Why you should use placeholders

Here are some quotes from the first draft of the second book in my Guardians trilogy:

Only some of Kaska’s edginess was reflex born of [#that thing you feel when you’re scared].

Kaska’s head jerked up to look in the direction Rastik pointed, a stick of [#liquorice] dangling from between his teeth.

I hadn’t explored much beyond the main setting of the previous book, so I was pretty much world-building as I wrote. I was working on NANOWRIMO and using Liquid Story Binder’s typewriter mode, so I didn’t want to stop every couple of sentences to name the stuff I was talking about. Doing so would have distracted me from the story; I didn’t want to risk losing the inspiration because I’d already had to ditch one version of The Spy Master and I didn’t want to have to abandon a second.

Kas frowned dubiously at the creatures Rastik had pointed out. They weren’t [#flatrunners] as Rastik had hoped for, but the [#cliff-riders] were good enough climbers that they’d make up for the loss in speed.

So, how do you write when the words won’t come?

I’m not talking about writer’s block. That’s an entirely different issue and one I don’t feel particularly qualified to help you solve.

Instead, I’m talking about specific words: when you’re on a roll and you don’t want to stop because you can’t remember the colour of a character’s hair, or when you just got a super idea for a critter but you don’t have time to think of a name.

This you can solve with placeholders.


What are placeholders?


If you look at the quotes above, you can see where I’ve left suggestive terms in place of what might be made-up words, such as [#liquorice] for what became a stick-like teething treat meant for Ysindhi children.

I had a total blank on the word fear so I left [#that thing you feel when you’re scared] in its place. The [#flatrunners] didn’t get a name until I started writing The Gun Runner and decided on the kind of mount they’d use in a forested province. (I originally thought they were going to be a flat, fleet-footed type of lizard, hence the placeholder, but they turned out to be kind of like ostriches instead.)

And while I was fairly quick to design the [#cliff-riders], I still kept changing their name because it just didn’t feel right. In the meantime, I still wanted to write about them, so I stuck with the placeholder instead.

Placeholders, then, are (somewhat obviously) words you use in place of other words.


What are placeholders for?


Think of placeholders like bookmarks. However, where a reader might use a bookmark to remember the page they were on before they had to go feed the cat, writers use them to highlight a spot in their draft that they need to go back and fix.

I mostly use placeholders for proper nouns where I haven’t yet developed the concept I’m writing about enough to give it a name.

I also frequently fall back on them when I can’t remember the appropriate word for the meaning I’m trying to convey, and so I don’t have to check back on descriptions. (Typing [#blue eyes] is way faster than opening a file to look up that particular character and be reminded their eyes are actually green.)

In other words, placeholders are a nifty little time-saver for when you’re writing your first draft and just trying to get words on the page. They let you skip past any blank spots and keep writing, instead of getting bogged down in world-building or a dictionary, because you know you’ll fix them later.


How do you use placeholders?


I once sent a draft to my beta reader, forgetting to strip all my line notes from the manuscript.

That’s not quite the same as leaving placeholders behind, but the effect is similar: a manuscript that’s not fit for public consumption.

As helpful as placeholders are, they can be a pain to find again during revision if you don’t make them obvious and easily searchable.

Dave Johnson at CBS News suggests using Microsoft Word’s auto correct function to highlight your placeholders, but this only works if you: A) use Microsoft Word, and B) use the same placeholder in every instance (such as the “TK” he mentions).

So what if you don’t use Word? And what if you need a dynamic placeholder instead?


#Hashtags are for more than just Twitter


I used a simple number sign # for the longest time. My handwritten drafts were dotted with “and he said #blah” and “she had #blue eyes”.

The problem with the hashtag is that it blends in too well with other text and can be easily misread as a typo. Some writers also use a triple hashtag ### to indicate chapter breaks, which makes it even more difficult to see them in prose.

Side note: You could use a different symbol, such as the @ sign. (It’s still fairly invisible when you’re proofreading, though.) You could even devise a multi-faceted system where # is for words you forgot, @ is for description details you need to look up, and so on. (Just remember not to use common punctuation symbols or you’ll be working around a question mark that’s not actually a placeholder!)


Use brackets too


A while back, I read that someone used square brackets [ ] to surround their placeholder words. (I can’t seem to find it again, so it was probably on the NANOWRIMO forums at some point.)

Brackets can blend just as easily, but it gave me the idea to combine her technique with my own. My placeholders now are enclosed in square brackets [ ], but also have the # hashtag to help them stand out more, [#like this].


Don’t get distracted


Use placeholders if you’re writing along and suddenly can’t think what the next word should be. Don’t get bogged down or distracted looking something up. Just ignore that brain blip with a [#placeholder] and go back later to fix it.


Finding them again


Once you’re done with your draft and you’re ready to edit, you can go back and deal with all those [#placeholders]. Just hit CTRL+F (or F7 in Liquid Story Binder) to bring up your find + replace function. Type in your placeholder symbol (e.g. #) and work your way through the results.

If you have a multi-faceted system, you can go through your placeholders in stages. I’d suggest fixing all the words you know are wrong first, because they’re the easiest to solve and getting rid of dictionary errors will reduce the amount of symbols in your draft.

You could also use Dave Johnson’s trick if your software allows automatic formatting like Microsoft Word’s. (Just highlight the brackets and/or symbols instead of “TK”.) This will make it much easier to spot your placeholders when you’re proofreading.


What’s the benefit?


The biggest benefit of using placeholders is that you get to write, and keep writing, without having to stop every few words or sentences to come up with a name or description or idea.

You don’t have to stop and Google “word that means ‘easily duped'”. You don’t have to stop and spend an hour or a day or a week designing the creature your character just mounted. You don’t have to open a file on your current setting and scour the information to find that tiny little detail about the colour of the lamps.

You can just stick in a [#placeholder] and keep going.

This means that you can get the bulk of the story down and then worry about the details later. That is a humongous benefit.


Other benefits


There are other benefits, too. I change names often because they just don’t feel right — which means going back and scouring for every instance of that name and its many alternatives, versions, and derivatives because the find + replace tool won’t account for every change of spelling.

Using a placeholder, especially for uncertain pronouns, can save a lot of effort later. (It also means that you don’t get trapped in a name that isn’t working for you, which gives you the freedom to write now and find the perfect pronoun later.)


Why you should use placeholders in your writing


Do you [#hold your place*]?

I’m not the only writer who uses placeholders, but up until I saw that post on NANOWRIMO (or wherever it was) about the brackets, I thought I was.

Who else uses them? How do you use them? Do you borrow from the non-fic writer’s system (such as TK for “to come” like Dave Johnson) or is your system more dynamic like mine?

How do you ensure that you won’t miss your placeholders when it’s time to proofread or find them again? Does your word processor of choice have a nifty system already in place (like Word’s formatting auto-correct), or do you have to keep it simple?



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