Backstory Hunting: Isolate and Count Highlighted Words in MS Word

In Tech Support, Writing Tools by BronwenLeave a Comment

I recently went on a hunt for unnecessary backstory in my first 50 pages. Early backstory slows the pace right as readers are looking to dig into your story, not get bogged down with what already happened.

Thanks to Margie Lawson and her EDITS system, I appreciate the importance of highlighting. And sure, you can highlight on paper, or you can highlight on screen. But once you’ve done so in a word processor, what else can you do with it?

Thanks to this article by Abigail Hilton, I learned that MS Word CAN in fact find text that is highlighted!

So here’s how I make use of this function to go hunting for backstory.

1) Highlight the backstory.

Read through your document, and every time you encounter backstory–a reference to things that happened prior to the start of the story–highlight it. In MS Word the highlight button looks like this:

The color you choose doesn’t matter, but you can only use one color for this exercise. (Word can’t differentiate between colors.)

Do an Eyeball Check

Zoom out (hold mouse button and use scroll button is quickest), and see what your document looks like as a whole. Do you have lots of highlights? Are they evenly distributed, or do they form big clumps or pools? This is a good way to get a feel for how your backstory has been distributed.

Save a copy, marked as “backstory highlights” or some such.

2) Find & Replace All Highlights (Remove Highlighted Text)

Open the Replace dialogue box (CTRL+H on Windows, else CTRL/CMD+F and choose the Replace tab).

Click inside the Find What box to select it.

Click on the More>>> button to expand the options.

At the bottom of the expanded options, click on the Format button. This opens a small menu. Click on Highlight.

This Format > Highlight option toggles between three states: Highlight, Not Highlight, and null/blank/don’t care.

Your Find What box should now look like this with a line for Format beneath the box:

Click inside the Replace With box to select it. Type a single space. This is so words don’t run together.

Click Replace All.

Your document should now look similar to this:

Note that where highlighted text was part of a sentence, it leaves behind a tch of highlighting (a yellow bar). You may want to remove these manually, or leave them in. Highlighted text that was part of its own paragraph leaves an empty space behind.

Save and Analyze

Save a copy of this document, with a note that all the highlights are gone.

You can now run a word count, and read through your document without backstory included. This is the acid test: does your story still make sense without those extra words? If so, you don’t need the backstory and you can delete it. If it’s obvious there’s something important missing, or the text doesn’t make sense without the backstory, you can keep it.

3) Isolate Highlighted Words

Return to your original highlighted document (or CTRL/CMD+Z to undo what you just did). Save a new copy, noting that this document will only contain highlighted text.

Open the Replace dialogue box (CTRL+H on Windows, else CTRL/CMD+F and choose the Replace tab).

Click inside the Find What box to select it.

Click on the More>>> button to expand the options.

At the bottom of the expanded options, click on the Format button. This opens a small menu. Click on Highlight.

The line of text beneath the Find What box (Format) will toggle between the three states for Highlight. Keep selecting Highlight until you see Format: Not Highlight.

Click inside the Replace With box to select it. Type a single space. This is so words don’t run together.

Click Replace All.

Your document should now look similar to this, showing only highlighted words:

Save.

Analyze

Run a word count. Calculate what percentage of your total document is backstory. For the first 50 pages, aim for 500 words or fewer.

Read the remaining words. Do they make sense in isolation? Which facts in here are crucial to the reader’s understanding of the story? Which are just ‘enhancers’? Remove anything extraneous from your working draft.


That’s my new method for hunting down backstory and other pesky verbiage.

If you want to use multiple colors (Margie’s EDITS system?) and isolate one color at a time, a reader of Abigail Hilton’s wrote in with instructions for Open Office. You can find them at the bottom of this article.

Thanks to Cupcake Ipsum for the dummy text!

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