Omit Needless Words with a Macro

by C.K. MacLeod 353183634_ef631ed00a_m

One of the easiest ways to improve your writing is to "omit needless words"—words that once removed, make your writing clear (Strunk & White).

The fastest way to find these words in your writing is to run the Needless Words macro* in Microsoft Word. This macro will highlight every needless word, so you can decide if each word is necessary. Not sure what a macro is? See Improve Your Writing with Macros for details.

NeedlessWords macro in action
NeedlessWords macro in action

Below is the script for the macro. You'll need to add this script to Word's Visual Basic Application (VBA). See the videos How to Add a Macro to Word, then How to Run a Macro in Word for next steps.

Inspired by Jami Gold's macros for writers post, I've added Janice Hardy's Words to Avoid list (minus the word "that") to my version of the macro. The macro is customizable and you can add any list of words you like.

Copy the macro from Sub to End Sub and paste it into Word's VBA.

Sub NeedlessWords()
' Highlights unnecessary words
' Written by Roger Mortis, revised by subcortical, adapted by Jami Gold and tweaked by C.K. MacLeod; word list by Janice Hardy
Dim range As range
Dim i As Long
Dim TargetList
TargetList = Array("then", "almost", "about", "begin", "start", "decided", "planned", "very", "sat", "truly", "rather", "fairly", "really", "somewhat", "up", "down", "over", "together", "behind", "out", "in order", "around", "only", "just", "even")

For i = 0 To UBound(TargetList)

Set range = ActiveDocument.range
With range.Find
.Text = TargetList(i)
.Format = True
.MatchCase = False
.MatchWholeWord = True
.MatchWildcards = False
.MatchSoundsLike = False
.MatchAllWordForms = False
Do While .Execute(Forward:=True) = True
range.HighlightColorIndex = wdTurquoise
End With
End Sub

What other word lists could you add to this macro? Insert word lists between the parentheses in the macro script.

So, what do you do with the highlighted words this macro finds? See Carla Douglas' post How to Improve Your Writing with Macros—Tips for Beginners at the Beyond Paper Editing blog for suggestions.

*Karen Woodward calls this macro the AddWords macro because you can add any list of words that you want the macro to find. The first version of this macro was written by Roger Mortis, revised by Subcortical, modified for writing by Karen Woodward, tweaked by Jami Gold, and further tweaked by me, making it a true community effort.

Image by Matt Scott

How to Add a Macro to Word

Button with the word macro on it, by Matt Scott.By C. K. MacLeod

Macros can help you to identify areas in your writing that need improving. You can also use macros for formatting and editing tasks. Some word processing programs, like Microsoft Word, can handle macros. You'll find a list of writing macros you can try in the post Improve Your Writing With Macros, and the video below will show you how to add a macro to Word 2010:

Steps for Adding a Macro to Word

  1. Go to the View tab, and click on Macros in the Window area.
  2. Name your macro in the Macro name: box. Be sure your name has no spaces between words. For example, NeedlessWords.
  3. Click Create. You will now be taken to Word's VBA editor. This is where Word stores macros.
  4. Copy the macro script and paste it into Word's VBA. It will show you where to paste your macro (look for the section that has the same name as the macro you just named). Delete all the text that's there (everything from Sub to End Sub) and paste your macro script into the VBA editor.
  5. Close Word's VBA editor by going to File, Close and Return to Microsoft Word. Your macro will be saved and you can now use it with any Word document.

Next step: How to Run a Macro in Word.

For further instructions on how to use macros, see Macros for Editors, in which Paul Beverley offers detailed instructions for understanding and running macros in various versions of Word.

Image by Matt Scott

Improve Your Writing with Macros

353183610_2bc8acc9be_mBy C.K. MacLeod

There is a lot you can do to improve your writing. Some improvement tasks will take you hours to accomplish, but some of them can be quick and easy with the help of macros.

What are macros?

Macros are tiny programs that can handle repetitive and finicky fix-up tasks that would otherwise take loads of time. Word processing programs like Microsoft Word have the ability to run macros.

Where do you find macros?

You can write your own macros, but it's often easiest to find and tweak existing ones. Paul Beverley's free book, Macros for Editors contains hundreds of macros for writing and editing tasks.

At the beginning of his book, Beverley offers detailed instructions for understanding and using macros in various versions of Word. He also explains what each macro does. You can copy the macro scripts from the file that accompanies the book of instructions and add them to Microsoft Word.

