A MS Word Macro to Spot Simultaneity Issues in your WIP


Jami Gold recently had two articles on using Macros to help in your editing and polishing phase of your manuscript: MS Word Trick: Using Macros to Edit and Polish and Fix Showing vs. Telling with Macros & Word Lists.

Jami does an excellent job of showing you how to insert and use macros, so I won’t repeat that here. The first link also gives a ton of different macros you can use. Come back here after you’ve read those two, and I’ll share with you another one: SimultaneityCheck.

Why check for Simultaneity Issues?

There are two helpful flags to look for in your WIP that could spell trouble: phrases employing -ing verbs and ‘as’ constructions.

Why can these flag trouble? Because in certain cases, they can mean that the actions are happening at the same time. I say certain cases, because ‘as’ is also used to introduce metaphors, and clearly that’s not implying two events are happening at the same time. Also, there are instances where a word ending in -ing is not kicking off a dependent clause.

But what do I mean?

Examples with ‘as’:

As Frank opened the fridge, the leftovers fell onto his feet

Frank opened the door for Sally as she walked up

These don’t happen at the same exact time. In the first instance, he opens the fridge and then the leftovers fall out. So it’s better to write it that way:

Frank opened the fridge and the leftovers spilled onto his feet.

‘As’ constructions can also be a flag that you have your stimulus and response reversed, like in the second instance. Those two actions aren’t happening at that exact same instant. In fact, Sally walking up is the stimulus for Frank opening the door. So this would be clearer written this way:

Sally walked up, hips swaying. Frank grinned and opened the door.

Not the most exciting prose, but you get the idea. While I’m analyzing my ‘as’ constructions, I also check to make sure I don’t have my response before my stimulus.

For more explanation on catching these and similar types of phrases, see Janice Hardy’s post: Don’t Tell Me Why: Words That Often Tell, Not Show

Examples with ‘-ing’:

Walking down the sidewalk, Sally winked at Frank as she passed him

I also threw in an ‘as’ construction just to show how easy it is to fall back on these types of constructions. Here, the first clause is a participial phrase, and she can’t be doing the winking and passing of Frank the whole time she’s walking down the sidewalk.

There can be other issues to check for with -ing constructions that comprise a participial phrase, like misplaced modifiers, and using these in action scenes. Generally, these types of phrases suit more quiet, contemplative scenes. When action hits, use simple past tense verbs.

The example could be revised to show like this:

Sally sauntered down the sidewalk, her new silk skirt making her feel like the cutest knees of any bee’s knees. Oh, there’s Frank, the sly dog, looking all sexy leaning against the picnic table. She winked.

Again, the prose I was just having fun with and the metaphor probably doesn’t even make sense, but hey, I need to get this blog posted. You get the idea 😉 This draws the reader in more and shows the actions in order.

When I analyze my -ing constructions, I also check to make sure:

  • It’s not a misplaced modifier
  • That I’m not telling instead of showing
  • That I’m not in an action scene
  • That there’s a comma after the participial phrase

For more information and explanation of why this could be a flag that you’re telling and not showing, see #3 at this post by Shirley Jump: Show Not Tell: What the Heck is that Anyway?

So, searching for these can be tedious, and since they’re both flags for the same thing, I combined them into a macro!

The SimultaneityCheck Macro:

Sub SimultaneityCheck()
' SimultaneityCheck Macro
' Highlights words that might indicate simultaneous actions that aren't possible,
' or that stimulus and response are out of order
' "&chr(10)&"Written by Angela Quarles @angelaquarles
 Options.DefaultHighlightColorIndex = wdYellow
 Selection.Find.Replacement.Highlight = True
 'Finding as constructions

 With Selection.Find
 .Text = "as"
 .Replacement.Text = "as"
 .Forward = True
 .Wrap = wdFindContinue
 .Format = True
 .MatchCase = False
 .MatchWholeWord = True
 .MatchWildcards = False
 .MatchSoundsLike = False
 .MatchAllWordForms = False
 End With
 Selection.Find.Execute Replace:=wdReplaceAll
 'Finding words that end in -ing
 With ActiveDocument.range.Find
 .Text = "<[! ][! ]@ing>"
 .Replacement.Highlight = True
 .Replacement.Text = "^&"
 .Forward = True
 .Wrap = wdFindStop
 .Format = True
 .MatchWildcards = True
 .Execute Replace:=wdReplaceAll
 End With
' This will unhighlight certain -ing words

 Dim range As range
 Dim i As Long
 Dim TargetList

 ' list of terms to unhighlight. There's probably a more elegant way to exclude them within the code that highlights, but this works too
 ' be careful of adding a noun like 'meeting' or 'being' (as in human being) which also acts as a verb
 TargetList = Array("something", "nothing", "everything", "anything", "morning", "evening", "ding", "king", "ping", "sing", "wing", "zing", "bing", "thing", "things", "happening", "bring", "sting", "ring", "starling", "seedling", "swing", "annoying", "breeding", "exciting", "stimulating", "interesting", "unflinching", "appalling")

 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 = wdNoHighlight

 End With
End Sub

Revisit Jami’s post to learn how to add a macro to Word and add this one to your arsenal and soon you’ll be fixing those problem areas!

