Monday, August 11, 2014

Wordcraft -- Editing: make find/replace our new best friend

Are Armadillos the world’s brainiest critters? That’s what I wonder every time I come back from the annual ArmadilloCon Austin.

The weekend long event bills itself as a science fiction and fantasy convention is held each summer (except when there’s a WorldCon conveniently close, as happened last year). But ArmadilloCon also hosts panels on the likes of Jules Verne; classic readings in science fiction, fantasy and horror; and prehistoric hominids; an art show; and lots and lots of authors to read and autograph their works. And of course, panels on the craft of writing. Leafing through my program, I starred information about writing flash fiction (“Tiny stories brief as bubbles,” July 28, 2014, at this site) and the subject of today’s post, “Before you edit,” whose blurb asked the question: Can find and replace be your best friend?

I dread editing. Reading my own work doesn’t always capture the errors. The “caution” sign I found to illustrate this post describes my own attitude. Eyes are notorious at seeing what we thought we wrote, not what’s actually on the page. As panelist/author Rhiannon Frater told us, “You’re not perfect and you will not catch all your own mistakes.”

Although one audience member immediately shouted, “I will!” the rest of us silently agreed with Frater’s pronouncement.

Could “find/replace” be one of the signs warning us of unseen dangers?

I’ll confess: I only previously used the “find/replace” function to change names. Later at readings, I’d be left to grit my teeth over such annoying details as repetitive words, repetitive phrases, repetitive endings. Would find/replace help with those issues as well?

The answer: not only those but many, many more. Here’s a sampling from the “most abused words” list offered by one panelist: by, of, that, ;his, her, very about, like, such. When I ran one of my current short stories through this list, I used the same word for both “find” and “replace” to give total counts while figuring what to replace, what simply to eliminate.

One of my pet loves is annoying grammar teachers everywhere by starting sentences with conjunctions. It’s often a must for dialogue, but when I ran a check of And and But from the list, with the beginning capital used to show sentence beginnings, I winced. Did I really need to poke quite so many sticks in quite so many eyes?

I also remember a reading whose opening paragraph was overrun with gerunds, whose words ending in -ing that look like verbs but are used as nouns. A “find” search for this or any other overworked ending pinpoints the problems easily.

How about adverbs? They’ve acquired a bad reputation at least since Ernest Hemingway eschewed them, and although they’re not always bad, they do have a tendency to proliferate faster than wire coat hangars in a closet. Despite what our writing groups have told us, not all adverbs end in -ly. However, running a “find” search on -ly is a useful check against overuse.

Still, don’t think of find/replace only in a negative sense. Using it as a tool can help us discover positive elements that we may have neglected to employ. Run a “find” check for sensory words such as felt, heard smelled, saw, tasted, touched, or their present tense versions if you’re writing in that trendy tense. Sure, these words themselves are overused, but their absence can signal the absence of needed sensory details.

Just “be sure you’re not abusing the 'I felt,'” panelist Frater said. “Try to find more clever ways to say that.”

Running a story through the list actually got to be so much fun I had to call a halt to it. I had to build my own list of most abused words and to remember that this is only the pre-editing. Now on to the really hard stuff.

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