Improve Your Novel with Find and Replace

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Once you’ve perfected your plot and polished up your prose, there’s a quick way to add an extra layer of shine to your novel: Find and Replace.

The “Find and Replace” feature (sometimes called “Search and Replace”) is an easy way to get rid of bad writing habits that you might not notice when reading straight through your novel.

Here are some things to search for and eliminate from your book:

Began & Started

Find: Begin, begins, began, beginning, start, starts, started, starting

Replace these words with active verbs. We don’t need to know that the character started doing something, we just need to know that they’re doing it. “Start” and “began” make the action feel less active so consequently, the reader is less engaged.

Example: He started to run.

Change to: He ran.

Adverbs

Find: ly (this can be a bit tedious, but if you have a love affair with adverbs it will be well worth the time.)

Replace words ending in “ly” (AKA adverbs) with stronger verbs or cut them out entirely. Adverbs weaken the action rather than strengthen it, and they are often a sign of lazy writing.

Example: He quickly ran across the park.

Change to: He darted across the park.

Verbs Ending in “ing”

Find: ing (again, this can be pretty tedious, but it’s worth it.)

Replace verbs ending in “ing” with verbs ending in “ed” whenever it is proceeded by “was,” “were,” or “is.” This sort of “ing” verb makes the action less active and if you use it a lot, it can also raise your word count.

Sometimes, however, this sentence structure makes sense if an ongoing action is being described, but think critically about whether it makes a difference if the action was ongoing or immediate. If it doesn’t matter, go with “ed,” as in the example below.

Example: I turned and Mary was glaring at me.

Change to: I turned and Mary glared.

Time-Based Adverbs

Find: when, then, suddenly, immediately, always, often, already, finally

Replace these time-based adverbs with stronger descriptions that show the suddenness, frequency, etc., or eliminate them entirely. I wrote a post about time-based adverbs here. But here’s the gist: more words take longer to read and make the action feel less immediate, not more immediate.

Example: I immediately ran through the door.

Change to: I ran through the door.

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10 thoughts on “Improve Your Novel with Find and Replace

  1. pt says:

    Definitely all good advice. My biggest bugbear (from my academic years) is related to the -ing and is a construct I want banished from written English: “It is/was [-ing word] that…”.

    Ugh, please no. I’ve read entire essays where sentences start with this. We tell people all of the time, “Don’t start a sentence with ‘it’!!” and the writer thinks we mean sentences like, “It was raining.” Okay, this isn’t a great sentence, though it could be fine in a specific context… but really what we mean is don’t use “It is/was [-ing word] that…”.

    If you have a sentence, “It was amazing (startling, interesting, incredible, disquieting, etc.) that she knew how to bowl so well.”, that could be directly rewritten as, “That she knew how to bowl so well was amazing.” Still a bad sentence, but at least the “it” is gone. Better is to write it actively, “She amazed everyone with her bowling (ability).”

    I’d love you to write a blog post about the “It is/was [-ing word] that…” construction and -why- it is bad. So, so bad. If it keeps one more person in the world from using it, you will be my friend forever.

    • Ellen_Brock says:

      Ha! Okay. I will put it on my to do list.

      I agree that it can be a very distracting sentence construction as well as weak.

      Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment!

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