The second most useful tool in your word processor

I’m being a little lazy here – this post originally appeared in my Live Journal early last year. But I wasn’t even Becky Black then! So many who read this blog won’t have seen it anyway. And I thought it could use another airing, with a couple of tweaks. It amuses me. Find and Replace – oh my god, what a fan-bloody-tastic tool for the writer. Almost as useful as spellcheck. You wrote a novel and you suddenly realise you hate the main character’s name? Bam! It’s changed! Swathes of rewriting done in a matter of seconds! But like spellcheck, it has its traps for the unwary. You can trust it to do what you tell it to do. The danger is, that might not always be exactly what you expect it to do.

“I couldn’t wait to get my hands on his big, hard Gerald.”

Yes, it’s the peril of the “name that’s also a word”. Jack, for instance. Headphone jack, car jack, jacking in. etc. You really don’t want to end up with a headphone Jonathan, a car Andrew or Jerrying in. Other names to be careful of there – Mark, Kit, Bill, Will, Frank, Lee, Max, Rob, Miles, Gene, Rick, Dick (don’t even think about naming a character in an erotic novel “Dick” and then changing it to something else. The possible consequences are mind-boggling.)

Last names too – especially names that came from job names, Smith, Carpenter, Thatcher, Cooper, etc. If someone with that job just happened to show up in your novel, potential trouble! Colour words, Black, Brown, Grey. Women’s names seem to be less prone to this, but watch out for flower names, “Hmm, my girlfriend will love it if I buy her a dozen red Janets.” Month names used as women’s name are another hazard. “We’re planning to have a spring wedding in Elaine!” It can go the other way around too. Nobody wants to see their Auntie June suddenly become their Auntie October. It’s not only names there.

Suppose you fiddle with the time line and decide all that stuff that happens in August needs to move. Be careful you don’t end up with someone saying “With all these distinguished people here we’re in july company tonight.” Don’t even think about the consequences with “May”. Animal and bird names can be a hazard in fantasies. So don’t name a character Raven and then… nah, forget it, just don’t ever name any character Raven in the first place. Military ranks, like Private, Major, or General. Watch out if you decide to promote or demote them with search and replace. Would hate to have some character going off to work for that “colonel corporation Marshall Electric.”

Think it through.

Just have a good think about it before you do it. Are there any other contexts in which that name is used as just a word, not a name? Do any of those contexts occur in your book? Does your book with a character called Orlando who you’re now changing to George involve anyone ever going to or referring to Orlando, Florida? Does your book with a Lisa you want to now call Tracy involve any mention of the Mona Lisa? Think. And check. And check some more.

“My name is Jane, but my mother calls me Lizzy.”

Be consistent. What if people call the character different versions of the name? Like most people call someone Chris, but some call him Christopher. It might occur only once or twice, but fail to change it and you end up with someone who was once called Bill and you renamed to Alan whose mother inexplicably calls him “William” in that one scene where she’s annoyed with him. What if your character owns a Jaguar car that you decide to make a Porsche instead, but that now and again people refer to as “the Jag”?

“Have you met my friend Philiel? He used to be named Dan, and I forgot I called him Daniel a couple of times.”

Click the whole word option and be cautious of case. There should be an option in your find and replace box to make sure you only change a whole word and not that string of letters within words. Last thing you want is to end up with someone putting on a “nicket” because it’s cold outside and there used to be someone called Jack you renamed Nick in your story. Short names are the main danger there. A string of three letters like Ben, Dan, Tim etc could occur in lots of words.

Case is important and makes Rose and rose different words. But just the word “rose” could have an upper case R if it’s at the start of a sentence, so just thinking you’re safe to change every instance of Rose to Geraldine and leave “rose” alone may not cover you as much as you expected. So Find and Replace is a wonderful thing, but think hard when you’re using it to make big changes. Spell check again afterwards to weed out those nickets. And expect to read your entire manuscript again to look for anomalies after making a big change like a major character name. And for the love of God, save a backup of your file before you attempt a mass find and replace! Undo might not be enough. Save a backup in case the only way out of the mess you make is to go back to a version before you started the attempt. Happy editing!

Find and replace box
Are you sure this is a good idea?

7 thoughts on “The second most useful tool in your word processor

  1. Ha-ha. Yeah, I’m one of those authors who often decides halfway through that she hates her hero or heroine’s name and changes it. Must be sooo careful. Great article, Becky. You have a way of writing that always makes me smile.

    1. Thanks, Allie. I did it with a draft I have that’s waiting for editing, decided one of the characters just had to change their name. Will have to be very careful while editing that I make sure there’s not of the old name in there.

      Thanks for commenting,

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