Archive for February, 2012


Word: Table borders don’t hold

February 28, 2012

I got a Word 2007 document to edit the other day from one of my colleagues. As per our house style, it had a table of terms in it. However, instead of using the borderless table in the template, the author had inserted their own table, which had dashed borders.

Easy enough to fix — just set the ‘No borders’ attribute to the table. And that seemed to work, until I had to add new rows at the end of the table for extra terms I found in the document. Each new row I added had a gray horizontal internal border. I could get rid of it by reapplying the ‘No borders’ setting, but that border came back as I added more and more rows. I tried all sorts of things to get rid of it, including putting the table in a new doc then bringing it back in to the original doc. Nothing worked.

Added to my dilemma was the first row, which was in bold text. I removed the bold, but when I copied the table back in from the clean document I’d put it into, the first row was bolded again. There was no special style applied to this row, and if I added a row above it, the words I put into that new row were bolded too (and the words in the second row reverted to normal text). So something was affecting that first row and making it bold, and something was affecting the new rows too by adding a visible border to them.

The solution to both problems was easy! The author had applied a table design style to the table. Even though I’d manually removed the borders and unbolded the bolded text, the design they’d selected was still applied to new rows.

The author had applied a design to the table

To fix it, I only had to clear the check boxes on the left — there was no benefit in applying a different design as the issues wouldn’t go away with a new design.

These check boxes were affecting the first row and all new rows

Once I’d cleared the check boxes for Header Row, Banded Rows, and First Column [(1) in the screen shot above], the design changed to (2), and all the issues I was having disappeared.


It’s all about style

February 24, 2012

(adapted from a ‘Writing Tips’ email sent to work colleagues)

Bottom line:

  • There are no ‘rules’, only conventions, guidelines, accepted practices, and usage patterns – and traditions
  • Style guides offer guidelines for word and punctuation usage, word formatting, etc. The group I work with has an Editorial Guide that I wrote for them.
  • The Macquarie Dictionary is our spelling authority for anything not specifically listed in the Editorial Guide (
  • The Australian Style Manual is our authority for anything not specifically listed in the Editorial Guide (; unfortunately, it’s not available as an eBook, PDF or searchable website)

One of our authors queried me about why I’d picked up two words that he’d used in a document – I’d corrected one and queried the other.

For the word I’d corrected (adviser/advisor), my decision was relatively easy as I had referred to Macquarie Dictionary for spelling guidance, as per our Editorial Guide. Macquarie stated that both variations were acceptable, so then I’d used the experience I’ve gained working on the [project] to decide that I’d seen ‘advisor’ used far more often within the [organisation] (especially for job titles) than ‘adviser’ – so I went with ‘advisor’.

The other word (‘stewarded’) wasn’t so easy. ‘Steward’ is a noun according to Macquarie, except for some US military usage where it is a verb ‘to steward’. And while you shouldn’t ‘verb a noun’, it happens quite often (e.g. impact/impacted, task/tasked, etc.). Macquarie didn’t allow ‘stewarded’, so I queried the author and he sent me definitions for ‘stewarded’ that he found on the internet. Ultimately, the use of that word is his decision – my job was to let him know that the verb form he’d used wasn’t acceptable according to Macquarie.

This discussion between us got me thinking about language and how it changes over time and how it’s not set in stone. Despite what your teacher may have drummed into you at school, there are no ‘rules’ – there are only conventions, guidelines, accepted practices, and usage patterns. And traditions. What isn’t acceptable now may well be acceptable in 10 years time; what was unacceptable several years ago, may be acceptable now. Language — and conventions related to language, such as punctuation and grammar — are changing all the time; some changes take centuries, others take just a few short years. (See a blog post I wrote on changing language styles and punctuation conventions over time, based on evidence from Australian newspapers:

