Editing, My point of view, Nuts and bolts, Writing

Write the Novel – Fourth Edit – All Those Pesky Words

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.

Word Frequency

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.

Start small

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 whileWhile 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)
  • Wordiness

Source: TheRobert Gillespie Academic Skills Centre Resources for English Language Learners

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.

Happy holidays.

Editing, My point of view, Nuts and bolts, Writing

Write the Novel — Third Edit — Last Chance to Remove Book Killers

Even if you’re going great guns, I doubt you’ve finished the second edit, which involves printing an entire copy and reading it all the way through, marking and making notes as you go.

So this week’s blog is about what to do when you have finished. What comes next — the third edit — is the last chance to get rid of book killers. Some book killers don’t show up until we have a chance to read the entire story, in sequence, in a concentrated time period; in other words, while we’re doing the second edit.

To do the next part, it helps to draw a bar graph. I’ve posted one on my web site. Feel free to print a copy and use it. Or make your own. The blank chart looks like this.

Third Edit Blank Chart

Third Edit Blank Chart

We each have to decide where our condition of enoughess falls. For me it’s always over 80%, up to 90% if I can get there. Books rarely meet 100% of our expectations, so we shouldn’t drive ourselves crazy trying to get there. It’s likely that at least one category will have a higher condition of enoughness, one a lower, and three fall somewhere in the middle. The chart above has a mechanical limitation because I could color in blanks in 10% increments. If you feel your goal is 83% or 92%, feel free to draw a line at those estimated values.

Go through questions a section at a time; for example, all the questions under Flow. Looking at the book as a whole, what percentage of the book met all of the criteria under Flow? Color that percentage with your first color; in my case, green. What remaining percentage absolutely, positively must be fixed? Color that with your second color; I use red. What remaining percentage, up to 100% would be nice if I could fix, but frankly, I think I’ve done that section as well as I’m going to on this book. Color that with your third color; my third color is yellow.

The one exception to the 100% rule is if there is a small bit of material that is highly important and must be fixed. That’s the case with my character Lorenzo in the chart below.

Repeat for each line in the chart. At the bottom of the chart, describe what absolutely has to be fixed. A completed chart might look like this.

What a completed chart looks like

What a completed chart looks like


  • Does each situation result in the point of view character(s) making a decision, which leads to consequences and a new situation?
  • Are there plot highs and lows throughout the book?
  • Do they come closer together and become higher/lower as the book’s end approaches?
  • If there is violence and/or sex, does it always advance the plot?
  • Did we feel impatient or antsy at any point? (All right, all ready, we know she missed her senior prom. Get over it.)
  • Are details absolutely consistent throughout the book?


  • Is each major character a rich, fully-developed human being, with likeable and unlikeable qualities?
  • Does each major character have clear goals, and motivations?
  • Is each character’s dialog unique enough that the reader can probably tell who’s speaking even without dialog tags?
  • Were there parts of the book where the villain’s world view made sense?
  • Were any physical actions or sensory inputs used too often? (I had one book where chills ran up or down everyone’s spine far too often.)


  • Was what we put our characters’ through worth it? Did they get enough bang for the cost they had to pay?
  • What plot element satisfied the story, but left the character unsatisfied? (She caught the killer, but by doing so she lost custody of her niece.)


  • Is the language lyrical? (Lyrical doesn’t necessarily mean nice or pretty. If we’re writing about a prostitute in downtown Boston, does the language convey what it’s like to live on the street, in winter, in Boston?)


  • How often did we mirror the characters’ emotions? (If the character was supposed to be afraid, were we afraid? If they were sad, were we sad? If they were furious, were we furious? If we maintained an emotional equilibrium all the way through, we haven’t written nearly close enough to the character’s bone.)
  • How often did we manage a characters’ emotional reaction that was unique, neither cliché, nor inappropriate?
  • By the time we finished the book, were we at least tired, and preferably emotionally exhausted?

A copy of changes we make should be attached to our Second Edit printed copy, just to keep everything up to date. Small changes can be noted directly on the page. Long changes, for example sorting out the problem of Lorenzo breaking parole, can be printed on separate pages and added. I like to tip in mine because it allows the new page to function like all the other pages and turn easily. Here’s how to tip in a page.