Free macros for writers

I combed through Paul Beverley's free macro book and selected a few macros that writers can use to improve common writing bugbears:

LongSentenceHighlighter—highlights sentences that are too long
CountPhrase—select a phrase in the text and Countphrase will count the number of occurrences—this can tell you if a phrase has been overused
HighlightSame—selected a word or phrase, and HighlightSame will highlight all instances of it—also great for identifying those overused words and phrases

Because two of the macros above highlight text, once you've addressed those highlights, you'll want to remove them from your file in one fell swoop. HighlightAllOff does the trick. You can use his UnHighlight to remove highlights selectively.

Karen Woodward also shares two macros that may be useful to writers:

highlight_ly—highlights adverbs ending in "ly"; writing with strong nouns and verbs is always preferable
highlight_targets—highlights words that can clutter your writing, like the weak words "very" and "that"; you can customize the macro by adding other lists of words, too.

These two macros are my current favourites:

NeedlessWords—removes words that clutter your writing (my version of Karen Woodward's highlight_targets)

TellingWords—highlights potential instances of telling, so you can change them to showing

The macros above allow you to consider why you've used certain words in your writing. Addressing needless words and telling words can help you tighten your prose and keep your reader engaged in your story.

And finally, author and editor Ryan Macklin has designed a macro to detect the passive voice in your writing. While a bit of passive voice is alright, too much can make your text more challenging to read.

Macros can help you to see and catch potential problems that you'd otherwise miss in your writing.

Do you have a favourite writing macro?

Image by Matt Scott

Enable Word to Run Macros

Helpby C.K. MacLeod

If you have a fresh install of Word, you may have trouble adding or running macros*. Here's how to sort that.

*Macros are tiny programs that can make writing and editing tasks more efficient and accurate. Some macros can help you to see things in your writing that you wouldn’t otherwise see. If you're a Mac user, see this tutorial for enabling macros in Word 2011.

Adjust Word's Settings

Word doesn’t automatically allow macros to work their magic with a fresh install. You need to adjust some settings in Word before that can happen.

To begin with, you need to give Word permission to enable macros. To do so, go to File, Options, Trust Center, Trust Center Settings button (bottom right), Macro setting (left) and uncheck all options except for Enable all macros and Trust access to the VBA object project model.

Set up Word for macros

The last two options need to be checked. Click OK.

Show Developer Tab

By default, Word’s Developer tab doesn’t show with a fresh install, either. I like to have this tab visible because it’s another place where you can create and run macros.

Word's developer tab

To reveal the Developer tab, go to File, Options, Customize Ribbon, and check the box next to Developer in the Main tab area. Click OK.

Show Word's Developer tab

You’re now set to create and run macros. You’ll find many helpful writing macros on this blog. Go ahead and give them a try! This free 20-minute Macro Course will get you started.

Image by Marc Falardeau

How to Run a Macro in Word


by C.K. Macleod

Macros can help you to identify areas in your writing that need improving. You can also use macros for formatting and editing tasks. In the post Improve Your Writing with Macros I listed some free writing macros you can try, followed by the next step, How to Add a Macro to Word. This post will explain how to run a macro:

  1. Open a document in Word.
  2. Go to the View tab, and click on Macros in the Window area. Select a macro from the list and click on Run. The macro will work its magic on your document.

Where to learn more

For further instructions on how to use macros, see Macros for Editors, in which Paul Beverley offers detailed instructions for understanding and running macros in various versions of Word.

Image by Matt Scott

Writers, Editors, and Money

Glass jar filled with US bills

By C.K. MacLeod

If someone is paying you for writing or editing, you’re running a business. You’ll need to keep track of your income and expenses, not just for tax purposes, but so you can make smart and timely business decisions.

Recently, while reading Your Money or Your Life, by Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez, I was reminded that you can’t change money behaviours that you can’t see. A confession: I’ve never been a fan of the painstaking exercise of tracking my money moves on spreadsheets and ledgers. That, to me, is about as fun as eating cooked spinach, and I’d rather be writing, anyway. Oh, I will do it, but with an awful lot of caterwauling.

Robin and Dominguez include several record-keeping charts in their 9-step program, and if you like creating spreadsheets, you’ll find these to be useful. But, there must be an easier way to keep track of the incoming and outgoing without manually entering data into a spreadsheet. And wouldn’t you know it? There is.

Money-Tracking Apps

I use use two money-tracking apps: Wave for business income and expenses, and Mint for everything else. Both apps list financial transactions in one handy location, saving you from dreaded manual entry methods. They use algorithms to “guess” if a transaction is an income or expense, and assign, often accurately, a descriptive label, or "category" to each transaction. What's left for me to do? Check that each category has been correctly assigned, which is fine because it keeps my eyes on my expenses, and fun because it only takes a minute or two.

From there, I can generate instant reports, complete with coloured charts and graphs that help me to see my financial picture. In Wave, I can print an income and expenses report that’s useful at tax time, and in Mint, I can earmark transactions (such as bank interest deposits) that I'll need to report on at tax time.

