4 Tips and 4 Tools for Tightening Your Prose

by C.K. MacLeod

Tighten by hand only

Want to tighten your prose and make your writing easier to understand? Here are four ways and four tools to help you do that — all for free!

1. Omit needless phrases.

Authors sometimes use phrases such as "owing to the fact that" or "in order to" like condiments. Often, your meaning won't change if you trim these phrases. For example, “owing to the fact that” can become “because,” and "in order to" can become "to."

Refer to this list of offenders and some solutions for fixing them. Use the search and replace function in your word processing software to find these phrases in your writing.

2. Omit needless words.

Authors tend to pepper their prose with filler words. If you use Microsoft Word, you can run the NeedlessWords macro, and the macro will highlight potentially unnecessary words. In this macros for beginners post, Carla Douglas offers suggestions for what to do with those highlighted words.

Never used a macro before? This 20-Minute Macro Course will have you up and running with Macros in no time.

If macros scare you, or you don’t have Microsoft Word, try the Hemingway Editor. It’ll help you to hunt down adverbs, another kind of needless word.

3. Shorten your sentences.

Long sentences make sentences harder to read. The solution? Create two short sentences from the long one, when it makes sense to do so.
The Hemingway Editor will spot long sentences by identifying them as “hard to read” and “very hard to read.” It also provides you with readability statistics on your writing. You can buy the downloadable version of the Hemingway Editor for under $10 USD. Try the online version for free.

Very hard-to-read sentences are highlighted in red
Very hard-to-read sentences are highlighted in red

4. Use easy-to-understand words.

You can use the PlainLanguage macro to identify hard-to-understand words so you can swap them out with a reader-friendly word. The Hemingway Editor will also highlight words that are difficult for many readers to understand, and it will suggest a replacement!

There are many ways to make your writing more readable. A handful of tools will help you to accomplish this task quickly.

Adapted from a post from Beyond Paper Editing.

Image by Joshua Crauswell

Revise Your Writing With Self-Editing Macros

Hide your eyes

by C.K. MacLeod

Macros—tiny programs that run in Microsoft Word— have changed the way I revise my writing. They highlight potential problems, so I can fix them:

NeedlessWords macro in action
NeedlessWords macro in action

Below is a list of my favourite self-editing macros, designed to work with Microsoft Word:

  • Confusables — words that are often used inncorrectly
  • lyWords — adverbs, which will likely need to be deleted
  • NeedlessWords — words that clutter your writing
  • PassiveWords — words that can obscure meaning; change passive words to active words
  • PlainLanguage — high falutin’ words that can just as easily be replaced with simpler words
  • TellingWords — words that suggest instances of telling, where showing might work better

Editor Paul Beverley has created a 600-page book of free macros. You'll need to download his book to get these helpful macro scripts:

  • CountThisWord—tells you how many times you've used a word to determine if you've overused it
  • HighlightSame—highlights all instances of a word you've selected; use it with CountThisWord
  • LongSentenceHighlighter—highlights long sentences so you can shorten them

If you're not sure how macros can help, or how to use them, this free 20-minute macro course will have you up and running in no time!

You can't always see where your writing needs fixing. Revision macros can help you to see what you're missing.

Image by Linda Åslund

Omit Needless Words with a Macro

by C.K. MacLeod 353183634_ef631ed00a_m

One of the easiest ways to improve your writing is to "omit needless words" —words that once removed, make your writing clear (Strunk & White).

The fastest way to find these words in your writing is to run the Needless Words macro* in Microsoft Word. This macro will highlight every needless word, so you can decide if each word is necessary. Not sure what a macro is? See this post for details.

NeedlessWords macro in action
NeedlessWords macro in action

Below is the script for the macro. You'll need to add this script to Word's Visual Basic Application (VBA). See these videos for adding a macro and running a macro in Microsoft Word.

Inspired by Jami Gold's macros for writers post, I've added Janice Hardy's Words to Avoid list (minus the word "that") to my version of the macro. The macro is customizable and you can add any list of words you like.

Copy the macro from Sub to End Sub and paste it into Word's VBA.

Sub NeedlessWords()
' Highlights unnecessary words
' Written by Roger Mortis, revised by subcortical, adapted by Jami Gold and tweaked by C.K. MacLeod; word list by Janice Hardy
Dim range As range
Dim i As Long
Dim TargetList
TargetList = Array("then", "almost", "about", "begin", "start", "decided", "planned", "very", "sat", "truly", "rather", "fairly", "really", "somewhat", "up", "down", "over", "together", "behind", "out", "in order", "around", "only", "just", "even")

For i = 0 To UBound(TargetList)

Set range = ActiveDocument.range
With range.Find
.Text = TargetList(i)
.Format = True
.MatchCase = False
.MatchWholeWord = True
.MatchWildcards = False
.MatchSoundsLike = False
.MatchAllWordForms = False
Do While .Execute(Forward:=True) = True
range.HighlightColorIndex = wdTurquoise
End With
End Sub

What other word lists could you add to this macro? Insert word lists between the parentheses in the macro script.

