MS Word Commenting Trick

This one weird trick can save you time

Vim, Ph.D.
5 min readDec 2, 2021

UPDATE: MS Word has changed its commenting/review features; the new version of Word handles things more like Google docs, where you have to hit a submit button (or command+return) after you finish a comment…if you forget to do so and try to make a comment further down, well, you get bumped back to your unsubmitted comment. It’s annoying as shit.

Anyway, the more important thing with respect to this post is that you can’t do what I describe below anymore. In the comment slot that opens up to the right, autocorrect doesn’t work. Nor, I guess, does spell check or anything like that. So I guess you can look at what I describe below and lament that the good old days are over. Even though AI, LLMs, and autogenerated content is all the rage right now, you can’t use autocorrect to comment on papers. Only the ETS can do that I guess. Jokes on us! As usual!

(This post is an old one from another blog that I’m reposting here! So when I say yesterday, I don’t mean yesterday yesterday. I mean yesterday in 2014. Yikes.)

Yesterday I was telling somebody at THATCamp Digital Pedagogy about a trick to make commenting on papers a bit less time-consuming and figured it might be nice to share it more broadly.

I’ve used all sorts of methods to comment on student papers since I started teaching college writing in…oy, 1997. All of my courses are writing intensive and I’m required to collect specific word counts of formal writing and provide feedback. It takes a lot of time, effort, and care. Before you say “you should use a rubric! It makes it faster!” I’ll just say now, yes, I have rubrics for various classes and assignments, and I use them somewhat regularly. But I’m also in a field where standards for feedback on writing are pretty high and were getting higher right around the time I was trained to be a writing teacher — a time and place where the idea of process-writing had fully taken hold. ***

Because I use the comment features in MSWord most often, I have space to type comments so that they are clear and easy to read, and in the case of Word, easy to implement. There are all kinds of headaches that come from doing comments this way, and Word commenting can be time consuming just on the return side of things if you have to email every draft back to a class of more than 20 students. But I continue to use it for my small courses. It doesn’t have the convenient “buttons” for common errors or problems that Turnitin’s Grademark feature has, but it’s a lot more elegant aesthetically, and it’s actually less clunky and more versatile if you make your own buttons in a manner of sorts.

Caveat: None of what I do here is revolutionary. I don’t claim to be the only person who does this or who has ever thought of this. But the following trick for dealing with MS Word comments I make frequently in papers, across classes and over and over, is something I’ve found that not everybody knows about. So here it is.

  1. Find the Auto-Correct tab under your Tools menu (on a Mac — it may be that it’s elsewhere for PC users).
An image of the AutoCorrect box in MS Word and how to use “Replace” and “With” fields
An image that shows you what to put in “Replace:” and “With” fields.

2. Make sure various boxes are checked, including the one for “replace text as you type.”

3. Then, in the windows below, come up with a code that’s related to the problem you frequently find yourself addressing in student papers, but that isn’t an existing word or acronym, and insert it into the “Replace” column.

4. Then type up the comment you typically type, in as general terms if possible. There’s a character limit, but you can write a fairly lengthy comment in that box.

5. Once you click “add” below, then click “Ok” to return to your document. (Anytime you forget the codes you used for a particular comment, you can return to the same settings and type a guess into the replace box; if you’re close, you’ll see it come up in the menu below.)

6. You can use your codes while using the Insert Comment feature or while typing into the document itself. All you need to do is type in your code and Auto-Correct will replace it with your comment. It works great for various writing/structural things, like telling students that long ¶s should be broken up, or that they need a stronger transition, they need better evidence, or that you’ve written a longer comment at the bottom of the document addressing something specific there.

Here’s an example of the kinds of comments I have at the ready:

An image of my comments
My commenting in action

Here are the “codes” I use for each of those comments:

Comment 6 code: colloq

Comment 7 code: iq1 (I have others related to this phenomenon as well, iq2, iq3, etc.)

Comment 8 code: tw? (tw2? expands to “this what?” tw3? expands to “I won’t mark additional examples, but please be mindful about the use of demonstrative pronouns in future draft(s).

Comment 9 code: femwom

Comment 10 code: np (also have blp, “break up longer paragraphs into smaller portions for better reader digestion!”)

So there you have it. It might be called a hack, I guess. And it’s worth noting that I still spend forever reading and commenting on and thinking about my students’ work. If you’ve never done it before, I encourage you to try it and see what you think.

***“Minimal marking” strategies were starting to circulate in my second graduate program in the early 2000s, but by that time, I had already taught enough courses (and was only teaching 1 section at a time) that I found it hard to cut back on my commenting and developed habits that I still have today. I still try to not to give too many comments so as not to overwhelm student writers, but I still subscribe to what might be called the MTA approach: if you see something, say something. I understand that students can get overwhelmed and have difficulty determining priorities for revision, but I think walking them through what constitutes “higher-level” and “lower-level” revision is a good way to help them navigate…and honestly, I believe that they shouldn’t abdicate the responsibility to read and attempt to incorporate feedback simply because there’s a lot of it. That’s like saying “I didn’t do the reading because it was too long.” If we’re at the point where we’re supposed to cater to an audience that says it doesn’t want to do hard things or time-consuming things, well…whatever. Things are hard and time consuming, period. But, I’m still working on my methods and who knows…



Vim, Ph.D.

Early Modernist, Associate Prof, college hoops fan, crazy cat lady. Tweeting out of conviction or exhaustion or both. Views my own. My head hurts.