An Accounting of Words

I am entering the sixth draft of my novel in progress. I should probably start referring to it as my novel in finishing, because the editing process is down to the final polish. My method of writing includes large numbers of mini-revisions within every main version. For instance, there is one chapter in the novel that has gone through upwards of 80 revisions.

So what’s left to do? Wordstuff. I’m making sure every word is the right word. One way I like to do this is to use a word frequency counter. I’ll insert the text for the entire novel and see what words I’m using and how often I’m using them. What makes this so valuable is that the words are divorced from their sentences and syntax, allowing me to consider the relative quality of each.

Obsessive? Probably. Interesting? Absolutely (what with me being a word nerd and all).

The most frequent words are the smallest. In my 65,000-word novel, I use the word “the” 4,892 times. That is 7.5% of my novel given over to the direct article. But that’s not a problem. Nor is my use of “a” or “he” or “to” or “and” or “with” or any of the character’s names (the protagonist’s name appears 1,370 times, the sixth most frequent word in the novel). These words are the back-beat of language. The bass line essential to rhythm.

No, the words I look out for are the ones that can connote sloppy writing. Like “just” (55 uses) and “then” (202 uses) and “suddenly” (0 uses) and  “but” (173 uses). Even “that” (367 uses) can be problematic. I will examine each use of these and I’ll pass judgment one by one.

But the usage of those common words are not the most interesting revelation. What the word frequency counter really does well is make me aware of my overuse of words I might not otherwise think to examine. In this instance, the best example is my usage of “back.” I did a cursory version of this exercise before the fifth draft (to give me a sense of what to look out for) and I discovered I used the word “back” 195 times. That seemed excessive. As I went through the draft, I discovered the problem. My characters were often looking one way and then looking back. He looked back. She looked back. I also had a lot of touching of backs. The usage is now down to 90, which seems a lot more reasonable (although none of the backs are free from further fits of extermination).

One other benefit of the word frequency counter is it allows me to look at all the words used once or twice (or thrice). For this novel, that includes hundreds of words. Maybe a thousand or more. I scroll through them, seeking ones that seem odd or show-offy. For instance, do I need the word “amoebic” or is that being used so I can look like a fancy writer? Same with “mucoidal” and “intransigency” and “flacidity.” And then there are the three uses of “playfully.” Do I need that particular adverb so much?

All said, the novel includes 7,685 unique words. I want all of them to be the perfect word. So it’s one more draft and then … I’ll be obsessed with the query letter.


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