In programming we often use syntax highlight in order to have a better picture of what the role of particular bits of code is (using different colours).

I wonder if writers do something similar - while writing a work-in-progress, using some unusual formatting (bold, italics, colors, etc.) in order to mark certain concepts and make ideas clearer during the writing process.

If you do, how do you do it?

  • Clarification, please: you're referring to using those formatting devices while writing, as a personal aid, kind of a private code - rather than leaving them in the final actual book. Right? Also, any examples you could use to demonstrate what you're talking about would be very helpful.
    – Standback
    Apr 17, 2011 at 9:15
  • @Standback Yes, to use them as organisation devices while writing, as a personal aid, kind of a private code.
    – wyc
    Apr 17, 2011 at 9:25

4 Answers 4


I've heard of a number of uses for colors:

Highlight each character's dialogue in a different color. This allows you to quickly read through each character's dialogue to see whether the character's voice is consistent (or perhaps whether it changes the way you want it to). It also allows you to read quickly through all of the dialogue in the story, to see whether it is vivid and compelling.

Highlight dialogue in one color, action in another, description in another, ... This can draw your attention to balances and imbalances among these elements of the story.

I suspect that these techniques are more useful when you're preparing to edit or rewrite. It would be horribly distracting to attend to this stuff while drafting.


This is a terrible idea. If you, who wrote the damned thing, are having trouble telling characters apart, keeping track of scenes, identifying key ideas, reflect on how much more trouble your reader, whose only source of insight will be the black-on-white text, will have! Seriously, if things are that dense and confusing, time to back up and rethink what you're doing.

I'm a little skeptical even of ordinary organizational tools like time-lines and outlines. Again, how can the reader digest all this information and keep it in his head if the writer can't? The only reason I give them a pass is because the much greater time involved in the process of writing compared to that of reading.

Whenever I see a novel of fiction with a map, a family tree, or, God help us, a glossary, I'm strongly inclined to discard it unread. Although certainly fine novels have had these features (many people enjoyed the Lord Of The Rings books, which had maps; I, Claudius started with a tree of the Claudian family; later editions of A Clockwork Orange came with a nadsat dictionary) but I think those are the exceptions rather than the rule.

In general the reader's, and the the writer's, understanding of a work should come from the text. We are writers, not typographers, illustrators, genealogists, or cartographers, and we should be doing what we are (supposedly) best at.

  • 2
    I like it when fantasy novels include maps. I think it's neat to physically see how the country is laid out. No matter how well it's described, seeing a map with terrain and everything makes it much easier to understand. Apr 17, 2011 at 21:56
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    -1, because I think your comment ignores the fact that the author needs to know much more about his story than the reader does. The outlines, maps, family trees, etc. may be crutches for the author to help them keep track of everything that's going into the WIP, and the purpose of laying them out in this manner is to allow the author to communicate the story cleary, and not require that the reader have access to all of their notes. Apr 18, 2011 at 17:57
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    @JSBangs -- I'm not saying you're wrong, but I am saying that I've seen a lot more books where the author forgot that I, the reader, am not studying his book, I'm not taking notes or committing it to memory than books where the author forgot something important about the plot, timeline, or characters. In fact, I can only think of one example of the latter: in Catch-22, arguably the most complicated successful American novel, Heller twice mentions "the Splendid Atabrine Insurrection" but forgets to include the actual scene. (cont.) Apr 18, 2011 at 19:32
  • The former -- where the book was just over-stuffed, there were too many character, too many scenes -- is achingly common. Fantasy, as a genre, is probably the worst offender (I'm looking at you, JRR! You too, JK!) but lots of other authors (Tolstoy) are almost as bad. I know I sound like Emperor Joseph in Amadeus saying "Too many notes" but I'm a more careful reader than most and it enrages me when the extra care is not exercised in appreciating the subtleties of language or characterization but wasted trying to remember who took that horse to Gimblethorpe five chapters ago. Apr 18, 2011 at 19:41

I mostly agree with Malvolio's first paragraph. I think color-coding might be useful in early drafts as you're settling pieces on the chessboard, but you should have each character's distinct voice very early on. You shouldn't allow yourself to use it as a crutch. You need to experience your writing as the reader does, as best you can.

@alexchenco, given the writing samples you've showed us here, I think for you it would be useful in the first or second draft to flag dialogue vs. narration, as Dale suggests, so you can balance your scenes better. But again, this is a crutch, and shouldn't be used later on as your drafts become more sophisticated.


Personally, I use different formatting methods like fonts, colours in my planning documents where I write things like tentative plot, backstory of characters which may or may not get mentioned, timelines, history of the world etc.

But I never use them in my drafts. One should always keep reader in mind while writing drafts. Some writers include footnotes for better organizing, but other than that you better keep your writing understandable by itself.

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