Words that join up to become one word (e.g. data base, then data-base, then database) are the most problematic, as the form of the word (from two words to a compound hyphenated word to a single word) can change very quickly, and in some cases, can skip the hyphenated step altogether. Dictionaries find it hard to keep up, so it’s no surprise that inconsistencies abound even within a single dictionary (e.g. Macquarie has seabed, seahorse, seagrass, seabird and also sea floor, sea breeze, sea pen etc.). Most of my searches on Macquarie relate to whether a word is closed, hyphenated, or is still two words. Then there’s capitalization (web page vs Web Page, eMail vs e-mail vs e-Mail vs Email vs email vs E-mail vs E-Mail etc.) – each new edition of a dictionary may change how it treats these sorts of words as they morph from ‘brand’ words into common words. No wonder authors get confused!

This is why we have an Editorial Guide – to guide you when you’re writing your documents by taking away some of the anguish and decision-making you might otherwise face when confronted with a writing dilemma (e.g. Do I italicise ‘et al.’ in a citation? Do I italicise the title of an Act of Parliament? Do I include an Act in the References list? [our Editorial Guide says Yes, Yes, and No to these questions]).

While we do it one way, another organisation – or even another part of [our organisation] — may do it another way. Neither are necessarily ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ – just different.

[Links last checked February 2012]


Intermittent posts for the next month or so

February 22, 2012

In just over a week’s time, I’m heading off to the US for my annual pilgrimage to the WritersUA Conference, where I’ll meet up with my fellow technical communicators from around the world. I’m also attending a 5-day quilting workshop in southern Texas beforehand.

When I return, I *know* I’ll have a lot of work to do and to catch up on.

So what with long flights when I’ll be totally out of touch, attending and speaking at workshops and conferences, and driving around Texas and Arkansas and into Tennessee, my blog posts over the next month will be sporadic at best.

However, I’ll try to post about each of the sessions I attend at the conference for those who can’t be there.

See also:

[Links last checked February 2012]



Too many steps

February 21, 2012

I needed to unsubscribe from an email newsletter. Easy enough, you’d think. You just click the Unsubscribe link at the bottom of the email, which typically takes you to a web page that tells you that you’re now unsubscribed, and sometimes gives you the option of resubscribing in case you made a mistake.

Not this time.

I clicked the Unsubscribe link at the bottom of the email, and a web page opened:

What the? I had to click another link??? So I clicked it. And got another web page displayed:

Now I have to check my email??? And what’s the language box for? (I selected a different language and didn’t get the message displayed in another language — instead I got ANOTHER web page where I could subscribe!).

When the email came through, I got this:

Sheesh! I had to do about six steps/clicks/actions just to unsubscribe from the email list. It should’ve taken two steps at the most — click the link in the email, then either click a confirmation in the webpage OR, even better, just see a message that I’ve been unsubscribed and close the web page.

This process is in need of a serious makeover.


How long?

February 20, 2012

I’ve been part of several web application and website developments, as well as worked for numerous software companies. In all cases, we’ve spent a lot of time testing the new app/site/software in a test environment. There’s all sorts of testing that happens with the developers before the code gets put together for overall internal development testing, then it’s released to others in the company, before being released to a select group of beta testers (users). Only after LOTS of rigorous testing in several development environments (internal development, alpha, beta, user acceptance testing [UAT], and perhaps others), does the app/software/site get released to production and then to the public.

If it’s a website, then a copy of the site is worked on on an internal web server at first, and then in the real web environment, but that URL is never made public until it’s time for release.

Anyhow, that’s my experience over the past 15+ years. So I was surprised when a site I visit regularly had this on its home page about a week ago:

This message concerns me for several reasons:

  • There’s no date on it as to when the message was first displayed, therefore anyone visiting the site has no idea what ‘a few weeks’ means.
  • What’s ‘a few weeks’? One week? Two? Four? Ten? Never?…
  • Whatever happened to testing in a protected environment while keeping the existing site running (it didn’t seem to be broken when it was up)? Perhaps add a message to the existing site to say that a new site is coming soon, but leave the functionality up.
  • This site invited sellers to sponsor them by displaying a small ad on the left and right of the main content. There were a lot of sellers, all of whom would’ve paid money for xx weeks of ad exposure. What happens to them? Do they get their money back if their ad campaign was stopped before it had run its course?

