Bill Coan reviews the latest offering from O'Reilly Publishing's Hack Series
Word Hacks: Tips and Tools for Taming Your Text
by Andrew Savikas
Published by O'Reilly
Andew Savikas knows his way around word processing. He’d better: As a member of the O'Reilly Tools Group, he helps O'Reilly’s production department turn manuscripts into books.
Savikas doesn’t claim to be a Word specialist and he makes no claim that his book is by or for Word specialists. Instead, his book assembles a wide range of tips and techniques (mostly macro-based) that show how to leverage the power and versatility of the world’s most popular word processing program.
No single reader is likely to need or even be interested in all of the hacks included in the book. On the other hand, almost every reader will find something of potential value in what is truly a varied collection.
Savikas credits Greg Chapman (yes, MouseTrax’s very own Greg Chapman!) and Evan Lenz and Shyam Pillai and Phil Rabichow for contributions to the book, along with a list of other distinguished contributors. The strength of the book lies in their diverse backgrounds.
The book includes plenty of predictable but potentially highly useful power-user hacks for tweaking Word’s user interface, creating custom views of documents, managing bullets and numbering and styles, and working with custom dictionaries. It also includes an interesting administrative hack for reporting and reviewing Word’s options settings, and it even discusses a way to use Word as a Windows backup utility. (Regular readers of TechTrax will recognize these last items as being based on Dian Chapman’s TechTrax article, Word Options Utility! and Greg Chapman’s TechTrax article, Microsoft Word as a System Management Tool.)
Some of the hacks make clever use of RTF and XML formats to accomplish tasks that are difficult or impossible to accomplish in any other way, such as stripping unneeded list templates and direct formatting from Word documents. Others demonstrate how to use Python, Perl, Ruby, and Google with Word, and how to create PDF files from Word without Adobe Acrobat.
All of the books in the Hacks series are designed for quick reference rather than for reading from cover to cover. That design is particularly noticeable in this book, since the hacks cover such a wide range of ideas and since there is no particular progression from one hack to the next.
Although most readers won’t mind, the book lacks some of the technical depth that a Word specialist would have brought to it. For example, readers are told in at least one case to comment out a certain line of code based on the version of Word they’re using. (A Word specialist would have written the code in a way that runs on all versions.)
The hack on using character codes fails to discuss Word’s special treatment of character codes for decorative fonts. The hack on creating XSL Transformations for Word 2003 fails to mention Microsoft’s free XSL Inference Tool for Word. (The tool was announced fairly recently, but Word specialists have known of its availability for months.)
One hack recommends a standalone command-line processor for adding linebreaks and indentations to WordprocessingML files, a task that most self-respecting Word specialists would accomplish with a simple Word macro.
The hacks are organized rather arbitrarily into ten chapters. This scheme made it nearly impossible for Savikas to write coherent, compelling introductions to the chapters. In fairness, it must be admitted that the range of hacks made it nearly impossible to organize them in any way other than an arbitrary one. The introductions to the hacks aren’t particularly seductive. Quite often, you have to read several sentences before figuring out what a hack does and why you might want to use it.
The hacks themselves are interesting, varied, and for the most part well-conceived and economically coded. Word users who want to tap the full power of Word and those who merely want to survey the possibilities should consider this book.
Click here to visit the publisher’s website: http://www.oreilly.com/catalog/wordhks/
[Editor's note: For those interested in Mac OS/X, O'Reilly also has a Hacks book out for this operating system. And you'll note that Mitch Chapman is a contributing editor to that book. Yes, Mitch Chapman is Greg Chapman's brother. Mitch is also a computer programmer who specializes in Mac systems, Unix and Linux systems and Python language.]