One Bite at a Time

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Department of Redundancy Department

It’s easy for some words to become inadvertent favorites. Often simple words, they pass through the writer’s imagination almost as punctuation, only to add up and become quite visible to the reader. I am prone to what I call “the word of the day,” where a word or phrase creeps into the day’s work like ants under a door. I’ve taken to going over everything written in the previous session before starting in on new work when drafting, explicitly to catch them.

The occasional burst of using the same word several times in close proximity is easy to spot and fix. Today I’m talking about words that accumulate over the course of a story, sometimes appearing hundreds of times in a 100,000-word novel. Some are forgivable. “Said,” for instance. “Is.” “It.” “Very” can almost always go. I tend to overuse “just” and “enough.” How to find and remove the most egregious offenses without making the process unendurable tedium is the trick. Remember, if they seemed overdone to me, I wouldn’t have left them in the first place

I discovered over the weekend an add-in to Microsoft Word that counts all the words in your manuscript and lists them in order of frequency used. You can designate some words to be excluded (“said” and characters’ names were cut in my search), and it’s a good idea to break the search into bite-sized chunks, as the program can’t handle 100,000 at a time. Asking for the results as an Excel spreadsheet makes it relatively easy to cobble multiple reports together.

After combining three spreadsheets, I set an arbitrary threshold of two hundred occurrences in what is currently a manuscript off 100,722 words, about once every five hundred words. We can argue whether I was too strict, or not strict enough. (Damn, there’s “enough” again.) The list was longer than expected.

Some of the words are innocuous. “Like,” “when,” “this,” up” aren’t candidates to stick pins in the reader’s eyes. On the other hand, too many instances can be a symptom of lazy writing that manifests itself in other ways as well. If this project is to be done, it’s worth doing right, so they were noted.

This created another unexpected problem. The original plan had been to take the offending words (“just” and “enough” came to mind) and auto-replace them all with nothing. Sentences where obvious holes remained would them be rewritten as much as needed. If the excised word was, in fact, best for the job, it would be reinserted.

The list I came up with had over forty words, with a few thousand instances. Removing them all might work. It might also make some sections so difficult to read I’d not remember the original intent. My compromise solution was to ask Word to change the color of all the words in question to red. Looking at the document now, it’s disturbing to see how colorful it is. The first paragraph alone has ten of its 98 words tagged.

I spent a few minutes as I researched the above looking at a few re-wording options. (I also remembered to highlight “that,” which had 844 instances of its own.) The book will be much better for the effort. Frustrating in places, but pleonasms abound, and this is a good way to get at them.

I had planned for some time to set the work aside for the summer. With two graduations and a family vacation to Colorado this month, summer has started early. (Not that you can tell from looking out the window.) I’ll pick it up fresh after Labor Day and will let you know how things go.

1 comment:

pattinase (abbott) said...

Very interesting. I remember my first writing instructor told us that "that" was like scaffolding that can almost always be removed. But I see used a lot all the time. I usually just scan a document for words I know I overuse but this is a more systematic way.