Obfuscating NaNoWriMo Manuscripts

November 20, 2015

As I write this, the end of NaNoWriMo, the National Novel Writing Month, is just a little over a week away. I’ve passed the 50,000 word mark that is the goal of NaNoWriMo; however, I haven’t finished telling my story yet so more writing still to do. Regardless, with the deadline looming it’s time to think about preparing the story for the official word count on November 30th and possibly disguising the words for it.

During the month of November, the NaNoWriMo website allows you to update your word count. Unofficially! The site provides a box into which you can type your current word count. This is completely on the honor system as you can type whatever number you feel like.

At the end of NaNoWriMo the official word count tool is made available on the site. Different applications count words in different ways, so to make things fair, the Office of Light and Letters—the wonderful people who organize and run NaNo—make available their official tool. Using it is as simple as copying your manuscript and pasting it into the tool.

“Wait!” you say, “I have to upload my entire story online?”

This is something that makes a lot of people nervous. After all, what’s to stop somebody from taking your story and publishing it somewhere? Well, I would say two things really.

First, volume. NaNoWriMo has thousands of stories and millions of words written each year. That’s a lot to search through in order to find something publishable. Which leads right into the second point: quality. Given the mindset of always pushing forward to make your 50,000 words and to not stop for editing, it’s pretty well guaranteed that there won’t be any stories coming out of NaNoWriMo in a publishable state. They’ll need shaping and editing and multiple drafts and all that boring but necessary stuff you have to do after the fun of creating the first draft.

However, if you’re still worried about the possibility of someone seeing your story, there's a way to get an official and accurate word count without having to upload your actual manuscript. This is done through the impressive sounding technique of obfuscation.

Obfuscate is a programmer word that means to make obscure or unclear. As pertains to your story, it basically means taking all the letters in all your words and changing them so they no longer resemble words. You see, the word counting is done by a computer and the computer doesn’t read any meaning into what you wrote. It’s simply looking for things like spaces, periods, question marks, and so on that it can use to tell where one word ends and another begins.

Consider the following two sentences:

This sentence uses real letters.

Asdf qwertyui zxcv hjkl poiuytr.

For people, the second “sentence” is unreadable. It’s just a mess of random letters. However, a computer doesn’t care about the specific letters. It looks at the two sentences and sees spaces and a period and says, “Hey, these two sentences both have five words in them.”

Now, your manuscript has real words in it. Your goal is to take those words and jumble up the letters. Depending on the software you’ve used to write your story—I’m, of course, assuming you did use software to write your story instead of good old pen and paper—you’ll have different options for obfuscating your text.

If you’re using a dedicated novel writing application then odds are good there will actually be an obfuscate command buried somewhere in the software. Even if you’re not using an application specifically for writing novels odds are still good you’ll be able to easily obfuscate your text, though not quite as easily as those dedicated applications.

I personally use yWriter on Windows to write my stories. I find it suits my writing style and software preferences well. As far as obfuscation goes, in yWriter’s Project menu go to the “Export Projectů” option. Selecting that option will present a variety of different export options, one of which is the convenient “to NaNoWriMo Obfuscated Text”. Selecting this option will produce a text file with each letter changed to the letter “n”. All the spaces and punctuation remain so the text can be copied and pasted into the NaNoWriMo word counter.

Another popular writing application is Scrivener. I haven’t had any personal experience with using Scrivener, but I do know that it has its own option for quickly obfuscating your novel. I see this year the Scrivener people have made a special trial version available specifically for NaNoWriMo. Oh, well, too late now, but maybe next year.

What if you’re not using a dedicated novel writing application? Odds are good that your software will still allow you to disguise your text even if it doesn’t have a specific NaNoWriMo or Obfuscate option.

Pretty well all writing software, whether it be as complex as Microsoft Word or as simple as the basic text editing Notepad will have a Replace option in it somewhere. When you choose this option you’ll typically receive a window where you can type in the text you want to find and the text you want to replace it with.

The brute force method to using this tool is to type in the letter “A” (without quotes) in the text to find and the letter “N” (again without quotes) in the text to replace with. Click the “Replace All” button and all As in your document will be replaced with Ns. You can then repeat the process by typing in “B” for the text to replace and convert all Bs to Ns. And then Cs to Ns, Ds to Ns, etc.

If you’re lucky, the software you’re using won’t care about whether the text to find is upper or lower case and you’ll just have to do 26 replacements (if you’re using the 26 letter alphabet). If the software cares about the case then you’ll have to do another 26 replacements using all the lower letters.

Warning: Be sure to not save your now obfuscated document unless you’re saving it to a different file!

If you’re using something a little more sophisticated, like Microsoft Word, you can save yourself some time when using the Replace tool. Some applications allow you to use what are called “regular expressions” to do more complicated replacements.

In Word, when you use the Replace tool, in order to use regular expressions you must first check the box that says “Use wildcards”. If you don’t see this box, then there should be a button on the window that says “More”. Click that button and the checkbox, among other things, should be made visible.

Once you have the Use Wildcards boxed checked you can type the following into the box for the text to find “([A-z])” (without the quotes). Note that the A is capitalized and the z is not. If you now type the letter “N” into the box for the text to replace with and then click “Replace All” then all alphabetic characters, regardless of whether they’re upper or lower case, will be replaced with Ns in one go.

Warning: Again be sure to not save your now obfuscated document unless you’re saving it to a different file!

Regardless of what software you’re using to write your manuscript you will be able to disguise the text. You’re then all set for when you can officially count the words of your novel on the NaNoWriMo website. Simply copy the obfuscated text into the official counting tool and you will get back an accurate word count without having uploaded your real manuscript.

Good luck to everyone participating in NaNo with getting those last few words to knock you over 50,000!