An American Editor

November 30, 2011

The Professional Editor: Working Effectively Online IV — Mastering Macros

Mastering macros has been discussed before (see, e.g., the previous articles in this series, notably The Professional Editor: Working Effectively Online II — The Macros), but it is worth repeating. This time, let’s consider how macros can save you time and thus make you money — especially if you charge by the page or by the project. (If you charge by the hour, using macros can make your job easier but they won’t necessarily make you money; in fact, using macros might cost you money by reducing the number of hours you work on a project and, thus, the amount you can bill. See Thinking About Money: What Freelancers Need to Understand and In Editing, It’s the Little Things That Count.)

I mentioned in an earlier article that I often work on exceedingly large chapters. Recently, I worked on one that had 78 pages of references — 801 references in total. (To see the original reference file as provided by the authors, click here: REFS original.) In the usual course of editing, I have to read all of the references to make sure that all of the required information is present and that they are in the proper style. Included in the criteria, because I was working on a medical textbook, was the requirement that journal names conform to the National Library of Medicine’s (NLM’s) abbreviation. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the NLM database, it contains more than 10,000 journals from a variety of science and medical disciplines. Although the database is readily accessible, over the years the one truism about manuscripts I receive for editing is this: authors use their own abbreviations for journal titles.

Before I created my Journals macro, I had to lookup every journal name that I didn’t know and I had to manually make necessary corrections. A very time-consuming process; not so bad when you have 50 references, but a nightmare when you have hundreds. Although I could remember a lot of journal names, I couldn’t remember the vast majority, especially those rarely cited.

Because I charge a per-page rate for my editing services, time is of the essence. It doesn’t take the loss of a great deal of time to drag an effective hourly rate down to minimum wage and lower. Consequently, I decided I had to steel myself to learn to write macros.

The key to a macro is this: seeing a pattern that you can explain to the macro. If you cannot decipher a pattern for the problem area, then it is unlikely that you will be able to draft a macro to solve the problem. Remember this: macros are dumb! They will look for only what you tell them to find — nothing more, nothing less. Consequently, if you tell a macro to search for N. Engl J. Med (note the periods), it will not find N Engl J Med (same text but no periods). (It is possible to write a wildcard find that will find both variations, but it is still finding only what you have designated.)

Not only do you need to decipher a “find” pattern, but you also need to determine what you want the macro to do when it finds a match. This can be as simple as a replace or something more complex, such as applying various colored highlighting.

Ultimately, the Journals macro was created. My PubMed Journals dataset contains more than 7,700 entries. What that means is that when I run the macro against the submitted reference list, the macro will highlight in green journal names that found in the dataset that are correct as provided by the author. Seeing a name in green lets me skim over the journal title because I know — visually — that it is correct. Running the Journals macro on the references file took 4.5 minutes to complete and resulted in the file you can see by clicking here: REFS after Journals macro.

But if the name is incorrect, it either corrects the name or ignores it; which it does depends on whether the incorrect variation is in the dataset. The corrections are not only done with Tracking on, but corrected journal names are highlighted in cyan, which tells me that the name had to be corrected but is now correct.

An even more telling example, using the same original references file, is shown in REFS to AMA style. In this case, the journals had to conform to American Medical Association (AMA) style which is the abbreviated journal name in italic and followed by period (e.g., N Engl J Med.). If you look at the original reference file, you will see that none of the journal names are in italics and only a handful have the correct abbreviation followed by a period. Yet I was able to make the change to most of the journals in the reference list by using my Journals macro along with my AMA style dataset, which contains more than 11,400 entries, in less than 5 minutes.

What this all means is that when working on the references, only a handful require me to check the journal name or to manually make corrections. Every cyan and green highlighted journal name means money in my pocket because I do not have to spend time verifying the journal name. Unfortunately, running the journals macro doesn’t mean that the reference as a whole is in proper form. Nor does the macro catch every instance of a journal. As noted earlier, macros are dumb and will only find exact matches that meet all of the find criteria that form the pattern, which is more than just the journal name.

