The Search-and-Find Feature

Over the years I’ve harped at authors never, ever to turn in a first draft. Some writers think the editor’s job is to spiff up their grammar, correct misspelled words, change passive voice to active, eliminate repeated words and phrases, or do laser surgery on their mixed metaphors.

Word travels in publishing circles about whether you’re a professional or you’ve made your living on the backs of good editors. You don’t want to be known as a hack writer.

Hopefully, the electronic tool known as search and find will make your self-editing chore more enjoyable.

  1. Passive voice (one of my pet peeves): Passive voice is created by using a form of be, such as am, is, are, was, were, being, be, or been and followed by the past participle of the main verb, or gerunds comprised of a present participle (ending in “ing”) that functions as a noun. Learn more in Hacker’s Rules for Writers. Search for these words and recast your sentences to make them more active. Examples:

Passive: He was jumping over the cliff into the river below to escape.

Active: He jumped over the cliff into the river below to escape.

  1. Qualifiers: These words clutter up your writing. Sometimes I think writers use them to boost their word counts. Examples: begin, start, started to, almost, decided to, planned to, a little bit, almost, etc. Examples:

With qualifier: Mary felt a little bit out of place among the nouveau riche.

Better: Mary felt out of place among the nouveau riche.

  1. Weasel Words: These words are easy to spot. You can drop them and no one will notice. My high school English teacher told me that if you could replace the word very with the word damn, you didn’t need it. Other examples: really, well, so, a lot of, anyway, just, oh, suddenly, immediately, kind of, extremely, etc. I’m sure you can come up with your favorites.

With weasel words: Suddenly, she stood up and said, “Oh well, let’s retire to the drawing room and just stay out of his way.”

Better: She stood and said, “Let’s retire to the drawing room and stay out of his way.”

  1. Adverbs: I don’t hate adverbs, but they “usually” are unnecessary, especially in dialogue tags. Your prose should communicate a character’s state of mind without using a tag line such as the example below. Use search and find to look for an ly followed by a space or a period.

With adverb: “I’ll kill him,” she said ferociously. (Really?)

Better: “I’ll kill him,” she said.

  1. Extraneous thats or thens: Use the global search-and-find feature for the word that. If you can understand the sentence without it, you don’t need it. You notice I didn’t write, then you don’t need it. Both of these words are over used.

Writing is rewriting, and rewriting involves self-editing. It’s your job to turn in the cleanest manuscript possible to your agent or editor. Use the search-and-find tool to speed up the process.

Can you think of other ways you can employ the search-and-find feature in Word to edit your work?

38 Replies to “The Search-and-Find Feature”

  1. I nodded with each point listed, they are all a problem for me. I love the word just. I used to write in passive voice, because when I wrote in active it read like something I wrote for work (chemistry is fascinating, technical reports are not). A hard habit to break both ways. I spent hours today reading up on body language so I could show my characters’ emotions instead of telling the reader what they were with a dialogue tag. Each time I learn something new I go back over my manuscript and try to fix it.

    Thanks for the list! I’m copying it (I hope you don’t mind) and posting it on my computer.

  2. We share a pet peeve. Reading a manuscript studded with passive voice verbs puts me to sleep. Thanks for your time in putting together this post, right now especially. No more hikes in the rain?

  3. I keep a list of over used mannerisms via Nick Harrison’s blog. It includes swallow, eyes narrowing, heart jumping, etc. I’m embarrassed to admit I had something like thirty swallows and cut it down to two for the entire 320 pages of my ms. when I used the search and find tool. When I get through the rough draft state, I’ll be making fine use of search and find with this list printed out beside me.

    1. My heroine’s heart “skipped a beat” until Nick posted that list. 🙂

      Other words to search include “heard,” “thought,” and “saw.”

  4. Besides checking for those pesky weasels, thats, and qualifiers, I use the search and find feature to clean up tabs, double spaces, and other formatting problems. Watch out, though, with the “replace all” button. I once changed a character’s name from Sue to Sally and words like tissue and sued became tissally and sallyd. Now if I use a real person’s name intending to change it later I will add a q or an xx. The function is also a quick way to land back on a particular scene if I can remember a word or a phrase from it.

  5. Actually, your example of passive/active voice is incorrect. Active/passive voice refers to whether or not the subject of the sentence is the active party. “He was jumping over the cliff” is active because “he” is the subject of the sentence, and “he” is the one performing the action. The passive version would be “the cliff was jumped over”.

  6. Thanks everyone for your contributions! Maybe some ambitious writer will put together a definitive list for all of us to use.

    And “D,” I guess we’ll need to agree to disagree.

