If I asked you what you considered to be a writer’s best friend, what would you say?
Please don’t say “Wikipedia.”
My clients would probably reply, “Bob Hostetler.” But that can’t be everyone’s answer.
You might consider “a fine fountain pen” or “a blank page in a brand new journal” to be your best friend as a writer. Maybe the thesaurus is your best friend (ally, associate, buddy, companion, comrade, “mate,” pal).
For some, it’s the Control-Z or Command-Z keyboard command to “undo” whatever it was you just did. For others, a writer’s best friend is a strong cup of coffee or the soundtrack from The Last of the Mohicans.
But my nominee for “writer’s best friend” is Find-and-Replace.
I realize that not everyone uses it to death the way I do, but Find-and-Replace has been very good to me—so good that I should buy it flowers. If only I knew where to send them.
Why do I say that?
Because Find-and-Replace has mitigated some of my worst faults and weaknesses as a writer, and helped me hunt them down like the cowards like they are and squash them like bugs. So, yeah, since I have a penchant for bad similes and mixed metaphors, I can use Find-and-Replace, anytime I finish a page, chapter, article, or blog post, to “find” the word “like” and eliminate or improve each occurrence.
Can Find-and-Replace work for you as it does for me? I bet it can. Here are just a few suggestions for how to use it:
- Double-space after a period. Back in the day, when we wrote with typewriters (if you’re under forty, you might need to Google “typewriter” to see what I’m talking about), it was customary to double space after a period. But that’s no longer necessary in the computer age, though some of us still do it out of habit. So “Find” every double-space and “Replace” with a single space. It takes about a second-and-a-half, even in a long document.
- “That.” Most writers—even the best among us—overuse the word “that.” If that is a weakness of yours (see what I did there?), simply use Find-and-Replace to locate every “that” in your manuscript and delete those that are superfluous.
- “Was.” Most writers can reduce the number of passive verbs like “is” and “was” in their writing, replacing them with more active verbs. “Is,” of course, is so short and common in other words as to make Find-and-Replace unhelpful, but searching for “was” and replacing it and its related words can enliven your writing.
- “Very.” The word “very” is very common in first drafts. Find-and-Replace can help to save you from it, reminding you to replace “very angry” with “incensed,” for example. And that would be very good.
- Exclamation points! Scott Fitzgerald famously said that an exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke. They have a use, of course, but should be sparingly employed. So Find-and-Replace exclamation points with periods! You’ll feel better!
- Your personal weaknesses. Among the self-editing exercises I urge upon writers when I speak at writers’ conferences is to learn your personal weaknesses and edit accordingly. One of my weaknesses: I love—absolutely love—semi-colons. So, when I finish an article or chapter, I Find-and-Replace semi-colons. It hurts; it must be done, nonetheless.
These are just a few suggestions, but I hope they help. Do you have a favorite Find-and-Replace habit that strengthens your writing?
Brennan S. McPherson
Totally agree. Find and replace was the reason I haven’t missed any of my publishing deadlines.
Also, I’m 26 and use a ribbon typewriter for drafting. So I’m offended.
Twenty-six? How does someone that young even know how to touch-type?
Bob, you should read Brennan’s latest, Flood. The spiritual depth and his skill in the craft will astound you. It’s no wonder it got into the top 2000 in total ebook sales at Amazon. I like to use a computer even for outlines and roughest drafts because I find that much more efficient. Even though I do at least eight edits as I try to polish to a high gloss, parts of the original draft that truly flowed as I wrote might stay unchanged. I don’t want to waste time retyping. But if someone who writes like Brennan finds a ribbon typewriter works best for drafting, maybe others should try it.
Brennan S. McPherson
One word: homeschooled. Actually. . . a few more words: typing class (video game style–where you type the words to kill the sharks, anyone with me here? no? oh well).
🙂 Love the post, Bob. You always make me laugh (in a good way). Also, thanks Carol! You’re way too kind. Your books aren’t doing too bad, either, and they get very positive reviews!
