Story craft with Jo Cole
Now that the 2018 Exeter Writers Short Story competition is open for entries, we thought we'd get you chomping at the bit with a series of blog posts around story craft. Happy reading (and writing)...
Ten Ways to use ‘Find and Replace’ to Edit your Writing.
By Jo Cole
When I first started editing my own work, I didn’t know where to start and would often rely on my gut feeling. But the more I write, the more systematic I have become; a strict editing procedure results in writing that is stronger, cleaner and more dynamic. And for a rigorous self-editor, ‘Find and Replace’ is immensely useful. Here are my top ten ways to use it.
1. Strong verbs
Verbs are the bones of a good piece of writing while adjectives and adverbs flesh out the bones. Without the skeleton verbs provide, adverbs and adjectives would plummet to the ground. In first drafts we often use lazy verbs such as ‘walk’ or ‘look’. Use ‘Find and Replace’ to blitz these. Swap them for more precise ones. Characters should stroll or amble rather than walk and gaze and peer rather than look. A box could be crammed full rather than just filled.
Other weak verbs that could be searched for include: go/goes/went/gone/going, put/puts/putting, do/does/did/done/doing/, have/has/had/having, get/got/gotten/getting, fill/filled/filling/, be/was/are/is
2. One verb not two
Sometimes we dampen the impact of our sentences by using two verbs rather than just one. This is particularly the case when we use ‘begin’, ‘start’ or even ‘reach out’.
Compare the following:
A. He began to run. B. He ran.
A. He started to speak B. He spoke.
A. He reached out and snatched the keys. B. He snatched the keys.
The B examples carry more punch – short sentences add drama, tension and excitement to a piece of prose. They sped up action while unnecessary verbs slow it down.
Stephen King said, “The road to hell is paved with adverbs”. There’s a general rule of thumb that you should use an adverb every 300 words. Although not all adverbs end with ‘ly’, a significant majority do.
Use ‘Find and Replace’ to highlight any adverbs in your work. Ask yourself: is the sentence better with or without the adverb? Chances are it is better without and if it isn’t, look again at the verb you have used. Can it be made stronger?
4. Show not Tell
If you have heard the phrase, ‘show not tell’ as many times as I have, you’ll be groaning at the very sight of it. Nevertheless, it is incredibly important that the reader sees what your character is feeling rather than just being told the emotion.
A. Jane felt angry (telling)
B. Jane clenched her fists and bit on her bottom lip. She didn’t trust herself to speak (showing).
The second example allows the reader to infer that Jane is angry by providing a visual image and thus helps the reader picture Jane.
‘Find and Replace’ can be used to identify when you have told rather than shown. Try searching the following and see if your sentences are showing or telling and rewrite if necessary: feel/felt/feeling, seem, notice, decide, appear, know/knew, think/thought.
5. Overused words
We all have words that crop up again and again in our writing. It is important to identify which words you have a particular liking for and to use ‘Find and Replace’ to eliminate them. My favourite word pets are often ‘just’ and ‘exactly’, but other common, overused words include: some, that, even, almost, right, such, very, been, only, really, quite, about, then, all. In all fiction, but especially short stories, every word has to earn its place and these words often do little to forward plot or aid character development.
6. Cut the Prepositions
Prepositions are those two, three or four letter words that show relationships between different people, objects or things. They often indicate where something is. Examples include: on, at, in, of, from, for, to, with, above, through. There are around 150 in the English Language. Prepositions correspond to verbs and when we write, we often don’t need to use the preposition, as the meaning is clear from the verb alone.
A. Rachel fell down on the floor
B. Rachel fell on the floor.
Down is unnecessary.
Another example is:
A. Matt climbed up the mountain.
B. Matt climbed the mountain.
Up is redundant. The reader would automatically assume he was going up rather than down! ‘Of’ is a preposition that can often result in wordy sentences.
A. Jane feared the disapproval of the manager
B. Jane feared the manager’s disapproval.
Print off a list of key prepositions and search for them during your final cut. Lots and lots of them will be identified so you’ll need think about each highlighted sentence carefully, asking yourself: Does it still make sense if I take away the preposition? The 25 most common prepositions are: of, in, to, for, with, on, at, from, by, about, as, into, like, through, after, over, between, out, against, during, without, before, under, around, among.