Do you use macros to help with editing and polishing? What do you like to use them for? New to macros and have questions? Ask and I’ll see if I can answer.

Leave a comment


  1. Yay! I’m glad our geekiness could work together. 🙂

    This is a great macro–I can’t want to try it out. Thanks so much for sharing!

  2. The whole macros idea is a little overwhelming to me, I admit. I was comfortable with them in Excel for processing data, but not so much in Word. Afraid of new things? Yeah, that’s me. When I’m feeling a little braver, I’ll check out Jamie’s post.

    As for the simultaneous action check, this is a great post. I have a beta reader who is very alert to this in my writing, so she has pointed out a lot of these areas. But we differ in that I use a lot of -ing constructions, and she tends to avoid them. Personally, I think you need them to vary sentence structure and keep your writing from sounding too rhythmic, if that makes sense.

    As for “as” phrases, I think there’s some leeway with simultaneous action. Take the examples you listed up top:
    As Frank opened the fridge, the leftovers fell onto his feet

    Frank opened the door for Sally as she walked up

    The first one, I think, is fine. I read the sentence and I see in my mind’s eye Frank opening the fridge and a bunch of food containers immediately spilling onto his feet, possibly before he has completed the action of opening the door. I don’t mind that at all, even if technically, the action of opening the fridge door precedes the leftovers falling.

    As for the second, I would rewrite it as well because the actions are out of order, but the “as” part is fine IMO. But I agree with your assessment that the sentence doesn’t “show” very much. I like your rewrite because it shows more. It shows how Sally is walking and what Frank’s mood is as he opens the door. But the “as” part was fine for me. I see Frank opening the door while Sally is still moving up the stairs. I know he’s not opening the door the whole time.

    I say use them to mix up sentence structure, but be clear. There are definitely times when the -ing modifier dangles or implies simultaneous action when the actions aren’t really simultaneous. As long as I’m avoiding blatant errors, I prefer to lean toward being relaxed on these rules in favor of varying sentence structure.

    I’d love to know what you think of that, Angela. Jamie, too. When you read writing that uses a lot of these phrases, does it ruin the experience for you? Or do you find yourself so romanced by prose that flows well that you’re not mentally nitpicking every -ing phrase?

    • Hi Jessi! Thanks for visiting and commenting! If you’ve braved macros in Excel, you can do it here too! They definitely make the polishing phase go easier. Regarding your comments, I definitely notice it if a writer uses either of these too much; it starts to become an echo. Or if I’m not being pulled into an action scene and I should be, I can usually look back and see -ing constructions as one of the issues since the rhythm doesn’t suit the pow-pow-pow of action. Sentence variation is definitely important, and I’m not saying don’t ever use -ing constructions, but I would say use it with caution and intention. Is it truly at the same time, etc. You also hit upon one of the reasons it’s good to find an alternative for either of these–sentences rewritten to avoid them generally show the action in a much more detailed and concrete way. As Shirley Jump says in that link I gave, “Starting with As or -Ing: Again, as with all of the other examples, this is not a do or die rule either. However, in general, you should avoid starting a sentence with an “As” or “-ing” construction. “As she walked” or “Rapping at the door” are okay beginnings, but just okay. They’re again, telling, not showing.” Do we want to write sentences that are only ‘okay’? Another problem with -ing in particular is that those phrases signal to the reader that they’re not as important as the main phrase (since they’re written as a modifier of the main phrase) which can be an issue if the writer didn’t intend that and sees both actions or ideas in the full sentence as important. Thoughts and ideas can then be accidentally shifted to a lesser emphasis, thus messing up the author’s intent. My first drafts are riddled with them, because I don’t care much at that stage about getting into Deep POV, I just need to get the story down, but I do like later to go back through and analyze them and decide to keep them on purpose or not.

    • I think what Angela pointed out, as far as modifying or subordinate clauses being “demoted” in importance, is a big part of why editors frown on “as” and “ing” constructions. If we just want to mention something in passing, those sentences might be able to get away with it. But if the ACTION of the “as” or “ing” clause/phrase is important, the action should be in the main part of the sentence.

      (At least, that’s how I’ve heard editors describe the issues with “as” or “ing,” even when the sentences might not have simultaneity issues. 🙂 )

      So in the fridge example, an editor might argue that the action of opening the fridge was equally important to the action of the leftovers falling. And a line editor might therefore want the sentence changed to reflect that fact. (Frank opened the fridge and the leftovers fell onto his feet.)

      All that said, personally, I think a few sentences of that “as” style wouldn’t be the end of the world, but we wouldn’t want to rely on it too much. 🙂

  3. Reblogged this on jbiggarblog.

  4. MM Pollard

     /  May 7, 2014

    I teach simultaneity issues in my workshops on participial phrases. Participial phrases — no problem — macros — my head already hurts.
    Wish me luck.


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