Brennan S. McPherson
Also (sorry for spamming the comments section), the only reason I use a ribbon typewriter is because I don’t have the self-control to stop dinking around with each sentence directly after writing it. I’d love to be as prolific as Bob one day–it’s what I aspire toward daily–and if a ribbon typewriter is necessary, by golly I’ll use it. But I think this kind of relates to the post because using find-and-replace is all about efficiency, and to be efficient you have to do things in the write (hah) order.
I know. . . it was a groaner.
But yeah, in answer to the question at the end of your blog post, I have a terrible tendency to spell gray, “grey.” And to make a great number of other more embarrassing mistakes repeatedly. Thank God for find-and-replace.
Bob, to find “is” you ask it to find “spaceisspace”. That eliminates any words with “is” in it – like emphasis.
Find and replace is a very good friend. But the best friend any writer has is the voracious reader. Without that friend, your writing has no audience.
Kristen Joy Wilks
Although, I am under 40, I was home schooled and learned to type on a typewriter, thus I employed the dreaded double period in at least my first, maybe my first two mss. I think it was the fist two because I have a vague remembrance of the joy of simply swooping in with find and replace to erase that second space. Not so with the first ms. I went through every sentence of what felt like a zillion pages, erasing that darned space by hand. If only I had known!
Yes, but the exercise probably heightened your awareness, now, didn’t it? So there’s that.
These are very helpful, Bob, thanks! I do love rooting out the superfluous. But I’ll take the opportunity to ask: why do semi-colons bug editors so? I cannot think of a better way to show a closer-than-usual relationship between two sentences; when I put in that period and cap, especially when the parts of the sentence are short (which they often are), the prose feels choppy and stilted. (Okay, I wouldn’t have a problem breaking the above sentence into two; this one, I would.)
Is the dash insert—as you used—considered as much of a bugaboo? And what about. parenthetical expressions, as I used?
I’ll look forward to your answer. (Exclamation point removed.)
Maybe editors are all Kurt Vonnegut acolytes. He said, “Do not use semicolons. All they do is show you’ve been to college.”
Okay, seriously, all of the above (semi-colons, em dashes, parentheses, etc.) are helpful tools but when they are overused, they become annoying. And editors have seen them over and over (and over) again, which is probably why they are hyper-sensitive to them.
Bob, this is probably a terrible and very old joke; but isn’t it true that using semicolons is the mark of a half-a**ed writer?
College?? Didn’t we all learn how to use them properly in middle school (junior high for the older ones among us)?
Apologies for the negligent erroneous period after “about.”
Kathy Sheldon Davis
I also have a high regard for find-and-replace, but using it’s so second nature I don’t remember it’s a tool. Like a spoon for my soup, I’ve go to have it.
My f-n-r habits are the same as yours, but I also tend to rename characters, and this feature is amazing for that. There’s that!!!
I do like find and replace, but thought it could only be used with words. Thanks.
I don’t use find-and-replace, because my writing is so refined and without blemish that nothing needs to be found, much less replaced. But which key is that, anyway? Is it one of them doodads labeled F1 etc that don’t PRINT ‘F1’ or whatever when you press them, however hard you press them?
Aside from cheap cigars, Vat 69, and a .455 Webley, my best friend is this community, and the one over at Books and Such.
Being a shut-in, and largely unable to speak (on’t need a phone, that’s a plus), I live in a kind of deep solitude in which one might easily drown. But though I’ve never met any of you nor ever will, y’all form the tall trees that line a distant shore, one that can still be reached by swimming against the outgoing tide of despair.
That despair is so real, and so very dangerous, the whispering voice of leviathan circling in the blue abyss, asking one question over and over – for this is surely a taste of hell, an endless repetition – “What did it all matter? Your degrees and accomplishments…what do they avail you now? Your hard-won experience…to what end? Give up now, and sink into the water’s warm embrace, where I may devour you at my leisure, for thus is the only meaning you yet bear.”