So, what do you do with the highlighted words this macro finds? See Carla Douglas' post at the Beyond Paper Editing blog for suggestions.

*Karen Woodward calls this macro the AddWords macro because you can add any list of words that you want the macro to find. The first version of this macro was written by Roger Mortis, revised by Subcortical, appropriated for writing by Karen Woodward, tweaked by Jami Gold, and further tweaked by me, making it a true community effort.

Image by Matt Scott

How to Run a Macro in Word

Word icon

by C.K. Macleod


Macros can help you to identify areas in your writing that need improving. You can also use macros for formatting and editing tasks. In a previous post, I listed some free writing macros you can try, and in this post, I explained how to add a macro to Word 2010. This post will explain how to run a macro:

  1. Open a document in Word.
  2. Go to the View tab, and click on Macros in the Window area. Select a macro from the list and click on Run. The macro will work its magic on your document.

Where to learn more

For further instructions on how to use macros, see Macros for Authors and Editors, in which Paul Beverley offers detailed instructions for understanding and running macros in various versions of Word.

4 Ways to Customize Word for Writing and Editing

Customized sneakers

by C.K. MacLeod

You can customize Microsoft Word* so that it’s more efficient for writing, editing, and self-publishing. Here’s how:

1. Turn off AutoFormatting.

Out of the box (or with a fresh download), Word attempts to be helpful. Only it isn’t. Unless you change its native settings, it will format your writing in unintended ways. For example, Word may misinterpret a keystroke and insert a bulleted list or table where you don’t want one, or capitalize a word that’s meant to be lowercase.

Word’s AutoFormatting feature is to blame for these shenanigans.

To turn off AutoFormatting, go to File, Options, Proofing, Autocorrection and uncheck most of the options in the AutoFormat and AutoFormatAsYouType tabs. In the AutoCorrect tab, uncheck the box next to Replace text as you type.

Word autoformat window
Word's AutoFormat window

Tip: It’s best to insert symbols, such as a copyright symbol, into your writing manually. You can do that by going to the Insert tab, selecting Symbol, and choosing the symbol you wish to insert.

2. Turn off grammar check.

If you’re a native speaker of English, your knowledge of grammar will be better than Word’s. Guaranteed. Don’t let Word tell you otherwise.

To turn off grammar check, go to File, Options, Proofing, and uncheck both of these items: Mark grammar errors as you type and Check grammar with spelling.

No more squiggly green lines under sections of your text. You’re welcome.

3. Turn on the Navigation Pane.

Word’s Navigation Pane can can help you to move around sections of your book easily. This is especially helpful during the revision stage of writing (Scrivener users who are familiar with Scrivener’s Binder will attest to the value of this function).

Word's Navigation Pane

Ctrl + F opens the Navigation Pane. It isn’t ready-to-use when you first open it, but if you know how to apply heading styles as you write, you’ll be able to harness the power of the Nav pane. This article offers some how-tos.

4. Install editing add-ins.

You can buy add-ins that are designed to work in Microsoft Word. Some add-ins can automate many editing and document clean-up tasks. These add-ins can help you polish your writing and get your manuscript ready for print and ebook formats:

Clean-Up Tools

These tools allow you to remove tabs, spaces, paragraph returns and styles not in use in your document and more—with a few key strokes.

Self-Editing Tools

There are many ways to customize Word. These four tweaks can turn Word into a writer’s tool.

Note: *I use Word 2010. Instructions for your version of Word might be slightly different.

Image by woodleywonderworks

Scrivener Cheat Sheet (Downloadable)


by C.K. MacLeod


Scrivener is a wonderful tool for writing and producing book-length works. It allows you to

  • move chunks of text around with ease
  • organize research notes, references, and even notes to yourself—in the same project file
  • convert your book to ebook, web, and print formats

Help for Beginners

When you first open the program, though, it can seem a little confusing. This downloadable cheat sheet will help you to begin using Scrivener right now. Print it and stick it on the wall next to your computer.

You'll notice that I've listed the commands associated with the more common "writing moves" and grouped items by stages of the writing process.

Did I miss a Scrivener move in my cheat sheet? Feel free to leave a comment below.

A version of this post was originally posted at the Beyond Paper blog.

Image by Alan Reyes