AutoHotKey for Editors

AutoHotKey for Editors: It will rock your editing world


One of the recurring threads I see in the places where editors gather online is how much most of us dislike editing in PDF. I get it; editing in PDF can be tedious, even with a fairly clean manuscript and a fast computer. But some publishers use PDF as an important part of their workflow (especially if copyeditors or proofreaders are expected to look for layout problems), and if we want to work with them, we need to be able to use it well. That means learning the tricks and tools that make it easier.

There are already some great resources on editing and proofreading PDFs. Adrienne Montgomerie is an expert in editing in PDF; she teaches classes, and has some terrific tips on her blog ( If your client lets you use stamps when you’re editing a PDF, Louise Harnby has some fantastic content, including free stamps (

But my favorite tool is even easier to use than custom stamps, and you can use it in any program, not just Adobe Reader or Acrobat Pro. It acts like a macro, but you don’t have to know much about scripting to make it work. And it’s free!

This wonder tool is called AutoHotKey, and if you have to edit a lot of PDFs in Windows, it will rock your editing world.

Before I introduce you to AHK, though, I want to talk about text substitution (which is also called text expansion). With text substitution (or expansion), you can map a string of text to a shorter string of text. For example, you might type


but as soon as you hit another key, the text

Needs reference

appears in your document.

I first started using text substitution on a Mac, where it’s built in to the operating system (here are some good instructions for using text substitution on a Mac:

When I went back to Windows, I immediately felt the loss of text substitution. There are a few tools that will help you out, but the best one I’ve found is AutoHotKey (AHK). It’s easy to set up, but it’s a very powerful tool, and not just for text substitutions. AutoHotKey is pretty much like having the ability to use macros in any program.

Here’s what you need to get started.

Download instructions

  1. First, go to AutoHotkey’s Download page (
  2. On the Download page, you can download a .zip file, or you can use the AutoHotKey installer. I think it’s easiest to just use the installer, but if you’re more comfortable installing with a double-click, that’s fine too. There are other versions listed, but those two options will probably be your best bet.

Setting up your file

Once AHK is installed, you’ll need to write a new file. To do that, open up a text editor, make a new file, and save it with the extension .ahk.

There are two things you can add in AHK: hotkeys and hotstrings. A hotkey gives the computer a command, and is usually launched with a keystroke you define. That’s pretty cool, and you can definitely use it in editing, but I already have a lot of things mapped to various key combinations—and Acrobat has a lot of its own keyboard shortcuts (which Adrienne has written up here: So to keep from confusing my keyboard shortcuts and my text substitutions, I use hotstrings. A hotstring is a string of characters that form a shortcut for a longer string of characters. To use the ndrf example again, here’s what you’d write in your .ahk file:

::ndrf::Needs reference

The format is always
1) two colons at the front;
2) the text you want to type to make the text substitution;
3) two colons; and
4) the text you want to insert when you type the hotstring.

Note that I didn’t put any punctuation at the end; that’s because immediately after I type ndrf, as soon as I hit another key, Needs reference will appear with whatever character I type. So if I type ndrf? this is what I’ll get: Needs reference? If I type ndrf. it will say Needs reference.*

Put each substitution you want to add on a separate line and save your file, and you’ve got a nifty set of text substitutions. [NOTE: If you’ve used AutoHotKey in the past, you might remember having to add other stuff at the beginning, but apparently that is a thing of the past.]

Here are some of the text substitutions I use frequently:

::csp::Insert space

::sbo::Set bold

::sital::Set italic

::scw::Set constant width

::h2n::Replace hyphen with an en dash


Note that I’ve used key combinations that I’m very unlikely to type in my ordinary work—I learned my lesson with that when I initially used sit for Set italic. 😊 I add new ones for new projects, and occasionally I go in and clean out some of the substitutions I don’t need anymore.

One last thing: to get it to work, you have to open the file, which you can do by double-clicking on it (I leave mine on the desktop so it’s easy to find). That will start up AHK and run your script until you close it or shut down your computer—just remember to open the file again when you next need it. Also be aware that it will work in any program, so you can use it for all kinds of things besides adding comments to PDFs.

This is all you need to immediately improve your PDF-editing speed, but AutoHotKey has all sorts of other uses that range from slightly more complicated scripts to scripts that are practically apps on their own. It also has a devoted user community that’s very generous with their scripts and howtos. It’s a great addition to an editor’s toolbox.

* You can use it without the ending punctuation by formatting your hotstring differently:

 :*:ndrf::Needs reference

I usually don’t use that in my editing script because I almost always want to be able to vary the ending punctuation.