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Please fix Text Variables so they behave like regular text

Within the type menu of Adobe InDesign is the Text Variables feature. This allows users to insert a special character that will display one of the following items:

  • A chapter number
  • A file-related date such as the creation date, modification date or output date
  • Filename
  • Image Name (aka captions setup)
  • Last Page Number
  • Running Header based on either a used paragraph or character style
  • Custom static text

Unfortunately, there is an unwanted behaviour of the text variables – InDesign treats them as a single character rather than the actual content within the variable. This has a few unwanted consequences:

  • Long variables that would normally break over several lines are squished into one line;
  • They cannot be formatted using GREP or Nested styles, nor can specific words be manually selected for formatting.

It’s an issue that is “in backlog” by the Adobe InDesign team to address, but that was first stated in 2017.

If the issue was resolved, it would have enabled my GREPGraph solution to be applied in the following InDesignSecrets article.

As it turns out, it is also affecting another solution that would make lives easier for anyone who has to create diaries and planners on a regular basis.

The brief:

A planner is created by making a base template and then creating threaded text for the dates that are represented only by numbers. This makes populating a diary from week to week relatively easy…

…until the other material has to be populated, such as what month it is, what term it is, and what week it is. This is best illustrated in the first two minutes of a Youtube video by Rob Cubbon.

Incidentally in Rob’s video, he uses frame breaks between each record, but that isn’t required. Instead, adjust the paragraph style of the numbers by going to the Keep Options and from the Start Paragraph dropdown, select In Next Frame.

The technique:

Instead of populating the text frames simply with numbers, what if the frames were populated with more information that can be called upon by running header text variables, such as the month?

I can make a list in excel that contains the day of the week and the month in one column. This is also done without a space intentionally for reasons that will become evident soon.

I can then copy this text to my InDesign file. However, note that the text overflows and isn’t correct – that is because the flowing numbers need to have a character style that will hide the text that we want to be visible elsewhere. To do this, I’ve created a character style called hidden, and its properties are:

  • .1 point high;
  • 1% wide;
  • No fill or stroke.

That’s fine, but applying that manually to everything but the numbers will be a nuisance, so the paragraph style for the numbers has to be modified using Nested Styles.

The nested style will apply a style of [None] to the digits as they need to be visible, but will intentionally hide the month.

So why I am I intentionally hiding the month? Because I’m only interested in the information it represents, and this can be called upon by a text variable. I will go to the master page and insert a text variable for a running header showing me the first result of hidden on the page.

The issue with the technique

That’s fine until I get to a spread that contains two months. I’d rather both months be present rather than the earlier month. For example, I’d like the headline to read April/May instead of April. I can do this by returning to my master page, apply my blinking text cursor to the text variable that is already there, type a slash and then create a new text variable that is a running header looking for hidden character style in the last instance.

Once I’ve inserted the variable and returned to that spread, that now looks fine, but all others are now affected.

I should be able to make a GREP style that will look for a word, then a backslash, and the same word it initially found. I’ll create a new text frame with some sample text to see if it works. The GREP code I’ll use is this:

Apply style: Hidden

GREP: (.+?)\K\/\1

Looks like its working in my demo, but as I check the document it isn’t… I’ll find a spread where I know the months split.

But that should work. I saw it work on plain text, why isn’t it working on text variables? That’s because GREP styles and Nested Styles don’t work on text variables. If I want this technique to work, I’ll have to use a workaround.

The workarounds:

  • Use a script to convert the text variables to plain text. Marijan Tompa used to have such a product via the Adobe Exchange, but it has since been removed, and it is not mine to give away. Other scripts do exist on the Adobe InDesign forums, but they are not as flexible as Marijan’s original script. It also works only one way, and can’t convert the text back to variables.
  • Don’t attempt to use the GREP style to hide the duplicate month, but instead only add a Running Header for the first instance on a page and add the others manually by overriding the affected master pages;
  • Create the desired date in Excel using a formula.

The issue with the first two solutions is that it prevents the solution from remaining live. The last solution will work but requires in-depth knowledge of Excel and – for many diaries – requires having an Excel file on stand-by for this purpose.

Ultimately, I’d love to see a fix for this issue as it would open up many possibilities. If you feel that this needs attention now rather than later, please cast your vote here.

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About colmin8r
A prepress operator and graphic designer for a South Australian commercial printer, with close to 20 years of experience in the trade. He is also a regular contributor to this site and InDesign Magazine, and hosts his own prepress blog "Colecandoo".

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