The Value of a Word Census
Blogger: Michelle Ule
Note: I’m substitute blogging for Wendy today, who is out of the office on a medical leave while she’s recovering from surgery. She’s mending well.
How do I love “that?” Let me count the ways.
I love that whether “that” fits or not; “that” turns up so often that I’m forced to acknowledge that such a word can take over a manuscript with that little effort.
How many “thats” is too many?
I recently completed a novella, An Inconvenient Gamble, and after allowing Microsoft Word to have its way with grammar and spell check, I turned to another important feature: “find and replace.”
I use it frequently to make sure my writing is clear and uncluttered. Like many authors, I have a list of words I tend to overuse. When I begin editing, I start with my personal list and seek out all of them. I examine every sentence in which my overused words–that, was, some, just, and well–turn up in a manuscript.
“That” is a word I’ve come to hate, and so I start with it on my search-out-and-destroy mission. “That” tends to clutter the sentence, and so I review each occurrence, appalled when it appears more than once, and generally change it if I can. Obviously, ”that” needs to be used on occasion, but try this test: reread any sentence with a “that” in it and see if you can make it stronger. If you’ve got two “thats” in one sentence, you have work to do. Get rid of at least one “that”!
(“That” doesn’t count as an overuse if it’s in quotation marks. )
“Was,” of course, is the passive form of “to be” and indicates you may need to strengthen your sentence with a better verb. I look at all of the “was(es),” particularly when they make up part of a gerund (“was reading”), and try to figure out how to rewrite the sentence to make it stronger and not use the gerund.
Obviously, “was” is a perfectly good verb, but if you think about it, you might find a better way to word your sentence and make it more interesting.
I try not to have more than one or two “was” sentences on any given page.
“Some,” “just” and “well” are modifiers, and I often use them when I don’t want to make a declarative statement–I’m hedging. When I find them, I usually excise them, and the sentence improves. Just try it.
I also examine “ly” and look at all those adverbs and adjectives. Some are important, but many, well, they just don’t need to be there.
After my initial “find and replace” with An Inconvenient Gamble, I wondered if the manuscript might contain words I didn’t realize I overused. How would I know what those words were?
Wouldn’t it be great if I could find a program to read my entire manuscript and point out how many times I used each word?
Back in the 1970s, my father-in-law, Louis Ule, wrote masterful computer programs using key punch cards to examine word usages for Elizabethan playwrights William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe. He used the information to write concordances of the playwrights’ entire canon. (He discovered a high correlation between Marlowe’s and Shakespeare’s word usage, causing him to believe Marlowe wrote Shakespeare, but that’s another story…)
Unfortunately, we can’t access those programs on our modern computers.
I put my 20,000-word manuscript into the program. The results were informative. Eight of the top ten words were either names of the main characters or nouns related to the story–in this case, “horse.” (An Inconvenient Gamble takes place on a horse farm.)
But the other two of the top ten words surprised me: “back” and “get.” I used “back” 57 times in 20,000 words; “get” 49.
I returned (as opposed to “went back”) to “find and replace” and made alterations. “Did” was number 11. I did have trouble altering the sentences to remove some of those “dids.”
Books & Such author Michael Reynolds warned it probably wasn’t a good idea to put your entire manuscript into a program operating solely in cyberspace. He thought it would be safer to buy the program,put it on your own computer, and thus retain control of your work.
That’s a good suggestion. I haven’t found such a program, however.
Another tool that might be beneficial for writers telling a story in the point of view of their opposite gender, is The Gender Genie. In this program, you type in a paragraph or two, and the genie tells you the author’s likely sex based on word usage.
The Gender Genie just confirmed this blog post was written by a woman.
For those curious, Word Counter indicated the top words for this blog post (excluding “a,” “the,” and such) were: “word,” “sentence,” “program,” “two” and “manuscript.”
Twenty-one times. But who’s counting?
What tricks or tools do you use to clarify, simplify, or help you to ensure variety in your word choices?