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Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Novelists - how to use MS Word as a powerful editing tool

US author Maria Grace mentioned on facebook about using MS Word as an editing tool. I was intrigued so I asked her to come on the blog and tell us all about it. Over to Maria!

Thanks so much for hosting me Deborah. I’m so excited to get to talk a little about the bones of the writing process. I don’t get to do that very often.

When it comes to writing, I have no qualms about saying that line editing is my least favorite stage of the writing process. It is fiddly, nit-picky and just not a whole lot of fun. This of course means that I want to find the quickest, most efficient way of doing it in as few passes as possible and with tools that I already have.

So I did what all good writers do in such circumstances, I started researching. I read hundreds of articles on the art of line editing—making beautiful sentences that really work. I read about all sorts of expensive software to help the process. Then I read about features in MS word and realized I could get Word to do a lot of those fancy tricks with only a few steps. I found it so helpful, I would love to share my process with you. 

When I get in line editing mode, it is more than anything else, a search and destroy function. I search out problems in the prose and rewrite them. Rewriting is the easy part, finding the spots that need work is the challenge. Using the notes I complied from the reams of writing articles I have read, I created lists of words that signal problems. I organized those lists into three groups: words that signal sloppy or wordy constructions, words that signal point of view problems, and gesturing words that tend to get overused. I use Word’s built in functions to find all the words on one list, correct those issues, then go on to the second and third list. 

The function I use is the ‘replace all function.’ You can set it up to find specific words and replace them with a highlighted version of the same word. This will flag all the problems words, and if you add a touch of color coding to it, even signal what the likely problem is. Then, as you go in to do the actual editing, you can spot exactly what you need to do to fix it all. 

The basic process is simple. 
(Scroll down the blog for the pictures which are at the end of the instructions - sorry, blogger is just not co-operating to let me insert them in the text today - Deborah)

1. Go into word and set the highlight function to a specific color. I start with yellow.(picture 1). I use 7-8 colors on each pass, each one for a different purpose. More on that bit later.

2. Then select ‘Replace’ from the far right menu on the ‘home’ tab in word. If you’re using an older version it is in the dropdown menu. (picture 2). For our first example, we’re going to search for present participles which end in –ing. So type ‘ing’ in the ‘Find what’ field and tick the ‘match suffix’ box in the right hand column.

3. In the ‘replace with’ box, type ‘ing’ just like you did in the ‘find what’ box. Then go to the very bottom and click the left hand button that says ‘more’. (picture 3) Select ‘highlight’. Your box will look like this: (picture 4). Click ‘replace all’, the third box under the ‘replace with’ field.

4. Your file will now look something like this: ( picture 5) All the suffix instances of ‘ing’ are highlighted and you can quickly identify all the present participle phrases that need to be axed. Keep in mind that there are legitimate uses of ‘ing’ words that you want to keep, so you will need to read to determine what you need to do. BUT, this makes finding those trouble spots quick and easy.

5. To take this to the next level, I will go to town and find multiple problem cases at once and handle a whole batch of corrections in a single editing pass. To do this, keep the ‘replace’ window open and go back to step one and select another highlight color. Just click on it, no problem.

6. Then fill in a new word into the ‘find what box’. For me the next search is for instances of ‘was’ and ‘were’—search and destroy passive voice. So I type in ‘was’ into the ‘find what’ and ‘replace with’ fields. Uncheck the ‘match suffix’ box and check the ‘find whole word only’ option in the left hand column. This will keep word from flagging instances of ‘w-a-s’ that occur in the middle of a word like ‘awash’.

7. Click ‘replace all’ and you will have a lovely multicolored version of your document.

8. Redo these steps for each problem word you want to catch. Change colors as described in step 5 whenever you need to. When you’re finished, your document will likely look like this:  picture 7.
Picture 1

Picture 2

Picture 3

Picture 4

Picture 5

Picture 6

Picture 7
You might think this a bit excessive, but the day I discovered I had used has/have/had twenty one times on a single page and had my characters sighing thirteen times on another page convinced me of the usefulness of this technique. 

Naturally, the next question is what to highlight and why. I have a handy little list I use for each of my three passes. You may have different problem areas, but this will give you a sense of the kinds of things to look for. 

Pass 1: Sloppy and wordy construction 
Color Yellow: -ing 
Why: Present participle phrases. Click here ( for an explanation on why those need to go. 

Color Turquoise: was, were 
Why: passive words to replace with active 

Color Pink: had, has, have 
Why: passive, dull constructions 

Color Lime Green: it, there, here 
Why: vague pronouns, should be replaced with something more dynamic 

Color Red: that, but 
Why: overused and lazy conjunctions 

Color Light Grey: every preposition known to man (here’s a short list:
Why??? What do I have against prepositions? Overuse. Nearly half of the prepositional phrases in my writing can be replaced with one or two better, clearer words. 