If you’re going to revamp your website/app/etc., then:

  • test it thoroughly in a development environment, while keeping the current site up
  • perhaps let users know that a new site is coming, but DON’T take down the site entirely, unless you’ve gone out of business. You’ll lose paying customers (ad campaigns) and readers.
  • provide a way for readers/advertisers to be notified when the site is back up and running. If you don’t, readers will find somewhere else to go, and will forget about you — if you have to take the site down completely, as in this case, you need  have some sort of form where they can sign up to be notified when the site is back up. (BTW, this site had an option for entering your email address to be notified when it was back, as well as options to follow them on Twitter and Facebook for updates.)

[Link last check February 2012]


Tooltip typo

February 17, 2012

I bet Australia Post didn’t get a technical writer/editor to check the tooltips on their website:

BTW, we spell it as ‘catalogue’ in Australia, so that’s not the error.

[Link last checked February 2012]


WritersUA: Last chance to order for personal delivery

February 15, 2012

Meshing my two worlds here…

Many of you who have been to recent WritersUA conferences know that I make (useful) things in fabric in my leisure hours… things like travel accessories (luggage tags, luggage straps, Kindle/iPad sleeves, etc.), household accessories (coasters, place mats, tea cozies, oven mitts), bookmarks and journal covers, and so on. I sell these from my online Etsy store:

Some of you have purchased some of my goodies as I hear reports from others of luggage tags I’ve made, and the like, being spotted at other conferences!

I’m off to the US in two weeks (I leave on March 1) for the annual WritersUA conference so here’s your last chance to order from my Etsy store ( and get your goodies personally delivered by me at the conference — with no shipping charges! Orders MUST be received and paid for prior to noon February 28, 2012, Pacific Time.

This offer is ONLY open to those attending the WritersUA Conference in Memphis, Tennessee from March 11 to 14, 2012. When you place your order, please add a note to let me know that you’re attending the conference and use the coupon code of WRITERSUA so that you aren’t charged shipping. I look forward to seeing you at the conference!

Here’s a small sample of some of the stuff I make:


WritersUA Conference: Only a few weeks to go

February 14, 2012

In two weeks’ time I’ll be jetting off to the US to attend the WritersUA Conference for Software User Assistance. Woohoo!

This is a GREAT conference for anyone doing online Help for software, web apps, mobile apps and the like. It’s small enough to get to know people, and big enough to have great choices of sessions for every time slot. And it always has some awesome speakers.

Details on the conference are here:

This year, the conference is in Memphis, Tennessee (March 11 to 14), and my contribution is two sessions in the User Assistance (UA) 101 special thread being held on Sunday, 11 March 2011. I’m doing a session on editing and another on user interface text.

Immediately before the conference, I’m indulging a personal hobby of mine by attending a 5-day quilting workshop in southern Texas.

I can’t wait for both!

(As a side note… If you’re coming to WritersUA and you want anything from my Etsy store [], use the coupon code WRITERSUA to get the shipping fee removed. I’ll hand-deliver your goodies to you at the conference! More details tomorrow…)


Word: Delete tabs and page numbers from the end of a paragraph

February 13, 2012

One of my colleagues wanted me to grab all the tables of contents (TOCs) out of 18 separate chapters of a really long report and put them in a single document that she could share with the stakeholders. She only wanted the outline numbering and the heading titles, down to three TOC levels.

I copied each table of contents and pasted it as plain text into a new document. That preserved the outline numbering, followed by a tab, then the heading title, but it also added a tab after the heading title and the page number, neither of which were required. As the plain text version of the 18 chapter TOCs came to well over 12 pages (!), there were several hundred lines, one for each TOC entry. I could manually delete these tabs and page numbers, but that was going to get very tedious very quickly.