7. Passive voice
The passive voice is the less favoured voice in fiction as it removes the character from the central action compared to the active voice.
A. The car was driven by Jane (passive)
B. Jane drove the car (active)
A. The money had been taken by Peter (passive)
B. Peter took the money (active)
To spot the difference between the passive and the active, remember that the passive always uses the verb to be (in its various forms), uses the past participate (driven, taken, smashed) and by ___ can be added on the end, if needed. For example: The garden had been destroyed (by the dog).
The passive is useful if a sense of mystery is wanted. For example: when they got home, they discovered the security lights had been smashed and the safe opened. We don’t need to add by burglars as it is obvious, but the passive is effective, as the reader wants to know who the burglars are.
Try searching for the following forms of to be: is/was/have been/will be/had been.
Then analyse the highlighted sentences using the By who? test. If by who is on the end of the sentence already or can be added onto the end, then it is passive. Once you know what your sentence is, you can decide whether you want to show character-led action (use the active voice) or mystery (use the passive voice). Most often the sentences will need to be rewritten and changed into the active voice.
8. Varied sentence structures and dialogue
When producing fiction, it is important to vary your sentences as much as possible in order to add variety and to adjust the pace of your piece. If writing in the first person, use ‘Find and Replace' to see if you overuse “I” at the start of sentences or paragraphs. If you are using third person, try searching for a character’s name or the corresponding pronoun (she/he) and see if it is overused. Similarly, you can look at your dialogue by searching for ‘said’. Does it all follow the same format with ‘said’ at the end? Or is ‘said’ in the middle or even at the start? Is there dialogue when ‘said’ can be removed as it is obvious who is speaking? Interrupted, unassigned dialogue is important to mimic real life speech.
9. Time expressions
For most of us, our love of writing developed in childhood when we used to listen to stories read by adults. These stories were often dramatic and full of sudden changes. The language used reflected these changes.
For example: Jack then fell out of the tree and hit the floor. Suddenly, a talking zebra appeared and Jack was in mid-conversation with the beast when a hippo strolled by. Then …
Our own writing should be subtler than this. It is worth trying to pick out some of these time expressions that feel amateurish.
Use ‘Find and Replace’ to track down these expressions: Suddenly, then, when, always, often, finally, already, all of a sudden.
10. Was/were … ing
The past continuous (also known as past progressive) shows something was happening in the past when another past event occurs.
For example: Clare was talking on the telephone when the doorbell rang.
This is different to: I talked on my phone. The doorbell rang. In the second example, the two events happened one after the after while in the first, they are become simultaneous although Clare’s call happened first.
The past continuous is made up of sentences that contain ‘was’ and the ing form of the verb.
The past continuous (was + …ing) can slow writing down and result in clunky phrases. Look at the following examples:
A. The sun was shining and the birds were singing. Rabbits were hopping in the fields. Matt was climbing the fence. He jumped into the long grass.
B. The sun shone, birds sang and rabbits hopped in the fields. Matt climbed the fence and jumped into the long grass.
A. As I was strolling by, I was watching a tramp reclining on a park bench. He was eating a Cornish pasty. He was looking at me like he knew me.
B. As I strolled by, I watched a tramp reclining on a park bench, eating a Cornish pasty. He looked at me like he knew me.
The B examples are snappier and pacier.
A. Shane was just watching the two men talking when one of the men came over and punched him.
B. Shane just watched the two men talking when one of men came over and punched him.
Which is better? B changes the meaning and loses the impact that the original sentence has. The fact Shane was just watching is stronger as it is important that his first past action (the watching) is on-going and interrupted.
Try searching for ‘ing’ sentences and see if the sentences are improved if they are rewritten in the simple past (he ran rather he was running). But just remember, it is a case-by-case analysis and on occasion, past continuous works better.
As a word of warning, when using ‘Find and Replace,’ it is important to consider each change carefully. Gut feeling has an important place in editing. I once decided to rename a character called Si to James and used ‘Replace all’ to do it. On my final read through, I discovered some quite interesting words such as Jamesde, Jamesght and Jamesgn rather than side, sight and sign!