The Writer’s Toolbox – Replace This

You’re rereading past issues of the Toolbox and realize that, oops! “Toward” isn’t supposed to be spelled with an ?s. And you’re pretty sure you’ve spelled it that way quite a few times in your manuscript, but the thought of going through the whole 70,000-word document makes your eyes glaze over.

Enter the mighty and powerful Find and Replace.

Find and Replace?or F&R?is one of the editing tools that comes with Microsoft Word. The Find button alone is a great tool, as it allows you to search for terms quickly (what chapter does this character first appear in?); F&R is like the older, more powerful sibling.

In its simplest form, F&R finds and replaces text with text?like “towards” with “toward.” It allows you to ensure consistent spelling and hyphenation throughout a long manuscript, and gives you the ability to make significant changes, like renaming your story’s villain so that she no longer shares a name with your new boyfriend’s mother.

You can also use F&R to replace double spaces with single spaces, space out ellipses, and make two-word nouns into hyphenated compounds. Or, if you tend to misuse a particular word, you can hunt down each instance and swap it with the correct word or concept.

Get Technical
Feeling ambitious? The basic F&R is already quite useful, but the drop-down menu under More can really transform your self-editing process. It allows you to search for (or replace with) words in a particular case, find whole words only (helpful if you’re searching for a short word that is part of other, longer words), and more. The wildcard feature offers even more flexibility; for example, you can search for sneaky adverbs by running a Find on “*ly”?the * stands for any text, so the search snags any word ending in ?ly¬¨.

And then clicking on the Format drop-down menu gives you even more customization power; you can specify font, colour, and other specific attributes for either your search term(s) or replacement(s). The Special drop-down menu includes special characters, like nonbreaking spaces (helpful for making sure your ellipses don’t break over a line).

If you’re curious about how to really make the more advanced features of F&R work for you, check out this post on “Advanced Find.”

Don’t Go Global
However, like many tools, F&R can make things worse if you don’t keep it under control. Treat the F&R tool as a guide, but remember that it’s not as smart as it thinks; never select Replace All, or you’ll risk introducing more errors.

Applying F&R globally?e.g., to the entire document?can have bizarre results. A colleague of mine recently encountered a book in which a character named “Alice” had apparently had a name change to “Betty.” The author had run F&R to make the change consistent, but had applied it to all instances of “Alice”?with no specification as to uppercase or lowercase. The result: “malice” appeared a few times as “mbetty.”

Sometimes the errors are so small that it’s hard to foresee potential problems. For example, you might decide to change all your straight apostrophes to curly ones?and then later notice that some of them are facing the wrong way. Going through each one individually using Find Next instead of Replace All would allow you to check that everything’s lined up where it should be.

Or you might decide that you want “OK” to appear as “Okay.” Applying it globally might result in a lot of improper lowercase or uppercase, because without a complicated macro or very specific instructions, Word can’t make decisions about what should or should not be capitalized.

Choosing Find Next instead of Replace All is a lot more work, but you never know when F&R will be a little too accommodating of your request. Taking the time to go through each replacement is worth it to avoid jarring or distracting errors.

When you’re self-editing, don’t give over all the work to your software, but do make the software work for you. A little knowledge of Find and Replace, coupled with your own eagle eye, will help you bring consistency and readability to your manuscripts.

Christina M. Frey is a book editor, literary coach, and lover of great writing. For more tips and techniques for your toolbox, follow her on Twitter (@turntopage2) or visit her blog.

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