I’ve just finished writing a 88,000 word novel. There are probably an equal number of spaces and punctuation marks. That makes roughly 176,000 potential mistakes. One human brains simply cannot find that many mistakes. We need computer help.
I write in Scrivener and, eventually, compile the entire book into Word. Scrivener does both a total word frequency count, and a word frequency count. Thanks to Astrid at Literature and Latte, who showed me how to do the frequency word count. The trick is to select all of the chapters in the book and wait for the total word count to finish. Then click on text stats, go down to the frequency word count and click on the triangle.
This is better than Word, which gives me a total count, but no word frequency. I’ve also looked at some word frequency applications, but they all appear to be done by small companies that I don’t know and am not particularly interested in risking a virus by downloading.
Small, common words — the, a, to, and, in, of, her, she, was, I, that, we, had, he, etc. — will show up tons of times in any book-length manuscript. How much is too much? Anything over 9%. Several years ago, my husband commented that the showed up an awful lot in my writing. Turned out to be over 15% of my total word count. That means for that 88,000 word manuscript, roughly 13,000 of those words would be the. Fortunately, I’ve gotten my the quotient way down. In the book I’ve just finished the appears 4,243 times. That 4.8% of the total word count.
Common Prepositions such as, above, after, as, at, by, for, in, of, on, onto, over, to toward, up, and others should be looked at as a group. Our use of an individual preposition may be under the 9% guideline, but taken together they may far exceed, usually because we are in love with preposition-rich sentences: After lunch, she stopped by the library in the park on Main Street as a way of introducing herself to Mary James. (7 prepositions in one sentence).
My combine preposition count for this latest book is 4,949 prepositions, or 5.6%, well below where I have to worry about it.
The Special Case of as
Give special attention to the preposition as. If it’s being used judiciously in similes (a comparison using as or like – Jake’s reaction made her as mad as a hornet), it’s probably okay. If it’s being used to indicates two actions happen at the same time — As I got out of the cab, I remembered why I didn’t trust Harold, it’s not okay. Try substituting while — While I got out of the cab, I remembered why I didn’t trust Harold. If while doesn’t make the sentence better, as it doesn’t here, rewrite the sentence.
Check ten overused words at a time
After getting through small words and prepositions, make a list of the next 10 most frequent words. Scan the entire manuscript for one word at a time. Delete or rewrite as many as possible. Yes, this is tedious and it takes time. It’s also one of the most exciting and rewarding parts of novel writing. Like kneading bread dough, as we rework these overused words, we should feel our book tighten and hold its shape.
When searching one word at a time, whole words should be off. Instead use common roots for the search.
- If we look for smile and have whole words on, the search will miss smiles, smiled, smiling and any other words that aren’t exactly smile.
- If we look for smil (the root common to all of these words), and have whole words off, the machine will pick up all of the word forms. It may also pick up a few non-smile words, but that usually isn’t a hassle, unless one of our characters is named Smiley.
Words most often overused are
- likely to add no additional information (yes, yeah, no, not)
- equivocators (might, still, just, any, only, should, would, can, could, likely)
- repeaters (Her eyes were blue in color replaced by Her eyes were blue because there’s nothing else blue can be but a color.)
- pseudo-action verbs (make, thought, think, tell, told, turn, take, took, put, look, stood)
- distancing words (Patricia wondered if she could trust Melvin puts Patricia between the reader and the action. Was Melvin trustworthy? is a much better way of phrasing the same thing. )
The author is the only one who can decide how many sets of 10 words are enough. At the point when we find ourselves making smaller and smaller edits, it’s time to move on to the fifth and final edit.
But before we go to the fifth edit, use the grammar checker. Use the spell checker. At least twice, all the way through the book.
Spelling differs from country to country. In my case, I’m a Canadian, likely writing for an American publisher. Do I use American or Canadian spelling? I’ve chosen to use American because spell checkers, for the most part, are made in America and are likely to be more accurate for their spelling, even if they happen to offer alternative dictionaries. If I happen to sell to a Canadian publisher who wants Canadian spelling used, at least I’m faced with only having to go back and edit a small amount of words. We need to mention in our Style Sheet which country’s spelling we used and why.
Should we add character, place, and business names to our dictionary? For me, it depends on how easy it is to add new words and to later remove them. The argument for adding them is that those names will be checked along with all the other words. The argument against adding them is that they will all carry over to future documents. Suppose I have a character named Carl Ramsy, so I add Ramsy to my dictionary. A few books down the line, I have a character named Stephanie Ramsey. My dictionary will want to substitute the Ramsy for Ramsey. This can get quite annoying. In any case, a list of all proper nouns — names, places, businesses, etc. should always be in the Style Sheet.
Be sure Allow Hyphenation is turned off when we start to work on the book. Hyphenated words drive proof-setters crazy. In fiction, no hyphens is the way to go.
Writing software usually includes a grammar checking. It really, really helps to remember that these programs are based on algorithms, not on absolute rules. Frequently, suggestions for changing sentences range from mildly annoying to outrageously funny (having a dark sense of humor helps). It has to be our human brains that says yes or no to the changes and know why we are saying yes or no.
That means learning grammar. I love books like Karen Elizabeth Gordon’s The Transitive Vampire (grammar) and The Well-Tempered Sentence (punctuation) and Lynne Truss’ Eats, Shoots & Leaves a whole lot better than, say, The Chicago Manual of Style. I have nothing against CMS, in fact, it provides a HUGE amount of help, which is the problem. Sometimes I need a quick reference. For those of us who might like to learn grammar in small bits, like one rule a day, I recommend Daily Writing Tips.
Where to start learning grammar?
How about by mastering the top 10 mistakes that writers make
- Agreement (subjects and verbs, pronouns and antecedents)
- Comma splices (place where semi-colon is the proper punctuation)
- Misplaced/dangling modifiers
- Passive voice
- Possessive case
- Pronoun reference
- Punctuation using commas, semi-colons, or colons incorrectly
- Sentence fragments
- Word choice (wrong word(s) used)
Next Tuesday, December 23, we conclude not only with the Fifth and Final Edit — The Fine Tooth Comb, but also a year’s worth of blogs on Writing the Novel. Thanks for staying with me for 52 weeks, all the way from the first blog on the Theme Statement.