The tao of find-replace

My own technology-enabled search-and-destroy mission began with the word maybe. There were nearly sixty maybes in my 300-page manuscript, a Microsoft Word-savvy critiquer pointed out. “More assertive statements,” she advised. “You have a right to an opinion.”

Sixty? I typed the offending word into the blank white “Find” rectangle, and sure enough, fifty-eight matches appeared, each one an instance of writerly backpedaling. I spent the better part of a day rewriting those sentences and repenting for my ingrained patterns as a writer, now splayed out digitally before me.

Microsoft Word’s online help site promises of the “Find and Replace Text” tool, “You can automatically replace a word or phrase with another—for example, you can replace Acme with Apex.

I don’t know many writers who are looking to replace acme with apex. But, I wondered, what are creative nonfiction writers finding and replacing—with their minds, if not with the software tool?

So began a series of conversations with a range of writers, about those words, phrases, and concepts we’d like to “automatically replace with another” in our revision processes. What resulted was a list that is truly the acme—um, I mean, apex—of revisionary aspirations. –Angie Chuang

Maureen N. McLane
author of My Poets and two collections of poetry, World Enough and Same Life

I have found that, when writing reviews, I can over-rely on certain adjectives: wonderful, terrific. These are already weak and empty; to repeat them is a near-felony. But the latest adjective that is verboten is luminous—a cant word in poetry reviews.

As it were:
I have found I can use this phrase as a distancing device: red alert! (Come to think of it, I’m also trying to censor ye olde exclamation point in emails, if not in formal prose.)

Joe Oestreich
author of the memoir, Hitless Wonder: A Life in Minor League Rock and Roll

Instead of going to law school, I opted for an MFA in creative writing. I remind myself always to revise for voice—my voice, not Clarence Darrow’s.

The overuse of the superfluous that is another bad writing habit that I’ve collected. I always think of the Burma Shave–style signs that are posted outside Mom Wilson’s Country Sausage store in Delaware, Ohio: “No Fatty in the Patty.”

I too often use clearly as a substitute for actual clarity of thought and clarity of prose, as if simply typing the word makes it so. Clearly is a wish as much as a word.

Valerie Miner
author of The Low Road: A Scottish Family Memoir; Rumors from the Cauldron: Selected Essays, Reviews, & Reportage; and After Eden, her latest novel.

I’m writing a story in the first person now, and you keeps popping up. Should the story appear in second person?  I’ll think about it. Meanwhile, I’m finding all those accidental yous. But I may just go back and replace them.

See, I used it there (in You). One of my editors told me I used it over a hundred times in one novel. Yikes. I really watch out for this word now.

Alan Cheuse
author of Fall Out of Heaven: An Autobiographical Journey and A Trance After Breakfast: And Other Passages, and longtime book commentator for National Public Radio. His latest book is a trio of novellas, Paradise, Or, Eat Your Face.

I think
"Find and replace" is a good function for the young writer to employ, I think. But the more you read the more you find yourself hearing in your mind’s ear the kind of accidental repetition that, I think, you want to expunge from your first drafts, and so, I think, years of good reading eventually tune the writer’s ear better, I think, than any machine can accomplish. (Expunge all I thinks.)

Canyon Sam
author of Sky Train: Tibetan Women on the Edge of History

Things that are green:
Over thirty years ago, way before there was a Find-Replace function because it was way before computers, an astute friend of mine pointed out how so many items in my work were green. I went through my pieces and found I used green so often as a descriptor that I hardly mentioned any other color.

Perhaps, sort of, a bit:
I learned, as we all did, to hunt down and replace any words that made a piece sound anything less than definitive and authoritative. In the course of my oral history project, Sky Train, a Tibetan woman asked me if I’d write the English version of an important letter. I made sure to cut all the qualifiers. She said the content was fine, but I should phrase things differently: "'Perhaps we should consider. . . . It is my opinion. . . ." I pretty much put back everything I had taken out! She let me know that in Tibetan culture, it was disrespectful and arrogant to appear as if you thought you were right or as if you were the sole arbiter of the truth.

Will Hermes 
author of Love Goes to Buildings on Fire: Five Years in New York That Changed Music Forever

Shredding, wicked, badass:
Cliché-dodging should be a constant in all writing. But I feel I have to be super-vigilant when writing about pop music, since the clichés are so hoary and knee-jerk. I’ll always avoid the rock-guitar term shredding unless I’m referencing, say, a mandolin player, and I’ve retired wicked until I need to cover witches. I probably overuse badass, but I’ve yet to find a word quite so, well, badass. As Neil Young once said, rust never sleeps.

Jo Ann Beard
author of a memoir, The Boys of My Youth, and a novel, In Zanesville

People’s names:
Because so much of my work is autobiographical in nature, what I seem to find and replace most are people’s real names. Strangely, I find that people are given the names that fit them best; that are, in fact, irreplaceable. I called my best friend in high school, for instance, Beelzie. (Short for Beelzebub, I’m afraid, after a morphing incident that occurred on mescaline.) How do you come up with a fictional version of that? I ask you. Answer: You can’t. And so that find-and-replace took her right back to her own name, Elizabeth.

 What do you find and replace? Tell us in the comments!

About the Author

Angie Chuang

Angie Chuang is the author of The Four Words for Home. She is an assistant professor of journalism at the American University School of Communication in Washington, DC.

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