildcarding techniques 3.
Some people are surprised to discover that I have a bank of over 500 macros for editors and proofreaders, and I’ve recently had several encouraging comments about my ‘amazing programming skills’, but in my defence I’d like to point out that it’s not really as clever as it looks.
It’s just that I’ve been doing it for a very, very long time. Let me explain ...
It goes right back to 1982 and to the BBC Microcomputer. This spawned a word processor called Wordwise Plus, which had a Basic-like programming language for manipulating text (and numbers).
So, with my love of the English language and a little bit of very basic (Basic) programming skill, I was able to write some useful programs that people were willing to pay money for – £10 a program, if memory serves, sold on 5¼” floppy discs!
In 1987 Acorn produced their first Archimedes computer (then the fastest desktop computer in the world) and I started publishing a subscription magazine.
Every month I would transfer the text of the magazine (produced on an Apple Mac Plus, with its 9” screen!) onto a floppy disc (now 3½”) that I could sell to subscribers (for £2 a month) so that they could electronically search for things in the back issues.
For that, I had to do a series of find and replaces (F&Rs) to convert the Mac text to Acorn format, such as changing the Mac’s snazzy ﬂ and ﬁ ligatures to ordinary fl and fi, and proper dashes to hyphens.
For this, I kept a list – on a piece of paper! – of the required F&Rs until, eventually, I thought, Surely, this is the sort of thing a computer could do!
So I asked my subscribers if anyone could write me a program. Paul Sprangers, in the Netherlands, wrote me one, so I started using scripted F&R (think of a text-only version of FRedit).
Around 2005, after about 18 years of editing, typesetting and proofreading monthly magazines, I was becoming quite adept at using scripted F&R.
However, I could foresee the end of my magazine, and began freelance proofreading and then editing. But that meant using Microsoft Word for the very first time in my life – Microsoft was the devil incarnate to a pure Acorn user.
So, for the first time in 18 years, I didn’t have the aid of scripted F&R!
Then I discovered that Word had a programming language – Visual Basic. I got on to my Acorn contacts again and found someone who could write me a (text-only) scripted F&R program (a macro), then called PreEdit.
How (not) to win friends ...
By this stage I’d joined the UK’s Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP).
I used their email discussion list to ask them newbie questions such as ‘How do I apply a style to a paragraph?’, while at the same time trying to point out to them that they could do their editing jobs much more quickly and easily if they used scripted global F&Rs.
Not surprisingly, not everyone was receptive!
To put my blunder into context, I’ve recently discovered that, at that stage, Ann Waddingham was pioneering the SfEP’s on-screen editing courses when, in her words in the current issue of SfEP’s Editing Matters, ‘people’s attitudes to on-screen editing were mostly negative. I spent much time ... persuading publishers and editors to take the plunge – both parties were deeply suspicious’.
And there was me trying to persuade them to embrace automatic methods of on-screen editing. Oops!
So it’s hardly surprising that I upset a lot of people with my evangelical zeal. Sorry, folks!
But in my defence, please remember that, at that stage, I had already been using scripted F&R for almost 20 years! I simply couldn’t understand why people weren't able to see its huge power.
It was 2009, and I was enjoying a quiet Sunday lunchtime picnic with Sue, my wife. We were by a river in the Norfolk Broads and it was idyllic: the sun was shining and a beautiful swallowtail butterfly landed not six feet from where we were sitting.
I was trying to concentrate on the book I was reading but my mind kept straying to work issues. In particular, I was thinking about PreEdit, and how the list of F&Rs was held as a text file rather than as a Word file, which made it very cumbersome to use.
... But what if I made the list a Word file? Why should I not use a Word file? No reason on earth. That would make it much easier to use.
Oh, hang on a minute! If the list was a Word file, then some F&Rs could be bold or italic. And why not consider super/subscript, small caps, styles, highlighting, font colour?
As I thought about it, the excitement mounted. Sunday or no Sunday, I had to go home there and then and do some macro programming.
A land flowing with milk and macros
With the core tool – FRedit – in place, in 2010 I set about adding tools to speed up my editing in a whole variety of ways: analysing the text for inconsistencies, checking references and citations and speeding up my text editing sentence by sentence.
This all supported and enhanced my growing workload of editing scientific books.
Unfortunately, relatively few of my colleagues shared my enthusiasm for macros, so I just beavered away, increasing my own efficiency and effectiveness, and sharing my macros, via my website, with anyone who was interested.
However, in 2015–16, Stephen Cashmore pioneered the SfEP’s new online course, ‘Editing with Word’. The syllabus included a section on using FRedit.
The course was a huge success, with many more people taking it than the organisers had dared to hope. It was encouraging to me because it brought me into contact with more and more people wanting to use my macros.
In the past year, I’ve started venturing into the (for me, as a technophobe) brave new world of Facebook, joining some of the editorial groups.
And there I’ve found a ready acceptance of my ‘new’ ideas. People have been surprised by the range of macros available and have made many encouraging comments.
The right place at the right time
This brings me back to the original purpose of this post – to demythologize my macros. Remember that I’ve been using scripted global F&R for nearly 30 years and writing VBA macros for almost 10 years.
Add to that the fact that in 2008 my business was failing: the magazine was fading away, I had large debts and I feared losing my house. I was therefore highly motivated to develop the means of generating cash, fast!
I grabbed anything that would speed me up with both hands.
And a more positive factor: I’m absolutely fascinated by the English language (David Crystal is my absolute hero!) and I really love working out how to express things more effectively.
So macros are a tool for clearing away all the boring, nitty-gritty bits of an editor’s job, allowing me to focus on the meaning and flow of every sentence. This is the most enjoyable job of my whole career.
So, if my macros are of help to others then that’s great, and I’m grateful to God that I was in the right place (almost bankrupt!) at the right time.
Louise Harnby is a fiction copyeditor and proofreader. She curates The Proofreader's Parlour and is the author of several books on business planning and marketing for editors and proofreaders.
Visit her business website at Louise Harnby | Proofreader & Copyeditor, say hello on Twitter at @LouiseHarnby, or connect via Facebook and LinkedIn.
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Advanced Professional Member of the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP). I'm a signatory to its code of practice as a professional editor.
Featured in The Book Designer's Carnival of the Indies: Joel Friedlander's collection of 'outstanding articles recently posted to blogs'.
Winner of the Judith Butcher Award 2017 in respect of 'highly visible contributions to the SfEP and its membership'.