Yet the point I want to make remains unchanged: It took less than 5 minutes to run the macro and to relieve myself of most of the work otherwise necessary and that I would have to do manually. Think about how long it would take just to type the correct journal names even if you could recall every one without having to look them up, or to manually italicize each journal name, or even to manually add a period after each journal name.

In the end it comes down to this: Mastering the world of macros is time and effort saver for editors as well as a money maker.

Sometimes the macro we need is too complex for us to write; after all, few of us are programmers and that is what macro writing is — programming. My advice is to learn macro writing beginning with simple macros and progressing to increasingly difficult macros, and to learn to program as complex a macro as you can — but do not spend so much time at it that you are taken away from what should be your main focus: editing. If you can use a macro now to help with multiple projects that have the same or very similar problems, consider hiring a programmer to write the macro for you. Hiring isn’t inexpensive, but it doesn’t take long to earn back the cost, plus it can give you a model that you can learn to adapt to other needs. If someone has already written the macro you need, don’t reinvent the macro — buy it.

Whether you write the macro yourself, buy it, or hire someone to write it for you, the process is the same. First, you need to describe a pattern and variations on that pattern. Second, you need to be able to describe the action you want taken. In other words, you need a communicable plan of action or a checklist of criteria against which you can assess the macro as it is developed.

The more you can macroize, the more efficient and profitable your editing will be. The place to get started is with Jack Lyon’s Macro Cookbook for Microsoft Word.


  1. Your explanation of the use of macros and their advantages is quite clear, but I’m wondering about the larger picture. How much time is spent learning and setting up the macros (including checking and refining them to be sure they’re working correctly) and building the data sets for the journals and AMA style? This time needs to be factored in to the time saved by the macros for a true picture of the cost savings (or expenditure). I assume, as with many tasks, there’s a balance point at which the macro does make a difference, most certainly for large projects but perhaps not for small ones.


    Comment by Julie Yamamoto — November 30, 2011 @ 1:35 pm | Reply

    • You are correct that one needs to factor in the cost of creating the various parts. And, as you suggest, one needs to look at the long term. To develop the Journals macro cost several thousand dollars. However, I have been using it for several years now and because of the type of work I do, it repaid itself in less than 4 months and has earned a significant profit ever since.

      But this also illustrates my point about not reinventing the macro. Whereas it cost me several thousand dollars to create and “perfect” the macro, you can buy it as part of a macro package for $69. How long do you think it would take you to earn back the $69? I had to create the macro; you do not.

      As for the datasets, they take time to create. The way I have created them was as I came across something missing from the dataset, I added it. That added time to a project, yet in the overall scheme of things, not much to each project. I still come across references that are not in my dataset (authors are ever so inventive in how they write a journal name :)) and I add those new versions to the datasets.

      In the end, it is a balance. I spend more at the beginning to fix a recurring problem and gain the benefit of having spent that money in nearly all projects down the road. The Journals macro, since that is the one under discussion, has earned back my investment many times over. All of my (permanent) macros address recurring problems and so I get a return on my investment over the course of many projects, not just the current project.

      You mention small versus large projects. I woudl suggest it is better to think in terms of recurring versus nonrecurring tasks. If you repeatedly have to perform a task, regardless as to the size of the project, then the task is ripe for macroization.


      Comment by americaneditor — November 30, 2011 @ 3:11 pm | Reply

  2. […] Author Queries), Never Spell Word and Toggle (The Business of Editing: Consistency), and Journals (The Professional Editor: Working Effectively Online IV — Mastering Macros) macros. In this article, I tackle two more of the macros in EditTools: MultiFile Find & […]


    Pingback by Editing Tools: MultiFile F&R and Search, Count, Replace « An American Editor — February 13, 2013 @ 4:03 am | Reply

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