by Lori Paige

One excellent trick I have picked up during my years of writing and editing on the computer is using MS Word’s Highlighting feature to flag and edit lazy sentences—you know, the kind that just lie there on the page, doing nothing productive for either you, your editor, or your story?

Generally, these sentences don’t work because the author has stuffed them with “filler” words like WAS, THAT, IT, THERE, and so on. When I write, I don’t bother to flag these in my first couple of drafts, but by the time my manuscript goes to an editor, I want the prose as crisp as possible. MS Word can quickly highlight these words in different colors to make them easier to seek and destroy.

All you have to do is use the FIND & REPLACE function.* Click it (in the “Edit” menu), type in the offending word, such as “was,” and choose the “MORE” tab on the lower left. Select “FIND WHOLE WORDS” so the program doesn’t flag longer words with these same letters in them (though if it does, no harm done). In the REPLACE box, type “was” again, but choose FORMAT (lower left again). “Highlight” should be the last choice on the menu. The Highlight button itself, found in the main Word menu, allows you to choose different colors for each FIND & REPLACE term. I can use, say, red for “was,” yellow for “it,” green for “that,” and so on (everyone has his or her own pet words that may need flagging).

When the color-coded version comes up, resave your file with a different name (just in case something goes wrong), and challenge yourself to eliminate as many of the highlighted words as you possibly can. This can be a fun little game in and of itself, and can make dull sentences stronger, shorter, and sharper. You will learn to substitute more exciting verbs for the dull “to be” variants, giving your paragraphs movement and hopefully even a poetic sound.

Recently I tried this with one of the authors whose work I was editing. I asked her to contribute her thoughts about the process to the blog, and here is what she had to say:

I recently had my full-length novel, Hunger’s Prey, edited by Lori Page. Since I am a new author, I made what seems like a common mistake for newbie writers. I  didn’t realize it at the time, but I had been addicted to the word ‘was’. Lori had advised me that I overused it throughout my entire novel. Instead of  having to read the whole book to find the offending word or use the Find feature on MS Word, Lori had highlighted every single ‘was’ on my manuscript. This feature helped me tremendously to quickly find the evil “was” word and rephrase the sentence or paragraph. This is a simple, but amazing feature that makes editing easier for the author and a quicker turnaround time to send back the edits to the editor.

-Daisy Dunn, author of THE PORTAL and HUNGER’S PREY for Secret Cravings Publishing


Give it a try! Your novel will sound better, your editor (or your author) will thank you, and best of all, readers will admire your command of the English language and your vivaciously varied vocabulary!

When you’re done, don’t forget to remove any highlights that you couldn’t figure out a way to change (it’s probably not possible to remove them all). Simply choose SELECT ALL on your entire manuscript, click the highlighting button on the Word Menu, and select NO COLOR from the palette. The highlights will no longer be visible on the screen or the page.


*Please note that the above instructions apply to MS WORD 2007—the HELP key can assist those with older or newer versions, though the same basic commands will work in all of them.



Posted on September 15, 2011, in New introduction. Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. Thank you; wondered if there was an easier way to do that!

  2. In all the years as a writer I think I’ve only used the find/replace movement a few times but this is genius- will have to try it- TY

  3. This was great! I’ve always wanted to know how to do that and now I do. So much easier to find those pesky words now. Thanks Sandy!

  4. Wonderful! I knew the ‘highlight’ feature was there (I’d heard others talking about it) but never knew exactly how to make it work. The step-by-step instructions is perfect for someone like me. LOL I need to be ‘shown’ instead of told so thanks! *runs off to mark up her word doc in pretty colors*

  5. Truly, this is a wonderful tool for editing…thanks for testing it out on my Lori!!

    Daisy Dunn

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