The Color-Coding Technique That Will Save Your Writing

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A while back, we talked about reasons people will put a book down and how to make sure it isn’t your book they’re ditching by page 13. One major thing that turns readers off is a book that’s too homogeneous – it’s all the same, page after page. Books that are homogeneous are easy to drop, but also, unfortunately, easy to write and publish. That being the case, let’s explore a colorful method for identifying variety in your writing and introducing it where it’s lacking.

Color by numbers

One of the biggest traps for writers editing their own work is being too close to the finished product to see large-scale issues, and that’s definitely the case with homogeneous writing. It can be almost impossible to identify when a mood you created has gone on for too long, or when you’re not varying the journey of your story, but color-coding could be the answer.

It’s easy to miss homogeneity in your own writing, but color-coding could be the solution.Click To Tweet

This technique is labor intensive, but it can take you outside of yourself and give you a new angle for gauging how readers will encounter your work. Let’s start with mood as an example.

  1. Once you have a rough draft, assign a different color to each of the story’s predominant moods (you may end up defining these as you go through step 2). You’re not looking at the characters’ emotions, but the emotions the reader will experience.
  2. Read through the manuscript and highlight the text according to the categories you determined. Make sure everything gets highlighted.
  3. Zoom out so you can’t read the words anymore but have a bird’s-eye view on the color distribution.
  4. About 10% of the manuscript should be the antithesis to your main color. Let’s say you’re writing the story of a poor, sad orphan in a poor, sad society and there’re lots of sad, gray buildings and dark skies and hostile caretakers. In this case, 10% of the text should be joyous or humorous to prevent reader fatigue.
  5. Another ~30% should contrast with or complement the primary tone in a subtler way. In the exaggerated example above of a super-sad story, one of the complementary tones might be beauty. Beauty is often related to sadness, since it can soothe without invalidating the chief reaction. This doesn’t mean 30% of your text will be highlighted blue-for-beauty, but that 30% of your text will include complementary tones – beauty, romance, vulnerability, fragility, anger, or hopefulness.
  6. That leaves you with around 60% of your words to paint the primary mood. Be flexible with this number, knowing that it’s an approximation and that moods are complicated and often overlap. If you see that significantly more than 60% of your text is highlighted in the same color, though, imagine how this will impact your readers and try to weave a more complex pattern. If you’re writing a thriller, see where you can let the characters relax for a few pages. If you’re writing a comedy, watch for places to be more thoughtful.

If you discover a 90% block of color and you’re wondering where this increased variety of mood will come from, begin with the other colors already present; these are the moments you can move around, expand, or reconfigure to produce a more varied experience.

Use color-coding to identify elements of your writing and get an overview of the reader’s experience.Click To Tweet

If, on the other hand, you notice that your intended primary mood gets lost in other colors, ask yourself how you want your readers to feel as they progress through the story and make sure every passage contributes.

The ‘buts’

This is a basic formula, not a rigid prescription. Lots of books will break this mold and go for a cacophony of color (most Terry Pratchett books) or more of a 90–10 division (Tess of the d’Urbervilles). Just note that books like this are usually harder to pull off; as ever, it’s fine to break the rules, but it should be a conscious decision.

The example above will help you identify mood imbalances in your manuscript, but you can also use this technique with other literary aspects: plot structure, dialogue vs. narration, character focus, etc. It also works for character emotions, but I recommend doing each character separately. If you want to run the color test on plot elements, try divisions such as action, setting, recovery, romance, friendship, retrospection, preparation, suspense, day-to-day activities, conversation, inner life, planning, dreaming, failure, success, etc. You’d be surprised how dull any kind of repetition gets – even watching the protagonists win again and again quickly gets boring.


Microsoft Word’s search function

Word doesn’t allow you to search for different colored highlights, but if you want to get an exact percentage read out, you can use the search tool to accomplish this. Instead of highlighting in different colors, change the font color of each mood (or whatever literary element you’re testing). Perform a search, but don’t put any words in the search box. Instead, adjust the font to search for everything in red font, check the ‘highlight all items found in main document’ box, and then close the search box. All your red-font items will be highlighted and you can do a word count on the selected text, comparing this number to your total word count.

Side note: Word’s search function is great for avoiding repetition of all kinds. I often recommend that authors do a ‘find all’ search for words that they tend to favor. It’s surprising how often we accidentally repeat ourselves.

Emotion wheels

If you don’t already have an emotion wheel, Google one and keep it on hand for future writing projects. An emotion wheel can help you diversify what your characters are experiencing as well as the moods and tones you want to create for your readers. Most wheels have primary emotions at the center and branch out to include variations on these, giving you multiple levels of intensity to work with.

Emotion wheels work well with color-coding for variety, so it's worth having one on hand when editing structure. Click To Tweet

Literary devices

We’re authors, we know what literary devices are, but it’s easy to get in a rut with a few favorites. Look at a comprehensive list of them after you’ve completed a rough draft to see what may have gotten overlooked during the arduous process of getting the book out of your head and onto paper. This is where you might find inspiration for aspects of your book that are a little too monochromatic.

It’s okay to guesstimate

Color-coding might sound time-consuming, but even having an awareness of homogeneity is better than nothing. If you’re thinking about it, you’ll work on it. As I’m sure you know, though, a book has so many different needs and phases that an author’s brain tends to get full. The color technique outlined in this article gives you total separation from the words themselves long enough to see them through a different (more objective) lens. If the only way you’re actually going to use this technique is with ball-park estimations, do so, but if you go the extra mile and color-code your book, I guarantee you’ll see your work in a new light.

Have you read a book that felt homogeneous? What do you do to ensure variety and balance in your own writing? Let me know in the comments, and check out Your Book’s Journey Is The Secret Ingredient To Amazing Marketing and Four Secrets That Will Turn You Into An Objective Editor for more great advice on this topic.

2 thoughts on “The Color-Coding Technique That Will Save Your Writing”

  1. First of all I would like to say fantastic blog! I had a quick question which I’d like
    to ask if you don’t mind. I was curious to find out how you center yourself and clear your thoughts
    before writing. I’ve had difficulty clearing my mind
    in getting my ideas out. I truly do take pleasure in writing however it just
    seems like the first 10 to 15 minutes tend to be wasted just trying to figure out
    how to begin. Any ideas or tips? Kudos!

    1. Hi there, thanks for the compliment and the GREAT question. I’d love to hear from other readers on this one, too.

      Personally, the writing that I do right now has a certain necessity to it, so I dive in – ready or not – and slog through the initial frustration until I hit my rhythm. I think there are things that help, though:
      – Try always writing in the same space.
      – Try closing all other applications and tabs, and stashing your phone (etc.) somewhere out of sight.
      – Add environmental elements that you like (tea, candles, Scotch, whatever suits you).
      – Just start typing total nonsense until something clicks.
      – Grab a list of writing prompts (they’re all over the internet).
      – Read for a few minutes from something that’s inspiring to you (a book you like, something by your favorite poet, a blog you like … ahem).

      One last thought, and I’ll point you straight to the source: Forget about perfecting that routine. Be content whatever your circumstances, and don’t consider the work that takes place at the beginning a ‘waste.’ Mental and creative processing lay the foundation for writing.

      Hope something in this answer strikes your fancy!

      Best wishes,
      Rebecca Langley

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