Color Bright Blue: together, start, plan, almost, just, then, own, thing, began, reach, rather, instead, even, back 
Why: tend to be unnecessary and wordy 

Color Purple: very, good, great, really, suddenly, finally, about, only, totally, eventually, almost, exactly, fairly, so, such 
Why: weak adjectives and adverbs that should be removed or replaced. 

After my document looks like a class of kindergarteners attacked it with an entire box of crayolas, I go through and rewrite according to all the problems that turned up. Often, when sentences have several problem words, I can fix all of them with one simple rewrite, so it is worth it to have all the problems flagged at once. The last time I did this, I edited out 10,000 words from an 88,000 word document. I did not remove any ‘meat’ just slimmed down and streamlined by writing. 

After I do the ‘sloppy writing’ pass, then I will do another round of highlights to ferret out potential point of view issues by searching for filtering words. I pick up a lot of subtle problems this way. Click here( and here ( for some great articles on the subject and lists of words to look for. If anyone is interested in my lists, mention it in the comments section and I can post them in the comments or on my own site. 

The third pass I use is all about gesturing words and speech tags. Using the same basic strategy, I colorize those to be check and make sure that my characters aren’t nodding, sighing and smiling all the time. This can also be useful if you have a character with a ‘tell’ or a specific move, like an eye twitch. You can quickly identify all the twitches and make sure that no one else is doing them. 

A lot of consistency issues can be checked out this way, too. For example, if a character goes by a nickname with some people, you can highlight it and make sure that nickname turns up in the right places and not in the wrong ones. So many possibilities with this approach! 

I even use this technique to help me proofread for punctuation. But that is another post. 

Oh, one last thing, for the geekier among us, Word does have a ‘macro’ feature which allows you to program stuff like this into a single mouse-click. I’m working on that right now… 

Thanks so much for having me today, Deborah!
Many thanks to Maria for sharing these really useful tips, ideas we can all usefully use in our editing process.

About Maria Grace -Though Maria Grace has been writing fiction since she was ten years old, those early efforts happily reside in a file drawer and are unlikely to see the light of day again, for which many are grateful. 
She has one husband, two graduate degrees and two black belts, three sons, four undergraduate majors, five nieces, six cats, seven Regency-era fiction projects and notes for eight more writing projects in progress. To round out the list, she cooks for nine in order to accommodate the growing boys and usually makes ten meals at a time so she only cooks twice a month.

Web: Random Bits of Fascination
Twitter @WriteMariaGrace 

What is a young woman to do? One handsome young man has all the goodness, while the other the appearance of it. How is she to separate the gentleman from the cad? 

When Darcy joins his friend, Bingley on a trip to Meryton, the last thing on his mind is finding a wife. Meeting Elizabeth Bennet changes all that, but a rival for his affections appears from a most unlikely quarter. He must overcome his naturally reticent disposition if he is to have a chance of winning her favor.
Elizabeth’s thoughts turn to love and marriage after her sister Mary’s engagement. In a few short weeks, she goes from knowing no eligible young men, to being courted by two. Both are handsome gentleman, but one conceals secrets and the other conceals his regard. Will she determine which is which before she commits to the wrong one? 


  1. This is fascinating stuff, thanks for sharing. Bookmarked for when I get to this stage with my current WIP.

    1. Thanks, I hope it is as helpful to you as it has been to me.

  2. I've used this technique before but not as thoroughly or extensively as you have. Applying it in a thoughtful way seems to be the trick. I'll certainly apply your methods from now on!

    1. It took a lot of trial and error to get to this point, but I find the systematic approach ends up saying me a lot of work in the end.

  3. You spell your system out well--I've seen pieces of these here and there, but I believe this is the first time I've encountered a real "Greatest Hits" collection.

    I use AutoCrit to speed up much of this process, but such subtleties as ensuring a tic is reserved for a particular character require manual intervention, such as you describe. That one's getting pinned and shared.

    One word of advice, for others thinking about macros (you clearly know what you're doing): always, always test those on a disposable document. If global search-and-replace is the chainsaw of writing tools (effective but dangerous), macros are combination lumberjack camps and sawmills. They can make a written landscape unrecognizable in moments, and CTRL-Z will not always bring it back.

  4. You're absolutely right, Jeffrey. I should have added that. Absolutely do all this on a copy of your original document, or if all else fails, close the document without saving anything and that will get you back to your last save point.

    I love auto crit and use it as a final pass after I have used this technique. Nothing beats it for finding over-used words and phrases, as well as too many starting names/pronouns. It is limited in the issues it will find though, so I like it as one more step rather than the only one.

    Thanks, Jeffrey!

  5. I'll be trying this very soon. Thanks, Maria Grace.

  6. You're welcome, Susan. If it give you any grief, feel free to get in touch with me!

  7. Thanks to Maria for providing such a useful post, and Jeffrey thanks for the advice about copying the document first. I don't know about you, but I'm always terrified in case something goes wrong with my document and always have multiple back up copies on sticks, or dropbox and on another computer!

  8. Excellent post, thank you.

  9. This was great. Maria, I want all the words in your lists :-)