Thursday, June 2, 2011

Using Word Find to Highlight Common Writing Errors

I use Word's Find function to search out my writing tics (words like just, but) and filter words (heard, saw, felt, thought, remembered), but I really put it through the paces to help me find faulty sentence construction.

Using search strings, I can find all incidents of passive voice construction (was *ing). I can flag participle phrasing to check that actions are not happening simultaneously (more on this below). And finally, to check for repetitive sentence structure (I call it the "I blanked" syndrome... too many sentences beginning with I *ed, like I walked, I jumped, I turned).

To begin, open the Find Dialogue box. In older versions of Word, you can press Ctrl + F to open it. In newer versions, that opens the navigation pane (where you can't use wildcards). You can press Ctrl + H, which will open the Replace Dialogue box. Then, click on the Find tab. Here's what you'll see:

Type in (or paste) your search string in the Find What box. Make sure the Use Wildcards box is checked. Click on the Reading Highlight button and select Highlight All.

This will give you a count of the how many times your search string appears in your document and highlight all occurrences in your manuscript.

Note that once you click in your document (to make edits), it will clear the highlighting and you will have to go through the steps again. Your search string should remain in the box.

Passive Voice
If passive voice is one of your downfalls, this search string:

was [a-z,A-Z]@ing

will show all occurrences of was *ing construction.

Participial Phrases
Take this example: I opened the door, taking the rusty key from my pocket. Obviously, you can't take the key out and open the door at the same time, so this construction must be fixed. For me, my mistakes are usually at the end of a sentence, so the construction tends to be after a comma. So this search string:

, [a-z,A-Z]@ing

finds any phrasing like: I turned, jumping into the breach.

If you use participial phrasing at the beginning of a sentence, you could search on:

. [a-z,A-Z]@ing

which would flag any *ing construction after a period, such as: I turned. Flinging it aside, I vaulted...

Sentence Structure
Since I'm writing in first person, I sometimes end up with too many sentences that begin with "I". The search string:

I [a-z,A-Z]@ed

will show any incidents of I jumped, I turned, and so on. Obviously, it won't catch things like I went, I saw, I read.

So, alternatively, you could use the search string:

. I

which would return any sentence beginning with "I", but only if the previous sentence ended with a period. [That search string is (period)space(I)space]

So there you have it. A couple of ways to use Word Find to reveal your grammatical weaknesses. Any other constructions I've left out?

**And seriously, what is going on with Blogger??? I've been trying to leave comments for days!!!**


  1. Oh, hey! I actually didn't know how to do this. Yes, past continuous tense (that's the "was xyz-ing" thing) is a habit I finally broke a few mss ago, and I still occasionally use a participial phrase without simultaneous action (even though I bust people for it when I beta!). So I guess passive constructions could be found by looking for "was [a-z,A-z]@ed". I'll have to try this! Thanks!

  2. These tips are brilliantly useful, as I'm currently rewriting my novel - thank you :o)

  3. This is awesome! Computers are so good at doing repetitive things--it's cool that you figured out an algorithm to search for types of words and phrases.

    Ferreting out the goofy participle problem...yeah, I need to do this for sure.

    And I heard on NPR that Google has been continuously under attack by hackers in China for months now. The government is peeved that Google won't self-censor in their country and has been cyber attacking because of it.

  4. Your blog is so fun!!! So glad I stopped by.

    I love the tips you shared! I will love this when the first draft is written. Word has great things if you just know how to do them all!

    I think Blogger is finally back to normal but for those few weeks I wanted to pull my hair out!

  5. You are made of win, Jenna! Come stop by my blog to find out more!

  6. I didn't even know all of this was possible, but now I've got to try it out. These were great tips!

    Also, I wanted to let you know I've awarded you the Irresistably Sweet Blog Award at Thanks for all the help you give with your blog!

  7. This is such a great tip. I didn't even know Word could do that. I'm going to play with it today. Thank you so much for sharing! :D

  8. This is even better than that highlighting tip you mentioned last month or so! I never remember those wildcard search methods, so I'm bookmarking this - thank you!

  9. Awesome, awesome post! I am saving this! I never realized you could search for wildcards before. Genius! :)

  10. I didn't know how to do this before. Thanks a bunch for sharing.