Use Microsoft Word to Stop Shooting Yourself in the Foot by Molli Nickell

shooting self in foot

shooting self in foot — ouch!

Today we welcome a new guest writer to Writer’s Fun Zone, Molli Nickell, who is stopping by to chat with us today about using Microsoft Word to stop shooting yourself in the foot.  Enjoy!


Many writers face the task of manuscript revision with the same enthusiasm as scheduling a root canal. This is an understandable reaction. Particularly when they are unsure about which aspect (s) of their work needs to be revised and polished.

For 20 years, frustrated writers have arrived at my Story-Doctor virtual doorstep, manuscripts and hearts in hand. (This may not be totally accurate. Actually, I’ve never opened an email that included a photo of the sender clutching a bloody manuscript in one hand, their bleeding heart in the other. But, I digress.)

Every one of these hopeful authors felt stymied and asked me to analyze their work to determine why industry professionals didn’t recognize their manuscript as being the “hot” title for next year’s best seller list.

The primary cause for rejection is easy to spot. It’s usually writing mechanics, (And no, I’m not referring to the technicians who repair your car). Writing mechanics are basic rules of grammar and language usage. You already know many of these like, “i” before “e” except after “c.”  Don’t end a sentence with a preposition. Keep track of your modifiers so you don’t “throw momma from the train, a kiss.”Red Flag

Except . . . and here’s the problem: when you are unaware of writing mechanic basics, you constantly break the rules. These unintended errors become red flags and identify you as a “writing rookie.”

The result? Non-acceptance (rejection).

Despite what you may believe, agents/editors/publishers are not sadists who rub their hands together in evil glee, “Mwaaaaaaahaha,” when they reject submissions. They’re pragmatic business people in an industry that relies on acquisition of well-written manuscripts to produce and sell for a profit. Period.  Therefore, when a submission is filled with writing mechanics errors (red flags), industry professionals reason the writer didn’t employ basic writing mechanics because they had no clue as to what these might be. The revision effort could be a time-intensive-and-costly proposition. Regardless, this still might not make the manuscript worthy of publication. This raises the question: “Is it worth it?” The probable answer is “No.”

single shoe shot in footEven though you may have written a fascinating story, filled with unusual twists and turns, unique characters, a great plot, and snappy dialogue . . . a shoot-yourself-in-the foot, red-flag infection will triumph over all.

The most obvious (and easiest to repair) writing mechanic issue involves the overuse of red-flag words. Even though many writers have well-developed vocabularies, they tend to rely heavily on weak nouns, excessive adverbs and wimpy non-descriptive words. The granddaddy of all these is “was,” usually linking to a verb ending in “ing.”

You may be thinking, “But . . . but . . . I don’t overuse “was.” Really? Find out. Use Word’s search feature (control/F7) and discover exactly how many times “was” appears in your manuscript. Over 500? Over 1000? Wowzer! Time to clean house.

Use the “Replace All” feature and type WAS in CAPITAL letters. Hit return. Now WAS stands out on every page. Is that simple or what? Repeat this process with “ing” and “ly.” And then, continue searching for overuse of the following weakies: that . . . the . . . which . . . when . . . then . . . set . . . get . . . got . . . felt . . . think . . . take . . . took . . . get . . . got . . . found . . . is . . . are . . . were . . . being . . . do . . . did . . . had . . . felt . . . thought . . . place . . . put . . . could . . . had . . . have . . . would . . . and other weak words you tend to overuse.

Once you’ve located and identified these red-flag rascals by CAPITALIZING THEM, each page of your manuscript might seem to be overloaded with words screaming for revision. You might feel overwhelmed.

However, instead of seeing comfort with chocolate or the adult beverage of your choice, remember that adage: “Inch by inch, life’s a cinch: yard by yard, life is hard.” Revise your manuscript, one page at a time, one chapter at a time. Little bit by bit. Revise smart and use Word’s “search” feature to locate, mark, and then revise before submitting your manuscript. Taking this vital step can make the difference between being accepted or receiving that dreaded “thank you but no thank you” email.

BONUS: As you become more aware of writing mechanics and the need to remove red-flag words from your manuscript, your writing skills and the quality of your work matures. You move one step closer to that magic moment when you order “published author” business cards. Congratulations!



Molli Nickell

Molli Nickell

For additional writing tips and techniques, request Molli Nickell’s  FREE, 12-page booklet of excerpts from “WRITE RIGHT: Stop Shooting Yourself in the Foot,” available from her website below. Molli’s an award winning publisher, former Time-Life editor, author, UCLA writing instructor, syndicated columnist, and way-former surfer chick. She assists writers as a Story Doctor, editor, marketing guru, and pre-submission guide at

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