Bad Habits for Writers – Highlighting the Problems

I was privileged last Saturday to attend the second of Sara Grant’s Revision Workshops hosted by North East SCBWI in York. Much was learnt during Sara’s workshops, too much to detail in one post, but I thought I’d share one insight, which I have found very helpful.

As writers we develop bad habits. It would be simple if we all had the same ones. That way we’d know what to look out for. But every writer has their own little foibles, and if we’re going to get to grips with them it’s important that we find out what they are.

To know our bad habits we have to see them.

This is where highlighting comes in. And I don’t mean the sort you do with pens. No. This is high‑tech highlighting. The sort you do on with your word processor.

Pretty much every word processor has a nifty little function which works like a highlighter pen. The icon usually looks something like this:


You can use the little black drop down arrow to the right of the pen if you want to change the highlighter colour. Then select the text you want to highlight and click on the icon.  Or click the icon and your mouse pointer will change to a little pen. You can then left click and hold the mouse button to select any text you want highlighted.

That’s the technical bit over with. Now here’s what you need to do. Open a chapter from your current opus and highlight the following lines:

Text with character actions = yellow

Text with dialogue = red

Text with description = blue

Text with character thoughts = pink

Text where the narrator explains things = green

Take a good look at the colour patterns. Are the colours fairly evenly spread or do one or two predominate? Are there any lumps of colour with not much to break them up? Is there too much blue, pink or green in your dramatic scenes? Are there blocks of red or blue with not much else? Is your text overly green?

Highlight a couple more chapters. Does each chapter tend to start or end with mostly the same colour? Are the colour patterns repetitive? Is there a colour hardly present at all?

Discovering your own personal patterns gives you control. Seeing your writing habits laid out like this lets you break out of them if you choose to. There may be a scene where you want more action mixed in with your dialogue, or some text where you’d prefer to lace a lengthy narrative explanation with action, dialogue or character thoughts.

This exercise can be particularly useful when writing children’s fiction which has a limited word count. Below is a before an after example to show what I mean.



You may like to read Sara’s guest post on the revision process which you can find here.

If you have enjoyed this post – you might like to see how I put my methods into practice in my other work by reading SNAP by Lizzie Hexter, available from,,,, iTunes and Kobo.

16 thoughts on “Bad Habits for Writers – Highlighting the Problems

  1. Useful insight – thanks. It’s easy to drown in the familiarity of your work. this certainly makes it easy to see.

  2. This article is especially timely for me. Thank you for it. I especially appreciate this sentence… ‘Seeing your writing habits laid out like this lets you break out of them if you choose to.’

  3. Simple, and brilliant (pardon the pun). And well worth repeating to everyone I know 🙂
    Nicely done, and enough to make me your newest follower…


  4. raodum says:

    Okay this is a really awesome idea! I should try this! Thanks for the tip!

  5. Debbie says:

    It was a great workshop. I got so much from it.

    Good luck with your work.

  6. I’ve also heard about using the highlighting technique to look for inconsistencies in character dialogue instead of as a way to visualize narrative mode.

  7. One workshop leader did something similar but the task was to analyze sentence structure. How often did we use subject/verb/object structure? Compound? Complex? Writers also get into the habit of using one sentence structure. Thanks for the tip to analyze action/dialogue/description, etc.!

  8. I love the COLOR IDEA… Always use it on paper. Using it to analyze my writing will be helpful, indeed. THANKS, Lorrie!

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