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Monday, December 3, 2012

Visual Editing: Color Coding Your Way to a Cleaner Manuscript

Courtesy of Caesantana


Some people love doing it, while others loathe it.

But love it or hate it, editing is a vital part of the writing process.

I use to fall into the hate it camp, because after a while, all those words would run together and turn my brain to mush. It didn't matter how careful I tried to be, an embarrassing number of things would still slip through.

The bad news is that for 99.9% of us, things are always going to slip through. The good news is that there are ways to make life easier for your beta readers and, ultimately, you. Visual editing is one of those ways. The type of visual editing I'll be discussing in this post is color coding.

Going through your manuscript and color coding it can be time intensive, but has proven, for me, to be one of the most thorough ways of pushing small cracks and flaws out into the surface and highlighting the bigger problems with neon lights.

The first little bit of your manuscript is probably the part that will take the longest to get through, but once you fall into the rhythm, it does get faster and easier.

Now, onto the color coding.

How you go about color coding your manuscript is likely going to vary. This is how I do it. :)

First, I take an honest inventory of the areas of writing that aren't my strong suit. I make very sure to assign each of those a color. Then I look at what things I might go a little overboard on and add those to the list. Lastly, I add the things that are important structurally to the story.

Then I assign each item a color. So my list might look something like this:

Dialogue (You could even do separate colors for each main character if you wanted to.)
To Be Verbs
Characterization (Here, I would assign each major character and important side characters a color. If I'm running low on colors, I would assign a color and add bolding, italicizing, changing the font, or underlining.)
Inciting Incident
Clues that tie in together (I would be specific here. For example: All the clues that hint at the hero's destiny.)
World Building
Story Arcs (I'd assign each arc a different color. Again, if you're running out of colors, look at also bolding, italicizing, changing the font, or underlining to help differentiate the different things.)
Things Building Up to the Climax (I'd be specific here.)
Parts that Build/Release Tension (Might want to do a separate run through for this one.)
 Words I Overuse

This is by no means an exhaustive list, just some ideas to get you started.

Once you finish color coding your manuscript, you'll have a visual way of checking at a glance to make sure your story structure is sound, that you aren't being too heavy on, say, description, and too light on dialogue.

You can also go through and read through each character's arc, characterization, and dialogue to make sure they don't ever do anything out of character on accident.

When you go through and color code, it's important--at least to keep a little of your sanity--to go in as an impartial observer. You're not there to fix anything yet, just to observe and color exactly what's on the page. The fixing will come later. If you can't turn off your internal editor, feel free to make comments in the margins, but I would resist actually doing an edit simultaneously.

A handy tip I learned too late: If you want to save yourself a headache later on, make sure you copy your manuscript *before* you go crazy with coloring all over it. That way, when you do go in to fix things, you can have a copy of your color coded manuscript open next to a copy of your manuscript that is still one color and one font.

What about you? Do you color code? What about other types of visual editing that you've found helpful?

Danyelle Leafty| @danyelleleafty writes YA and MG fantasy. She is the author of The Fairy Godmother Dilemma series (CatspellFirespellApplespell, and Frogspell),  Slippers of Pearl, andBitten: A Novel of Faerie, and can be found on her blog. She can also be found on Wattpad.


Mart Ramirez said...

Very awesome. This reminds me of Margie Lawson's technique. It really is very helpful to see it visually. Sometimes it doesn't pop out enough to know what prose is lacking or if it's overdone.

Unknown said...

When I was in law school, I color coded my outlines (notes) from class. Statutes were blue, definitions were orange, and so on. I color coded my pages tabs as well. That method helped me immensely then. Great thought to transpose the method to editing a ms. Thank you.

Claire Caterer said...

Excellent idea! I color-code my outline. Once I have a draft done, I write a detailed outline of what happens in each chapter. Then I color-code it according to POV and/or plot line. At a glance I can locate those and follow them through the outline to judge continuity, etc.

Anonymous said...

This is one of those: why haven't I ever thought of this?! posts. Love it. And that picture makes me want to get colouring right now but I can't because I'm in draft 2 plotting mode. Maybe there's an old story that needs an edit...How have you made editing sound fun?

Sarah P said...

For my birthday, I asked my family to give me the 48 color set of Prismacolor pencils, so I could color code in style. I'm already with you on how helpful this is.

Unknown said...


Thanks so much for this great post. :) I'm using your advice and color-coding my writing when I go through to edit it, and that way, my manuscript honestly does look a lot cleaner and helps me determine problems and fix them quickly. I love your approach to editing!