I can also compare my income and expenses from previous months to discover patterns that need adjusting. For example, in Mint, I discovered what my three biggest spending categories were. When I signed up for a money-back credit card that issued decent money-back rewards for three spending categories, I immediately knew which categories to choose.

Both apps are free, computer and phone-friendly, and setting them up is easy. You’ll need to connect the apps to any bank accounts, PayPal accounts, and credit cards that you use.

Is it safe?

Mint is owned by Intuit, the creators of the popular online tax software TurboTax. Wave is Canadian-owned and follows Canadian privacy laws (which are pretty strict). To accept read-only information from bank accounts, these apps need to be PCI-compliant, and adhere to the gold-standard security measures required by banks.

You cannot access your money in any way with these apps. They’re mirror accounts that show you your financial status. They won’t give you, or anyone else, the ability to touch your money. As with any cloud-based software, it’s an excellent idea to create strong passwords that you can change frequently. Using a Password manager, such as LastPass, will help you do that without tearing your hair out.

Since using these apps, I have an up-to-the-minute understanding of my income and expenses, without the drudgery of collecting this information manually. And because I prefer to spend my time with words instead of numbers, that’s money in the bank.

Note: if you’re a Canadian, sign up for the Canadian version of Mint to get the benefit of Canadian privacy laws.

Image by Tax Credits

How to Automate Writing and Editing Tasks

Robot Painting

by C.K. MacLeod

Writing takes a great deal of energy, focus, and time. Add to that the necessary revising and editing tasks required to polish your writing and writing is now a part-time job. Or a full-time job.

What if I told you that you could automate some writing and editing tasks?

Recently, my editing colleague Paul Beverley created a macro that accomplished in five minutes what would take me half a day to do manually.

In fact, Paul Beverley has created over 500 macros, many of which have made editing tasks, in particular, easier to manage. You can download his free book of macros — Macros for Editors — at Archive Publications. And, if you’ve never used a macro before, you can learn how in this free 20-minute macro course.

Automating Editing Tasks

So, what kinds of writing and editing tasks can you automate with the use of macros and other tools? Here is my current list of favourite tasks to automate:

  • Reach readability targets and make writing easier to understand (PlainLanguage macro or Hemingway Editor)
  • Remove most instances of passive voice for livelier writing (Hemingway Editor or PassiveWords macro)
  • Clean up formatting to get a book ready for ebook conversion, or a content ready to upload to a website (FRedit — Archive Publications)
  • Build in better use of Bloom’s Taxonomy verbs for how-to books, teaching articles, and online courses (FRedit— Archive Publications)
  • Pull out citations from your chapters and list them on a separate page so you can build a reference list or bibliography (CiteCheck — Macros for Editors)

And for my fiction writing friends...

  • Identify instances of telling, where showing might work better (TellingWords macro).

In Making Word 2010 Work for You, Hillary Powers points out that if you repeat an editing action three times, you might want to find a way to automate it. Wise advice.

What writing or editing tasks would you like to automate? What tools are you using?

Image by weasel.jem

The Fastest Way to Build an Online Home


by C.K. MacLeod

Do you have an online home? You really should.

Recently, a managing editor contacted me to see if I was interested in doing some work for his publisher. The timing wasn’t great for me, but I didn’t want to leave the publisher high and dry. With the managing editor's permission, I contacted my editing group and asked interested editors to contact me. I got seven email responses in the first hour.

When I make a referral, I want to know something about the person I’m referring, but I couldn’t find out anything about these editors other than what they told me in their email messages. They didn’t appear to have online homes.

I get it. Setting up a website and keeping up with social media is a lot of work. But may I suggest that you do one small thing? Set up an page. I learned about this site through personal branding expert Sidneyeve Matrix. is the equivalent of a digital business card, or a mini one-page website. It’s free for a basic account, it’ll take you less than an hour to set up, and then you can link to it in your email signature. Here's my page:

Corina's page
Corina's page

If you’re providing services, or you have something to sell, you don’t need to buy an online mansion. You can take up residence in a tiny online yurt.

Image by Prashant Ram

Comment Shortcuts in Word


by C.K. MacLeod

Editors use the Comments feature in Word to ask writers clarifying questions or to make suggestions. Beta readers can use this feature to provide feedback, too.

In Word 2016, you could, of course, wander over to the ribbon, click on the Reviewing tab, and select New Comment in the Comments area. But that’s a lot of clicks if you have to repeat this action hundreds of times in a week.

To save your wrists from repetitive strain, click anywhere in a word and use the keyboard shortcut Alt + R, C.

