Thursday, January 14, 2021

How the Highlighter Tool Can Help You Write Faster

By Joan Koster, @womenwewrite

Part of the How They Do It Series

JH: Any tool or trick that lets us write faster is a good tool. Joan Koster shares how the highlighter tool helps her write fast first drafts.

When she is not writing in her studio by the sea, Joan Koster lives with her historian husband and a coon cat named Cleo in an 1860’s farmhouse stacked to the ceiling with books. In a life full of adventures, she has scaled mountains, chased sheep, and been abandoned on an island for longer than she wants to remember.

An artist, ethnographer, educator, and award-winning author who loves mentoring writers, Joan blends her love of history, and romance into historical novels about women who shouldn’t be forgotten and into romantic thrillers under the pen name, Zara West. She is the author of the award-winning romantic suspense series The Skin Quartet and the top-selling Write for Success series.

Joan blogs at, Women Words and Wisdom, American Civil War Voice, Zara West Romance, and Zara West’s Journal and teaches numerous online writing courses.

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Take it away Joan…

The faster we write our first draft, the more unified in tone and voice it will be. Writing fast also helps get us into that marvelous state of creativity when words just flow onto the page. Anything that interferes with that flow is a problem.

Turning off all notifications, blocking access to email and the Internet, and putting a do-not-disturb sign on our doors are all smart steps to take. However, sometimes we face mental interruptions within the writing process itself—a word we can’t remember, a section or plot point we aren’t sure about, or even the dreaded writer’s block.

Mental distractions, such as these, need a different approach. To move forward on our drafts, we need to reassure our minds we will not forget to come back to that spot later during the revision process.

We need some way to mark that spot.

Of all the different ways to designate text, such as underlining, italics, caps, odd consonant combinations, track changes, and more, I find emphasizing a section of writing with a bold splash of color is the fastest way to make something noticeable so I can find it later.

An added advantage to highlighting in a word processing document is its easy removal—a big plus when you are done editing. All you need do is select the entire manuscript and click the remove highlighting button.

Welding the highlighter

It is important to keep the process simple. Highlighting is often used to code text during the revision process. But having an elaborate color key during drafting slows down the writing considerably.

Instead, pick one favorite color to use throughout the manuscript. I like to use yellow as it is easy to read the text through it. This allows the highlighter tool to remain set, so there’s no need to stop drafting to remember to change the color. During revision, the reason for highlighting will be clear from the text itself. 

(Here's more on Top Five Fast-Drafting Tips for Writers)

Here are some places highlighting will help you write faster.

Can’t remember a story detail? Have you forgotten a character’s eye color or favorite brand shoe? Don’t waste time looking it up, use the highlighter tool to note it in the draft and write on.

Don’t know a precise fact? In general, you should have a pretty good overview of your setting, time frame, and any relevant historical dates and events before beginning your draft. Nevertheless, you are sure to hit something needing research as you write. When you don’t know the answer, leave a blank or make a guess and then use the highlighter tool as a reminder to come back and fix it.

Do I need this? In the rough draft stage, you have no idea if something is essential. Save that judgment for your first revision. So instead of deleting sentences, paragraphs or chapters you are hesitant about, highlight them for later consideration. You may be surprised on second read to find those sections are better than you thought.

Can’t find the right words? Use highlighting when a sentence, paragraph, or scene needs more work, or you can’t get the wording to sound perfect. Mark places you plan to add more sensory details, a better description, or more emotion.

Doesn’t belong? Written something great, but it doesn’t fit where it is? Moving it to a new document is a sure way to forget about it. Instead, cut and paste it at the end of your draft and highlight it. That way you don’t lose it, but it is not blocking the progress of your draft. If, as you go along, you find a spot to insert it, then do so. Otherwise, wait for the revision process to deal with it.

Tempted to edit as you go? It is easy to get bogged down going back and correcting small errors in what you just wrote. But you will never find the creative flow nor reach the end of your draft by backtracking. If you see a grammar or spelling mistake, splash some color across it with the highlighter tool and keep pounding out the words.

Don’t want to lose the good stuff? Before starting a rewrite, go through the part to be rewritten and highlight the sections you plan on keeping.

Struck by writer’s block? This one is the easiest. Highlight the paragraph before the block happened and skip forward in the story to a point you can write about. I find this technique is most helpful when I am starting a new scene and can't quite get the transition right, when I can't make a sentence say what I want, or when my mind just goes blank. Later, I can come back and fill in the missing section. 

(Here's more on Do You Wrimo? 5 Fast-Drafting Tips to Get You through November)

Drafting Faster

Eliminating mental interruptions while drafting will go a long way to upping creativity and getting your draft done. The yellow highlighter tool, or if you write by hand a regular highlighter works as well, is one way to speed up the drafting process. Give it a try. I would love to hear how it works for you.

For more tips for finding the creative flow and writing faster, check out my new writing guide Fast Drafting Your Manuscript and Get It Done.

About Fast Draft Your Manuscript and Get It Done

Do you struggle to complete your writing? Have you had trouble meeting deadlines?
Or do you simply want to write faster and enjoy the process while doing so? If so, then Fast Drafting is for you.

Fast Drafting is a proven set of techniques and strategies that can be applied to any piece of writing from blog post to novel. Tested over the author’s decades-long career as an author and educator, the Fast Drafting Method is easy to learn, customizable for your needs, and designed to get results quickly.

About Revise Your Draft and Make Your Writing Shine

You’ve finished your rough draft—great! Here’s how to quickly and easily revise it to show off your true writing skills. From the award-winning author and educator who brought you the Fast Drafting method comes an easy, effective way to approach the often daunting task of revising your work. It doesn’t have to be difficult or frustrating!

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  1. This is a great suggestion. Thanks!

    1. So happy to share. Happy writing, Jennifer.

  2. Excellent advice, with so many uses.

    I've been using a variation of this for a while: any time I'm stuck on something or just not thrilled with a phrase, I write my best bet at the moment and then put it in Bold. (People who don't like the highlighter can use that, it's a simple control-B.) I can come back to improve it any time, and it also means I have something there in the meantime and I'm free to decide it's good enough after all.

    One other tool to use with this: you can search for highlighted or bold text, so it's easy to find every one of these that are left. On Word it's using the Find dialog box and not entering any text but clicking the More button, then the Format button, then choosing Highlight (or Font to search for Bold). You can even use control-PageDown to instantly find the next one of the thing you searched for before.

    1. Using the Find Tool is a great suggestion, Thanks, Ken.

  3. One of the things I use this trick for most often is to find those instances where I introduced a character I hadn't already had a name for. I put a short underline in and highlight it.

    1. Great use for the highlighter tool. Thanks for sharing, Anne.

  4. Good tips! Thanks for sharing. I keep a running To Do list for each manuscript and make sure to address all those issues when the first draft is done.

    1. I have a notebook and use track changes, too. The more ways to keep track of changes the better. Thank you for sharing, Sadira.

  5. I type xyz and move on. It's easy to go back later with the find menu.

  6. Great suggestion. I will certainly try it.

  7. Thanks for this. I like the highlighting technique. I add comments as I go to keep track of the passage of time, and important details that I need to refer back to.