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Word Happens

Copyright © 2011 Marie Shear

Geoff Hart, Effective Onscreen Editing: New Tools for an Old Profession, 2nd edition, Quebec: Diaskeuasis Publishing, 2010, 507 pages, $34 paperback (; 723 pages, $20 PDF (


If computers weren’t “malevolently contrary,” in the words of Geoff Hart, we wouldn’t need tomes like his Effective Onscreen Editing to help us cope. There are, he says, “many ingenious ways software has developed to ruin our day.” Microsoft Word is at once primitive and arcane, elaborate and squirrelly.

Concentrating on Word 2003 for Windows and Word 2008 for the Macintosh, Hart treks through an array of editorial chores: customizing the software; tracking changes; using Find and Replace; automating repetitive tasks with keyboard shortcuts and macros; understanding templates and toolbars; creating an exclusionary dictionary; dealing with incompatible programs and the flaws of grammar-checkers—you get the idea.

Parts of Effective Onscreen Editing lend themselves to onscreen reading, rather than print, so we can apply or experiment with their advice on the spot. Otherwise, those parts may seem complicated and abstract. Much of the book is unavoidably intricate; there’s no jolly way to explain how to ferret something from its hidey-hole in Word and then coax it to do our bidding. For that we need a “kludge,” Hart says—“an inelegant workaround used to force the software to do something it would do more elegantly if only the designers had spent five seconds thinking about your needs.” Most editors “have a love-hate relationship” with Word, he continues, which has inspired the maxim “Word happens.”

When Hart turns from the essential geeky stuff to the human element, he leaves Byzantium behind and writes straightforwardly. He advises readers to cultivate a productive working relationship with authors by easing their workloads—“their” is the pronoun Hart uses; by being tactful and reassuring, an editor can become the author’s ally, instead of an adversary. Hart also explains how to encourage reluctant colleagues and clients to embrace onscreen editing.

He discusses editorial fees, contract negotiations, safety hazards to your computer and your body, and the indispensability of multiple backups. Hart cites works by EFA members Katharine O’Moore-Klopf, Hilary Powers and Ruth Thaler-Carter among the sources of information he recommends.

The book is easily navigated via its detailed table of contents and index, which total 28 pages, but the text looks formidably dense. Margins are barely wide enough to let you write “huh?” or “me try” in them, although adequate margins would have increased the book’s considerable length and weight.

Hart casts a cool, sometimes acid, eye on Word’s lunacies. Immersion in them hasn’t destroyed his sense of humor: He defines “editor” as the “neglected, underappreciated hero of the publishing process.” He frequently refers to the merits of paper as a complement to the computer. And he knows when to surrender: “Although it’s tempting to go spelunking in the long list of settings to solve certain vexing problems, you may find it easier to simply live with these problems; odds are good that you’ll only make the situation worse by randomly modifying options.”

Yet Hart believes that time invested in learning the software “will repay itself a hundredfold” in saving time and making you a faster, more accurate editor. I quickly adopted one of his helpful hints while writing this review.

Good tools are transparent. By “tools,” I mean good office supplies, can openers and clothing that let you do what you want while you still remember why you wanted to do it. Rodale’s thesaurus does that; Roget’s doesn’t. (Even if I’m the last dissident standing, I still growl at the Chicago Manual of Style.) When editorial workers must learn Unicode or “control codes,” rather than being able to enter ordinary English words in the Find and Replace box, Word is not transparent; it’s an invaluable tool that often distracts us and clutters our brains.

While Stephen Sondheim has grubbed a modest livelihood using Blackwing pencils and lined yellow legal pads, I can’t imagine other writers, as well as editors and proofreaders, not learning something from the authoritative abundance of Hart’s work.

Besides, there’s an “off-label” use for the book. Last year, when a Brooklyn College librarian was frustrated by her sluggish computer, I airily told her, “Awww, hit it with a hammer.” Without missing a beat, she replied, “We call that ‘percussive maintenance.’ ” If you don’t have a hammer at hand, the hefty Effective Onscreen Editing will do nicely.


"Word Happens" was originally published by the Editorial Freelancers Association in the March/April edition of its newsletter, The Freelancer. It is reprinted by permission of the author. (EFA members can get a $5 discount on either the print version or the PDF of Effective Onscreen Editing. Both versions have the same content; the latter has more pages because its format is meant for the screen.)


Marie Shear says she is a widely unheralded writer and editor. Her articles, columns, and book reviews have appeared in more than 50 periodicals, anthologies, and reference books. She has written about the media, women, politics, popular culture, bigotry, disability rights, and the right to die for the Women’s Review of Books, New Directions for Women, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, and Harvard’s African American National Biography project. The latest version of her article “Solving the Great Pronoun Problem” was published by the American Society of Newspaper Editors.  Shear’s article “ ‘Little Marie’: The Daily Toll of Sexist Language” in On the Issues Magazine is at <>. She is a member of the National Writers Union and the Editorial Freelancers Association.

E-mail: <emshear AT>

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