Book Review: The Secret Life of Word

The Secret Life of Word, by Robert Delwood, XML Press, May 2011, paper, 274 pages, ISBN-13: 978-0982219164, $35.95, Amazon.com link, Amazon.ca link.

There are a lot of books about Microsoft Word, but not many are very useful to technical writers. We have Geoff Hart’s Effective Onscreen Editing, Jack Lyons’ Microsoft Word for Publishing Professionals, and the Taming Microsoft Word series from Jean Weber. And you can pry my dog-eared copy of Woody Leonhard’s Word ’97 Annoyances from my cold dead hands.

Now there’s another title to add to that short list: The Secret Life of Word: A Professional Writer’s Guide to Word Automation by Robert Delwood.

Although the subtitle uses the word “automation”, don’t assume that this is yet another book about Word macros and VBA. It covers those, but a lot more as well, including some of the newer features introduced in Word 2007, quick parts and content controls, that I haven’t seen explained well in many other books.

That being said, the book does cover macros as one of the standard automation techniques, but it’s not really a book from which to learn macro programming. You’ll get the basics from it, but you’ll also want a good VBA reference  to give you syntax details that this book doesn’t include. Other than an introductory chapter, macros aren’t treated as a specific subject – rather, they’re used throughout the book as a technique to automate processes and tasks that most writers would find familiar. For example, the chapter on fields includes a macro to list all bookmarks and their values in a separate document – which will be very useful if you ever have to debug broken bookmarks in a Word document. There’s also a good explanation of custom fields and complex fields, including using Boolean logic with fields. The discussion of fields segues into content controls, which allow you to include interactive features in your documents without programming.

The chapter on AutoText includes information on building blocks and quick parts. which have been around for a while, although they weren’t named as such until Word 2007. Following that is a section on smart tags, a relatively new feature based on XML, which is also the basis of Word’s new document format. There’s a detailed chapter on exchanging data with other programs including Microsoft Excel and Access.

Appendices include a VBA reference and a section on how to plan automation projects, and information on troubleshooting.

About the only thing missing that I could think of would be information on Word’s XML-based file format and some tips on post processing files with XSLT.

The Secret Life of Word gets under the hood of Microsoft Word like few other books I’ve read. It’s an essential reference for any technical writer who has to use Word for anything more than the occasional memo.

4 Responses to “Book Review: The Secret Life of Word”

  1. M@ says:

    I thought I was the only one still holding on to Woody Leonhard’s book!

  2. Jessica says:

    You’re not. And I have his other early books as well, though I don’t consult them very often.

  3. Keith says:

    Yes, Woody’s book is still useful. It’s description of Word’s object model is still one of the best I’ve seen.

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