If you work on multiple documents like I do, you might discover that you’re typing the same comment repeatedly. You can create a shortcut for these “standard” comments, too! Here’s how:

In Word, click on File, Options, Proofing, Autocorrect Options. In the grid that pops up, type a two- or three-character shortcut in the Replace box. In the With box, type the sentence that you want your computer to type for you.

Autocorrect dialog box in Word 2016
Create your own "text expander" using shortcuts.

Here’s what that looks like:

Replace: .cl
With: Could you check this link?

Your computer will type the sentence for you when you type .cl.


Replace: .wi
With: Could you write a one-paragraph intro to frame the module?

Tip: Begin your shortcut with a period, so you don’t accidentally choose letter combinations that are words (".at" for "insert alt text" is better than "at," for example). Choose letter combinations that you’ll remember easily. For me, .cl means “check link” and .wi means “write intro.”

Creating shortcuts can save your wrists from too much mousing, clicking, and typing. It can also save you loads of time.

What are your favourite shortcuts? Are you a Mac user? What shortcuts do you use? Feel free to share in the comments below.

Image by Daniel Lobo

5 Ways to Create an Em Dash

Pause with Scrabble tiles

by C.K. MacLeod

Updated on January 14, 2017.

I have all-in-one laptop that weighs the same as a tablet. It’s a marvel of a machine except for one thing: because it doesn’t have a numeric keypad (less keyboard = better portability), I cannot create em dashes (—) and en dashes (–) in my usual way.

(You know there are three kinds of dashes in written English, right? Use them correctly in your writing and you will impress a copyeditor!)

1. Use built-in keyboard shortcuts.

On a regular-size keyboard with a number keypad, I can use keyboard shortcuts to create em dashes and en dashes:

  • Em dash (—): Alt+0151
  • En dash (–): Alt+0150

In Microsoft Word:

  • Em dash (—): Alt+Ctrl+ - (minus)
  • En dash (–): Ctrl + - (minus)

Mac users use these shortcuts:*

  • Em dash (—): Shift-Alt-hyphen or Command + M
  • En dash (–): Alt-hyphen

My usual keyboard shortcuts don’t work on my portable laptop, though. Here are few workarounds:

2. Plug in a full-size external keyboard or keypad.

This option will only be appealing to you if you tend to use your laptop like a desktop.

For editing documents, I like to plug my laptop into a massive monitor and attach a wireless mouse and full-size keyboard, complete with a number keypad.

Alternatively, you can plug in a portable USB number keypad and use your laptop keyboard and touchpad. With this set-up, there are no problems creating em and en dashes in my usual way—using Alt codes.

But what if you prefer to use your laptop on-the-go, as it’s intended? Read on…

3. Use Unicode character codes.

Most compact PC laptop keyboards won’t allow you to use Alt codes to create em dashes and en dashes, but you can use Unicode character codes in most instances:

  • Em dash: 2014+Alt+x
  • En dash: 2013+Alt+x

You can look up other Unicode character codes here.

Note: Keyboard shortcuts using Unicode character codes don’t work in Scrivener, Gmail, or Google docs. For these programs, try one of the options that follow.

4. Use your word processor’s built-in autocorrect function.

In Google Docs, if you type two hyphens followed by a space, those two hyphens will be changed to an em dash. Out of the box, Word and Scrivener will do the same.

There isn’t an autocorrect option out of the box for an en dash, though. So, you can try this:

In Word 2010 and up, go to Tools, Options, Proofing, and click on the AutoCorrect Options button.

Select the AutoCorrect tab and add these keyboard shortcuts:

  • Replace: .em  With: —
  • Replace .en  With: –

Now each time you type .em (dot em) in Microsoft Word, it will be replaced by an em dash, and .en will give you an en dash.

If you want to do the same in Scrivener, go to Tool, Options, Corrections, Edit Substitutions. In Google Docs, go to Tools, Preferences.

5. Use your operating system’s character map.

Using you operating system’s search function, type in “character map.” A grid with symbols will pop up, and you can select the em dash or en dash and copy and paste it into your document. In Scrivener, you can access your operating system’s character map by going to Edit, Character Map. In Word 2010 and up, you’ll need to go to Insert, Symbol. In Google Docs, go to Insert, Special Characters.

Be Efficient

There are many ways to create em dashes and en dashes on your laptop. If your only option is to use the character map (the least efficient option), consider inserting two hyphens for em dashes in your document for now. You can then use your word processor’s find and replace function to replace the hyphens with the correct symbol later.

Do you use a Mac? Let us know how you insert em dashes and en dashes into your writing in the comments section below.

*Thanks to John Espirian and Geri J. for suggesting keyboard shortcuts for Mac users.

Image by Dennis Skley