We all have words we love too much.
Maybe for you it’s something fancy, like “effulgent” or “apodictic,” or something sillier, like “smellypants.” And because we love these words, we will use them too often, until our readers begin to snicker quietly at us.
But those big, obvious words are easy to spot. We’ll whack them in the second draft. And even if we fail to do so, our friends will probably slap us the fiftieth time they encounter the word “prognosticate.”
It’s the little overused words that kill us, that quietly undermine our text without us ever noticing.
My big overused word was once “just,” as an adverb. “He was just happy to see you.” “She was just standing there.” It cropped up everywhere. After this was pointed out to me by a wise editor, I went through an entire novel, deleting it everywhere it didn’t completely change the meaning of the sentence. That cured me.
But how could I be sure that there weren’t other overused words mucking up my manuscript?
Then I discovered the word cloud.
“Word clouds” are graphic representation of the words in a text, scaled by how many times each word occurs. You’ve probably seen then in blog sidebars and Amazon listings. They’re software-generated, and therefore reveal common words that humans might overlook. (Though the software ignores super-common words like “the” and “a” automatically.) They’re also a great place to start when you begin work on your second draft.
This is what the word cloud for my latest novel, Leviathan, looked like after my first draft:
generated by the excellent Wordle.net software
As you can see, my two main character names, Alek and Deryn, are the biggest words by far.
Now, you can use word clouds to check relative importance of character names in your text, but I’m not interested in that here. (Alek is a bit bigger, but only because Deryn often goes by other names, like “Dylan” or “Mr. Sharp.” So no surprises there.) So let’s check for any overused little words.
The first thing that seems to be dominating is “eyes.” That may mean I’m relying too much on eyes for emotional cues, which could get boring. I definitely checked that as I worked on the second draft.
“Looked” is also a bit big, and got some scrutiny, I’m sure. If your characters are spending a lot of time looking at things, you probably got lazy at some point.
I also would have taken a search-pass on the word “voice,” which is often used as a shortcut to convey emotion. Too many phrases like “said Scott in a strained voice” is not a good sign.
“Feet,” “head,” and “hands,” are all big, but they’re all equal, so that doesn’t bother me as much. It’s a very physical book, after all, with lots of jumping and grabbing, and whacking of heads.
Note that I’m also ignoring interesting words, like “engines,” “walker,” and “hydrogen.” Those are just part of the world I’m writing about—airships and walking machines. I’d be worried if some cool words like that didn’t show up big.
See how it works? One glance at a word cloud can make all the difference.
To create your own word cloud, just copy and paste your entire text into this text field here at Wordle.net. Enjoy!
That’s it for today. Don’t forget to check out Justine’s Nano Tips on the last two remaining even-numbered days. See you on the 29th with my final entry!