Get Inline

I’ve been curious for some time about the pros and cons of using inline comments—that is, queries inserted into the body of a document rather than created in the margin using Word’s Comments tool. I have used inline comments in a few documents, to accommodate authors who had problems using the Comments tool, but I have never been able to find much in the way of guidance in editing books or online. So earlier this year I asked fellow members of the Editorial Freelancers Association (EFA) what they thought about inline commenting. I received a lot of useful information and thought it would be helpful to create a brief summary of what I heard. In a companion post I provide a short macro that I developed to automate the process of creating and formatting inline comments.

I was surprised to find that (at least among the EFA members who responded) many editors prefer to create inline comments. Reasons given for this preference included the following:

  • Working with inline comments is easier for authors who are not familiar with Word’s Comments tool (that is, most authors).
  • Authors can more easily see comments—if they are formatted well—and identify the parts of the text they pertain to.
  • Inline comments can be inserted into footnotes, while comments made with the Comments tool cannot. (A work-around for using the Comments tool with footnotes is to attach the comment to the footnote superscript, but this requires the reader to jump back and forth between the note and the comment.)
  • Inserting and editing inline comments can be faster and easier, particularly for editors who use the revision pane.
  • Editors can add queries while keeping a split screen open. (I did not have any problems using the Comments tool in Word 2013 while the screen was split, but this might be a problem with older versions of Word.)

A few downsides to using inline comments were also mentioned, although there are solutions that address most of these problems.

  • Comments can be accidentally left in a document if they are not highly visible or if proofreading is not thorough enough. This problem can be avoided by formatting comments so that they are highly visible and by using a comment format (discussed below) that facilitates mass deletion using the search-and-replace function.
  • Inline comments interrupt the text and can distract readers. One way to solve this issue is to use the Hidden text effect (which is set in the Font menu) to format comments. You can then use the “Show/Hide ¶” button to turn the display of hidden content on and off (this displays all hidden content, but in a future post I’ll provide a macro that displays only hidden text).
  • Inline comments will throw off the word count for a document. This problem is also avoided by making comments hidden, as hidden text isn’t counted.
  • Tools designed to extract comments created with Word’s Comments tool will not work with inline comments. While this is true, a macro to extract inline comments could be created fairly easily.

So on the whole there appear to be some very good reasons to use inline comments, and the weaknesses inherent in this approach can be minimized, if not eliminated altogether.

Formatting inline comments so that they stand out from the surrounding text is obviously very important. Most of the EFA respondents do this by placing them between [square brackets], <inequality signs>, or similar characters. Use of {braces} seems preferable to me because these characters are rarely used for other purposes, making searching faster. Use of [[doubled brackets]] has similar benefits.

To improve the visibility of inline comments, text is commonly highlighted, bolded, or both. Using a character style to apply this formatting is very efficient and makes a number of tasks, including searching for, reformatting, and selecting inline comments, easier.

I would like to thank the EFA members who responded to my questions about inline comments: Maxine Idakus, Sophia Gray, Elaine R. Firestone, Deborah Wenger, Monica Payson, Dr. Hilary Cadman, Gloria Sturzenacker, Marta Tanrikulu, Ann Robertson, Michael Huber, Hilary Powers, Pat Dobie, and Lise Lingo.

I am interested in hearing about your experiences with inline comments, so please feel free to let me know if you have any opinions on the subject.


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