  7. Egads!!! I can’t believe anyone would turn in a first draft. Either that or other people’s first drafts are a lot more pristine than mine. Not only for the reasons mentioned above but for me a first draft may mean I don’t have all my subplots followed through and other things of a story nature. I would be mortified to submit a first draft. YUCK! (But it is a dream of mine to one day write perfectly the first time. *-)

  8. Thanks. This sort of advice is helpful. I started to write, “This is the sort of advice that is most helpful.” Thanks again.

  9. Ah, yes, the SEARCH & FIND key! What would we do without it?

    Another thing I like to try to search and find is extra spaces. I never type them (so I think I don’t) but I always seem to find at least one. So I like to search for those during the time I look for my weasel words which BTW always seem to change with every novel.

    Great post, Barbara!

  10. Thanks Barbara. I also agree how horrendous the thought of turning in a rough draft. Maybe the editor thinks it’s a rough draft because it’s still in poor shape? Ha. Speaking for myself.

  11. This is so helpful! I’m rewriting my first novel am found excessive use (or found there to be excessive use….hehe) of could and should. I am pouring over chapter by chapter to ensure I don’t have those mistakes. This post is so helpful. Thank you!

  12. A wonderful useful post, dear Barbara. Here’s a few words on my list that I do a search and destroy…I mean search and delete.

    A lot

  13. GREAT blog! Sharing on Facebook….and tucking into my “Advice to New Writers” file.

  14. Weasel words are part of conversation, and seems that they can be used effectively in dialog to differentiate character voices.

    1. This is true, David. But any word can be overused. Don’t have all your characters using the same weasel word. And first see if you can drop it without ruining the story. Write tight. That is the point. What if every word cost you $.25. Would you insist in using weasel words every time?

      1. True, Sharon. That’s kind of obvious that, if you are using weasel words to give your characters a voice in dialog, you wouldn’t use the same words for different characters. And certainly it can be over done for any one character.

  15. I’m glad this post proved useful to both new and experienced authors! My first drafts are full of these problems, so don’t edit as you write your manuscript. Gain distance from your work first before you self-edit. Also, it’s best to rewrite for one issue at a time. Don’t try to change every problem in the first pass. Let me know what other topics you’d like for me to post in a blog. I can fill a book with self-editing tips. LOL

  16. Barb…. I think you are on a roll. Another post on self-editing tips would be awesome. One of the best tips I learned early on (from my Aunt Etta who taught writing at Texas Tech into her 80s…) was that you can set up the next person who is speaking by having them gesture rather than saying, “he said” or “she said.” I..E. She stood and smiled. “I’m thrilled to meet you.” or He stroked his beard. “I’m concerned about this.” This little technique can take really help take you up a few notches from amateur to pro, whether you write fiction or non-fiction. These little tips are GOLD to new writers, and they do not necessarily just pick them up from reading. My mom, also a professional writer, was lethal to all the “thats” in our manuscripts! I was blessed to be surrounded by writer-mentors and love that this WaterCooler can become that sort of “mentor” via a blog.

    1. What a great heritage you have, Becky! My grandmother wrote her first novel at the age of 70, and she would save her copies of The Writer and Writer’s Digest for me to read when I was only 8 or 9 years old. Self-editing it is for my next blog post!

      1. Barbara, that is fascinating! I’d love to hear more about your grandmother. I bet Writer’s Digest would LOVE to hear this comment, or perhaps an article? (In your spare time of course.)

  17. One more thing my mom and aunt taught me, “When you can use a stronger noun and drop the adjective (or some of them), do so. If you can use a stronger verb and drop the adverb, do it.” “The tall, slim lady with blond hair” becomes the “statuesque blond” and “he ran very fast” becomes “he sprinted.”

  18. I use this to find my crutch words–the words I am terrible about overusing: like, just, turn, look, etc. It’s also super awesome for finding overused body language by searching ketwords: eyes, hand, stomach, heart, breath, etc. 🙂

  19. Great point, Barbara: “… it’s best to rewrite for one issue at a time. Don’t try to change every problem in the first pass.”

    I think it’s also important to keep an eye out for patterns of error. For instance, I tend to leave out letters in certain words (like the “r” in friend–which can be a BIG problem). But I often miss some of my southern slang and verb tense problems in my personal blog, since I try to post five days a week. But that’s another topic for another day, right?

    Some writers find it helpful to read each piece backwards (word by word) to focus on the spelling of each word. And it’s also helpful to read it backwards (sentence by sentence) to check your grammar, to avoid being distracted by your content issues.

    I look forward to more of your posts on this topic! Good stuff!

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