What I wanted was a single command to get rid of the end tabs followed by the page number. But I needed to keep the tabs after the outline numbers.

Find and replace wildcards to the rescue!

My first attempt only found the single digit page numbers and replaced them, so I tested a bit more to find a way to delete page numbers no matter what their length.

Here’s how:

  1. Open Word’s Find and Replace dialog box (Ctrl+H).
  2. Click More to show more options.
    Find and Replace dialog - click the More button
  3. Select the Use wildcards check box.
    Find and Replace dialog - select Wse Wildcards
  4. In the Find what field, type: (^t)([0-9]*)(^13)
    Note: There are NO spaces in this string, the t must be lower case, and there’s an asterisk (*) immediately after [0-9] bit.
  5. In the Replace with field, type: ^p
    Note: The p must be in lower case.
    Replace tab and page number with paragraph mark
  6. Click Find Next, then click Replace to test that it works fine. If so, click Replace All.

Explanation for how this works:

  • (^t) looks for a tab character; you MUST use a lower case t and precede it with the ^ (Shift+6). Because you are using wildcards, you need to surround the characters you want to find in parentheses.
  • ([0-9]*) looks for any numeral of any length that follows immediately after the tab character. The square brackets indicate a range — in this case any numeral from 0 to 9 will be found. And the asterisk looks for any number of characters that are in the range of 0 to 9 (this finds all the one, two, three etc. digit page numbers).
  • (^13) looks for the paragraph marker immediately following the page number. Note: When using wildcards you can’t use the usual ^p for the paragraph marker — you MUST use ^13 (the control code for a carriage return). See:
  • ^p in the Replace field replaces everything found (the tab followed by the page number[s] followed by the paragraph mark) with a paragraph mark, effectively deleting the tab and page number(s).

It worked like a charm! My colleague was super impressed and I learned something new — can’t ask for more than that!

[Links last checked February 2012]


Consistency: Pick one. Stick with it.

February 9, 2012

Bottom line:

  • Consistency reduces confusion.
  • Always use the official term where it exists.
  • Don’t use terminology variations just because you think your document sounds repetitive – better to be repetitive and clear than to offer synonymous terms and confuse your readers!

Your readers will get confused if you aren’t consistent in the terminology you use in your documents. Does phrase A mean the same as phrase B? If the words are similar, but not quite the same, are they different things or the same thing? If your reader has to hesitate to figure it out, invariably that means that you’ve confused them. If the words mean the same thing, then you must use the same term for it throughout the document. And always use your organization’s official version of the term, if one exists.

Let me give you some examples of inconsistent words/phrases from some documents I’ve edited recently:

Example 1: ‘Tenets of Operation’ and ‘Tenets of Operational Excellence’ – same or different?

Example 2: The author used these multiple variations in just three pages: ‘workplace participation’, ‘workplace involvement’, ‘workplace consultation’, and ‘workplace engagement’. I wondered whether the author meant these were different things or just one thing. While these phrases *could* mean different things, in the context of what I read they seemed to refer to the same thing.

Example 3: Variations of these terms: ‘LNG Plant’, ‘Gas Treatment Plant’, ‘process plant’. If they are the same thing, then use the same (official) term throughout the document.

Example 4: ‘Construction Camp’ and ‘Construction Village’ – same or different? Again, use the official term, if it exists.

Example 5: Inconsistency is not just seen in the terms used, but also in how they are written: ‘iHAZID’ and ‘IHAZID’ and ‘HAZID’ – same or different? Should the first ‘i’ be capitalized or not? Is the ‘i’ needed?

Where no official term exists, pick one way to write the term and stick with that throughout the document.

Remember: Consistency reduces confusion.

See also:

[Link last checked February 2012; based on a Writing Tip I wrote for my work colleagues]