The only answer I can give, that which crushes leviathan’s head beneath a Heel far mightier than my own, is “Because someone’s expecting me. Not for what I say, not for my piety nor my wit, but because I’m familiar.”
Being familiar, and being expected…those are reasons enough for hope, and for life.
Andrew, one of the reasons I read through the comments after every post is to hear what you have to say. God has created you with incredible depth and insight (and good humor), and I am so thankful for the technology that allows you to share your thoughts with those of us who don’t get to meet you here in this lifetime.
Jaime, thank you so much for this. I’m truly, truly grateful.
You are familiar here, Andrew. I appreciate your insights and comments about how you apply or even disagree with something in the articles that we all drink in from this blog. I am praying for your struggles and isolation. You are a valuable part of this community, and as I’ve come back here day after day, I do expect to find you. Thanks for showing up here.
Sharing your suggestions at my writer’s meeting tonight.
Find and Replace (until Les handed me off to you) is one of the best tools. With every wip I write, I create new weasel words specific to me. I kill one off and several more arise and sneer at me.
Good advice here.
Elaine Marie Cooper
Since I write about the American Revolution and often include dialogue from Brits, “fear” has become my nemesis. As in “I fear I shall miss TEA if this battle does not conclude soon.” But the tension or anxiety is frequently expressed in “I fear I am going to die. Bring me a cup of tea.” Or “Bring me a cup of tea lest I fear I shall faint.” Thus, I always fear I am using “fear” too often. Perhaps I should also Find and Replace “tea”??
Mark Alan Leslie
My editor hates “that” and “it.” So I target them and find I use them sparingly nowadays.
But I don’t get this anti-semicolon rage of recent years.
Poot Dickens would still be unpublished.
Am I the only one who misses his one-page sentences?
mark Alan Leslie
Make that “Poor Dickens”
At least his characters were memorable.
I can’t stop laughing. Garden Scene from The Last of the Mohicans was playing as I read this.
Katelyn S. Bolds
Great tip Bob! I use this all the time. 🙂
I’m one of those typewriter people who still uses two spaces after each period, so Find-and-Replace has saved me from a zillion hits on the backspace button. My old Royal typewriter is sitting behind me right now and looking over my shoulder asking, “What’s wrong with two spaces?” Sweet, sweet friend.
After reading your examples, I think I may be a bit of a “that,” was,” and “like” kind of girl. I better go hit up my BFF for some more help. So when you find out where to send those flowers, Bob, let me know. I’d like to send some chocolates. 🙂
Find and Replace has been a big help to me too. Although my affinity is for em dashes, not semicolons. I also go through my manuscripts to cut back on generic action beats like smiling, nodding, freezing, pausing, laughing, etc. It comes in useful when I forget how I spelled a character’s name, too!
Love The Last of the Mohicans soundtrack!
Bob, I’ve found an easy way to reduce the time spent fixing things.
At the top right in the “paragraph” box at the top of Word, there is a flipped P that is the end-of-paragraph symbol. If you turn that on, the spaces, tabs, paragraph ends, and page breaks will display as you write your document. You can see in real time whether you put two spaces where there should be one or left a hanging space at the beginning or end of a paragraph. You’ll also see any tabs that should be replaced by first-line indents (again found in the paragraph command box).
I find I have to do very little clean-up on my manuscripts because see the mistakes as I create them.
Kathy Cheek, Devotions from the Heart
I love exclamation points and have to resist using them and it makes me sad.
I remember years ago in Houston at the church Beth Moore attended when she was getting started in writing Bible studies and she shared with us how the editors at LifeWay were constantly sending her manuscripts back with notes about all the exclamation points. She said it is hard to talk about how great God is without exclamation points. Nevertheless, she replaced them with ordinary periods.
I am pretty sure I have seen some exclamation points in the Psalms.
Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D
Bob, your postings are always so insightful. I have used “find and replace” in my writing as well, though I generally use it to change characters’ names when I fear a lawsuit might ensue. Yes, it feels good to call that son-of-a-gun by a student’s name when the person has bugged the daylights out of me for an entire semester, but self-control is needed here.
One of the times I wish I had something like “find and replace” available was when a speech student used the word “like” 54 times in a 5-minute speech. Yes, I counted. Oh, and it was a male student who like did like this like. You like know like what like I like mean like?
As an indie author, I use find and replace to fix-up my MS. I eliminate spaces at the end of a paragraph, which show up because at the time I thought I’d just add a new sentence.
At the bottom of F&R is a MORE button that allows you to find whole words only (like for IS), and at the bottom of that pull down is a FORMAT button and a SPECIAL button that help you search for those things you can’t see, but are taking place in the background of your document.
And I also use it to eliminate my favorite word at the moment, JUST.
I hate to admit this, but I didn’t know about the Find-and-Replace feature until this post. I like semi-colons; and I have a few too many quirky phrases I over use..
Good stuff. Thanks.
I love find and replace. Something the programmers did very right.
Great advice, once again. I have used F-A-R in the past (on the job) but hadn’t thought to implement it in my own writing. GREAT ideas – that, was, very, and especially “!” as I do tend to overuse that!!!
Loved the encouragement to look for our own personal weaknesses. I think one of mine is the overuse of the ’em dash’ — will be doing F-A-R very soon to double check.
Find and replace is a life saver mostly because I get too lazy to read through a whole chapter again. (Don’t worry, I eventually go back!) I love semi-colons… 😉
What a light-hearted and refreshing way to give useful advice. By the way, you can search for “is” if you put a space before and after the word.
This happens to be one of my favorite tools as well.
I love Find-and-Replace. Thanks for sharing your tips.
I love Find and Replace, and use it for finding many things, including: “then,” redundant words, “be” verbs, chapters and sections I’m working on (although the Bookmark feature is great for this), and double words on the page.
Oh, one other feature I’ve grown to appreciate is the Link feature from the Insert tab in Word. It’s perfect for including clickable links to websites mentioned in book proposals or articles.
Thank you for your humor and plainness of speech that teaches and exhorts.
Thanks for all the info about F and R, Bob and everyone!
Andrew, I, along with the others who responded, look forward to your wit and genius! And yes, Bob, I used an exclamation point.
Find/replace is wonderful. I used it recently to find how many times I wrote a character’s name (too many) and then looked for opportunities to replace it with a pronoun (a trick I learned from an agent).
I like to use Find/Replace to correct wherever a passive voice was used. I mean, wherever I used a passive voice. I never thought about using it for blog posts. Duh…thanks Bob
Joy Avery Melville
FInd-Replace – my weasel words tend to be…
JUST, REALLY, and one I used to struggle with constantly – ACTUALLY – every character used it at least once in DIALOGUE – I’ve managed to eradicate that one most of the time.
Great post, Bob.
Doggone it, I forgot to mention another great use for F&R: counting occurrences of words. For example, I tend to overuse “nod” so I can not only go through one-by-one, replacing as many as possible, I can also use F&R to count how many times I used it, before and after.
Nancy B. Kennedy
Another use for find-and-replace: get rid of qualifying terms like somewhat, a little, just, pretty, a lot, fairly, really, etc. “These are the leeches that infest the pond of prose, sucking the blood of words.” (Strunk & White)
Great advice! I will definitely use “Find and Replace” in my future novel editing endeavors. I’ve used it to find key mistakes in manuscripts, but your suggestions will help me become a more efficient editor.
Kelli Carruth Miller
Please kindly explain why you find it necessary to replace your semicolons; have they fallen out of fashion?
As per my comment above, all of the above (semi-colons, em dashes, parentheses, etc.) are helpful tools but when they are overused, they become annoying. And editors have seen them over and over (and over) again, which is probably why they are hyper-sensitive to them.