Just Find and Replace! Just No.


Find and Replace box

Have you ever discussed a change to a document and been given the advice to “just do a find and replace”?

As with most jobs, people who don’t write think that writing is easier than it really is. “Just do a find and replace” is one of the most common, and short-sighted, comments I hear from non-writers.

Note: I’m not talking about using the Find and Replace tool to go through the instances one-by-one. I’m talking about clicking “replace all” and calling it a day.

Global Find and Replace Breaks Stuff

An example

A company has previously referred to certain app screens as panels, but has decided to start referring to them as “dialog boxes.”

Rather than go through them one by one, they “just do a find and replace.”

Great. All those app screens are now called dialog boxes.

But guess what.

Every instance of the phrase “term panel” (a piece of equipment in telecommunications) was changed to “term dialog box.”

Every mention of the panel of speakers at the big conference was changed to a dialog box of speakers.

Bonus example

There’s a company called Good Company. The marketing VP says that the proper way to write the name is: GOODcompany.

But the product manager can’t remember that, and keeps asking you to edit long documents that ignore the capitalization.

You still with me?

Correct = GOODcompany

Incorrect = goodcompany

“Just do a find and replace.”

After the Find and Replace:

  • Find us on the Web at: http://GOODcompany.com (customers think they need to capitalize part of the URL)
  • We refer to a filename in a snippet of script that’s case-sensitive. Oops, that script no longer works.
  • There are elements in the software that haven’t been updated to the new capitalization yet, but I’ve suddenly told people to click the “GOODcompany button,” when there’s really only a “goodcompany” button.


Find and replace can screw you up. It’s almost never as simple as other people think it is, regardless of how sure they are that you’re just being difficult.

Find and Replace is sometimes ok

There are some times when I think we can probably (maybe) get away with it:

  • When a phone number has changed.
  • When a person’s name has changed (as long as the email address has changed as well).
  • When we want to update “copyright 2011” to “copyright 2012”.

Otherwise, we just need to patiently explain that making global changes involves either time or risk of error. The boss can decide which choice is best.

Have you found good reasons to use global find and replace? Have you found that others think you can use it more than you can?


4 Responses to “Just Find and Replace! Just No.”

  1. Marie-Ève
    January 25, 2012 at 8:23 am #

    So Happy you’re back! I was just saying yesterday how much I missed your posts! I did the “Find and Replace mistake” once… And I basically had to undo the whole thing because nothing in my Help file worked anymore! Now even if people think I am difficult, I would never use Replace All again (except to change the copyright year…)

  2. admin-Robert
    January 26, 2012 at 6:34 am #

    Thanks, Marie-Ève! I was telling someone that it had been 6 weeks since I’d posted anything, and then looked and it had been closer to three months!

  3. Hemal Patel
    August 8, 2014 at 8:48 am #

    I totally agree with you, Robert. Doing find and replace at a global level certainly messes up the content. Lot of times I have seen writers hard coding (typing) the company name/product name/copyright year. Though such information is not going to change frequently, there comes a time it may need a certain revision. At that time, writers do a global find and replace, which messes up the content.
    As a solution, most of the authoring tools are equipped with ‘variables’. As a writer, one needs to figure out such key terms and create appropriate variables. Hence, the writer needs to replace only the variable value and it shall change the value at all the instances where the variable is used.

  4. admin-Robert
    August 13, 2014 at 4:46 am #

    Thanks Hemal! I agree that variables can be a great way to handle changes if you’ve had the foresight to set them up in advance. For those interested in reading more, here are a couple of Save the Semicolon posts about variables:



Leave a Reply

Subscribe without commenting