Tuesday, October 11, 2011


Just like clockwork, the NaNoWriMo.org website is up and running, this time sporting a new technology that may withstand the press of writers. I haven't noticed any major problems, though there's the usual assortment of new-platform bugs that the development team is shaking out. Of course there's a Typewriter Brigade topic for anyone considering joining up this year and using a typewriter to draft their work, even just for part of it. And the Brigade accepts all well-wishers and assorted hangers-on as needed. If you've done NaNo before, stop on by and say hello. If you haven't done it before, consider it! It's a lot of work and a lot of fun at the same time. You don't have to be an overplanner like me: the only secret I have to "winning" is to be regular. Write a little bit, every single day. If you can make that a habit for thirty days, even if you're not making the average word-count, you're a winner. If you can write a little on the days when you absolutely do not want to write, and your brain feels slushy and thick, then you've Won Everything. Simple as that.

Come join up.

The rest of this post is mostly reference for me, so I can document what I did this year to clean up my transcription. If it's helpful to you, hooray! But save a copy of your file before following any of this advice. The Word examples were untested at the time I wrote this, but I can refine it if there's interest.

I have already extolled the virtues of having your draft read aloud (see the last bullet point on this post) and I am seriously looking at voice transcription for this year's draft. What both of these miss, though, is subtle issues of punctuation and spacing. Good news, though: your word processor can help you out. These are the things that I get caught up on.
  • Double-spacing is out of fashion. This is bad news for those of us who originally learned to type on a typewriter, or who were taught by someone who learned that way. You may still double-space on the computer, but if you're posting on the Web (at least), that extra space is being absorbed anyway. Modern use appears to be leading us to single space ├╝ber alles, so in your word processor's box, type two spaces in the "Find" box, and a single space in the "Replace With" box (or whatever your program calls them.) Click "replace all" and then marvel at the number of excess spaces that have crept in. You may have to click this a couple times if you triple-spaced anything.
  • Indent with styles, not tabs. Another typewriter holdover. All your indents should be done automatically by the style set in your text. If you're still tabbing or spacing over to indent or center things, you're in for a world of grief. I tend to do those only after typecasting something and then moving over to the keyboard. I also lose where the apostrophe key is, but that's just my own mental shortcoming.
  • Underline is out, italics are in. Same reason as above, really. Underlining is what you do on a typewriter because you can't do italics. I mess this up all the time.
  • Passive voice. Your English teacher was right; this is bad stuff. Passive voice is the air my novel breathes in November.
Finding styles -- like finding underlines, when it should have been italics -- can be done right in the find/replace box. This article explains how it's done in Word. In LibreOffice, it's similar, except underlining is treated as a "Font Effect" and not a "Style" (The reasoning, I think, is that italics actually changes the font to an italic version, underlining enhances the existing font.) In LibreOffice, choose "Find/Replace > More Options > Format... > Font Effects" to get to the proper place.
Beyond that, my find/replace magic pixies are something called "regular expressions," which are clever little ways to write things that you can't normally type in a find/replace box. Here be dragons.

In OpenOffice/LibreOffice, there is an option in the Find/Replace box to use them. In Word, these are called "wildcards," and work in a similar way. For example, if I normally press the Tab key in the find box (like to find a tab), the cursor moves. To actually find a tab in my work in LibreOffice, I can use the magical regular expression:  \t

That's a "backslash-tee" for those reading aloud. In Word, the characters are slightly different: ^t ("carat-tee")

To look for a lowercase letter following a period -- which shouldn't ever happen -- I search for:

\. [a-z] (In LibreOffice: "backslash-dot-space-square bracket-a-dash-z")
 . [a-z] (In Word: the dot is not a wildcard character, "dot-space-square bracket-a-dash-z")

[a-z] means "match any letters from a to z" here, so you want search-and-replace to be case-sensitive. Otherwise, you'll get altered to every single end-of-sentence. Annoying.

I mess up dialog a lot: I can never remember on which side of the quote the punctuation goes (inside, for U.S. style.) Also, I've been known to put commas when I mean periods, or vice versa. So:

"[\.,:;?!] in LibreOffice, to find the juxtaposed quote/punctuation

"[.,:;^?!]  in Word

To look for commas at the end of dialog when there should have been a period... assuming that I capitalized correctly:

," [A-Z] in both LibreOffice and Word

To look for periods that should have been commas:

\." [a-z] in  LibreOffice
." [a-z]  in Word

Passive voice is a killer. I am particular fond of using the could (verb) construct instead of the more active form, as in "She could see the gorilla" instead of the far better "She saw the gorilla." So:

could [a-z]

Also, was (verb)ing shows up a lot in my writing. "She was running" versus "She ran." This is a strange one. It looks for "was", followed by a space, and a bunch of stuff that's not a space that ends in "ing" So:

was [^ ]+ing in LibreOffice
was ?@(ing)> in Word (I think: untested!)

These magic spells go a long way towards polishing out the really rough spots on a draft.


J.A. said...

An interesting/insightful essay on "A Place for the Passive" is at http://www.slideshare.net/profesorbaker/a-place-for-the-passive

Rules are made to be broken! And the "never use passive" is a rule that can be bent successfully!

notagain said...

Excellent useful post. It seems to me that double-spacing at the ends of sentences *should* be more important than ever, so that the wp can tell the difference between a new sentence needing a capital and a mid-sentence abbreviation. It really cheeses me off when that happens. Screw modern usage - I'm double-spacing anyway.

Duffy Moon said...

Some of us LOVE our typewriterly holdovers. And you'll have to pry them out of our cold, dead, ink-stained, hypertrophic, Carpal-Tunnel-Syndrome-Free hands.

Mike Speegle said...


Seriously, though, I have been using "find and replace" ever since there was one (for words I can spell but just can't seem to type, like ncesesary), but I never thought to use it for capitals and such. Also, I could have sword that Word used to auto-cap for me. Weird.

I shall use these advanced techniques to send you cleaner copy. Now if only there was a find and replace for shoddy plotting...

mpclemens said...

@Ledeaux: There are no absolutes in grammar and style rules, of course, but I know that I'm a passive voice addict when I'm drafting, and that the act of a slight rewording generally brightens up my sentences. I still let it stand in dialogue, but like use of the exclamation point, I think passive voice should be used rarely.

@notagain and @duffy: I'm with you on personal preference. I still double-space after sentences, unless I make an effort not to. It's just so natural. I've read a couple of style guides that reject them, though. The more important thing is to be consistent with usage, which is something I also fail to do.

I'm having trouble thinking of a mid-sentence abbreviation that uses a period. Even initials are losing the extra characters now. "U.S.A." is replaced by "USA" for instance. At least this means fewer punch-throughs on my poor abused platens.

@Speegle: Wasn't directed at you specifically, but if you happen to benefit from the advice, so be it. I know that after a while I am blind to the numerous goofs in my own texts. It was eye-opening to see how many times I'd used a phrase offset with a colon, or how often I used vague qualifiers like "about" and "nearly" and "almost." I think this comes in with the passive voice: the first draft is not assertive enough! (And please note the use of a colon there.)