Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Seek and ye shall find

By Chester Campbell

Do you harness the power of your word processor’s search and replace function? Every writer knows he or she can change a character’s name throughout the book with a simple click of the mouse. And most of us have learned the hard way to specify “whole words only.” Otherwise, if Art is changed to Will, we wind up with words like “pWillnership.”

Beyond this simple but valuable strategy, using only the search feature can save lots of headaches. My first mystery came back from the editor with the comment (among lots of others) that I must have an affinity for the color blue. I had numerous blue eyes, blue cars, blue suits, blue whatevers. When I searched on the word “blue,” it came up 51 times in a 261-page manuscript.

I then searched for other colors, finding green 23 times, brown 21, red 17, and yellow 8. I combed through the book and toned down my color palette until the scorecard read brown 18, blue 17, green 17, and red 17. Yellow remained a respectable eight. When the manuscript went back to the editor, he was pleased.

Another literary bugaboo is the use of adverbs. I agree, they should be toned down, though an occasional adverb is useful in clarifying an action. In that first book I mentioned above, I searched for “ly” words and found 12 in the first three pages. My new book, The Surest Poison, has only four “ly” adverbs in the same number of pages.

I didn’t feel too badly (to use a good adverb), however. F. Scott Fitzgerald used 12 in the first three pages of his classic novel, The Great Gatsby. A random check of some popular current authors showed the following three-page results:

Harlan Coben – nine
Barbara Parker – six
Ian Rankin – five
James Lee Burke – four

I could say more about adverbs, but I'll leave that for another time.

One use I make of the search feature is to find a particular scene during the revision process. I may not remember where it is, but I can recall a character in the scene, or a place name, or some unique descriptive term. I’ll enter that in the search field and a few clicks on the “next” button will take me to the scene.

I’m only familiar with the search and replace feature in Word for Windows, but I’m sure the other word processors have something similar. If you click the “More” button, you get lots of different options. You can search up or down or through the whole file. You can choose to match the case of what you type in the search field. If you’re looking for a proper name, that will make sure the first letter is capitalized. Another option is “sounds like,” so you don’t even need to spell the word correctly.

A handy feature is the “Special” button, which allows you to search for a particular font or a special character such as an em dash or an ellipsis.

Search and replace is a powerful feature for the writer. Make full use of it if you want to save time and get things right. It no doubt offers plenty of other possibilities. Have you found particular uses that I haven’t mentioned?

By the way, I’m in the sixth day of my blog book tour for The Surest Poison. You’ll find me today at Ann Parker’s Silver Rush Mysteries blog talking about Writing the Private Eye.


Janine said...

Thanks for sharing your writing process.

I use the AutoCrit Editing Wizard to do things like find LY-adverbs and other overused words. I find it much handier than the search/replace feature.

Anonymous said...

Good tips, all, Chester. I realize now that I have a lot more help at the click of the mouse than I thought I did! Thanks.

Pat Browning

Chester Campbell said...

I'm not familiar with the AutoCredit Editing Wizard, Janine. Is it the namne of a program? Thanks for visiting.

Click on, Pat. Help is out there.

Ben Small said...

Here it is. Looks pretty good.


Jean Henry Mead said...

On the subject of adverbs, I'm reminded of A. B. Guthrie's quote: "The adverb is the enemy of the noun and the adjective is the enemy of damn near everything else. Writers use too many descriptive words."

Chester Campbell said...

Perhaps true, Jean, but I personally like the broader view colorful adjectives give to a description. Not a long laundry list of them, but used judiciously (I could have said "but with judicious use," avoiding the adverb, but does that change anything?).

Anonymous said...

I must agree with Chester. Famous authors like Guthrie are good at pronouncements that don't always apply.

Is it Elmore Leonard who is endlessly quoted as saying that he cuts out the parts that readers skip? There's a writing tip buried in there,but Mr. Leonard, for my money, is an acquired taste.

For my tastes, a book without a few adjectives would be like looking at a picture in black and white.

Just giving it some thought --

Pat Browning

Jean Henry Mead said...

I don't think Guthrie meant it literally. He was trying to make the point that most writers indulge in too many descriptive passages. And he was, above all, a journalist before a novelist. We career journalists tend to write action before description. And, of course, a little description judiciously spooned in adds to richness of the text.