  • Fold the left edge of the new page under about 1/2 inch.
  • Snuggle the fold near the binding.
  • Either tape or glue the folded edge to the next page.

I’m posting the Fourth Edit — All Those Pesky Words Tuesday, December 16, and the fifth, and final edit — The Fine Tooth Comb — the week after on Tuesday, December 23. We’re all busy with the holidays, but that’s the nice thing about blogs. If you don’t get back until after New Years, those two blogs will be waiting for your return.

Have a wonderful holiday season.

Nuts and bolts

Art I love – western author George Wilhite

In August 2013, I participated in a Western Mysteries panel at When Words Collide in Calgary, Alberta. As part of that panel, I compiled a bibliography of western mystery writers.

A couple of weeks ago I got an e-mail from a charming man, George Wilhite, one of the authors listed in that bibliography. It turns out there are TWO George Wilhites and I’d mixed up who wrote which books. My sincere apologies to both of them.

2014-11-01 GeorgeWilhite

The western writer is Chair of the English Department at Texas State Technical College-Waco and the author of The Texas Rodeo Murder, rodeo/western short stories, and a textbook called Reading & Writing: Plain and Simple. He’s also interested in historical novels, one about the cowboy strike at Madison Square Garden in 1936, which I think is fascinating because I had no idea that cowboys had gone on strike.

You can check out George’s writing at http://drwrightgooder.webs.com.

Nuts and bolts

Level Thinking: Hobby Writer

I’m a quilter. I’ve made over 50 quilts and wall hangings, ranging in size from a queen-size bed quilt that I designed and made to celebrate my first book being published, to a 3” miniature, which one of my stuffed bears uses as his security blanket.

One of  my quilts, titled Turtles All the Way Down

One of my quilts, titled Turtles All the Way Down

I’ve quilted pillows, book bags, cosmetic cases, coin purses, tea cozies, vests, beaded bags, and miniature treasure bags, just big enough to hold a trinket and 2 pieces of designer chocolate. I’ve even been paid three times for commissioned work.

I remain a hobby quilter. I quilt for my own amusement, to make gifts, or simply to relieve stress. I have no desire to be a quilting teacher, or write a quilting book, or take my quilts on the road in a trunk show. For all I know, “hobby quilter” is a applied to me pejoratively behind my back by the more haute couture quilters of my acquaintance.

Hobby writer is certainly pejorative. “She’ll never be anything but a hobby writer,” a woman says cattily over lunch.

“Maybe you should try being a hobby writer,” members of a critique group suggest gently.

In both cases, there’s an implication that a hobby writer, is, somehow, less talented, less dedicated, or not quite up to scratch. Frankly, my dear,  not one of us.

So where’s the line? Does a writer go to bed one night a hobby writer and wake up the next morning as a professional writer? Or vice versa? The demarcation certainly is not in writing quality. I’ve read spectacular pieces by people who openly call themselves hobby writers and have no desire to turn pro. I’ve read published books that, in my personal opinion, should not have been published without extensive editing.

Nor is the line crossed if an author occasionally publishes or makes money, in the same way that my three forays into quilting on commission didn’t turn me into a professional quilter. Contrary to urban myths, the Internal Revenue Service does not have hard and fast rule about what makes writing a hobby versus a legitimate tax deduction.

It’s not even attitude. Many hobby writers say they write professionally, but are not professional writers. To write professionally means to keep learning the craft and try to make each piece a little better than the one before, which is what I try to do both in my writing and in my quilts.

With my personal opinion hat firmly in place, I think the difference between a hobby writer and a professional writer is how much time the professional writer devotes to business.

Ah, the business. Submissions. Query letters. Knowing the market. Filing taxes. Keeping up with the publishing world. Doing an inventory of what’s in our home office and our storage closet. Making and sticking to a business budget. Writing a business plan. Marketing, marketing, and more marketing. Getting our name out there even before we have a book to sell and keeping our name out there in front of readers. If we’re doing that stuff, even if we don’t like doing that stuff, we’ve turned pro.

I think hobby writer is a term we can do without. Writers are, for the most part, generous people. There’s lots of room in our hearts, and in our community, for people who get sheer joy and pleasure out of writing without caring one whit about turning what they do into a business. Everyone is welcome here.