Scott Westerfeld
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Nano Tip #27: Word Clouds

November 28th, 2009

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:

Lev wordmap
generated by the excellent 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 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!

45 Responses to “Nano Tip #27: Word Clouds”

  1. 1
    November 28th, 2009 02:42

    I did this and it’s good that the character names are the biggest ones. However, I did spot some medium sized ‘like’ and ‘just’. Hmm . . . something for the rewriting I suppose!

    Thanks for the advice. You and Justine are doing an awesome job!

  2. 2
    November 28th, 2009 02:48

    I did it too, and I also ended up with my MC’s names as biggest, which wasn’t surprising. The next biggest was probably “just” though, so it seems like I have the same problem you had. “Asked” and “now” were also frequent words, and I all kinds of variants of to look (in different tenses) and eyes were also way to big. I have to use more senses.

    Thank you so much for the advice! I love the nanotips, and I’m very thankful for them.

  3. 3
    Jillian~the Pre-Jess
    November 28th, 2009 03:05

    THAT IS SO COOL SCOTT! I’m gonna have a LOT of fun now…

    wow, I notice the overuse of “eyes” and “voice” too.

  4. 4
    Jillian~the Pre-Jess
    November 28th, 2009 03:05

    I mean, in my stories.

  5. 5
    Jordan Stratford
    November 28th, 2009 03:05

    I was sure “squick” “clart” and “bum-rag” would be in there. ;-)

  6. 6
    Jillian~the Pre-Jess
    November 28th, 2009 03:10

    How did you transfer yours from the website to your blog? I want to have mine to put on my livejournal, but I’m having some trouble…

  7. 7
    Mary Elizabeth S.
    November 28th, 2009 03:35

    I tried this and discovered that my characters spend way too much time being “late” and doing things in the “late” afternoon or “late” at night. Got to fix this. Other things that showed up too much? “Get,” “just,” and “fence.” Wait, fence? That’s weird…

  8. 8
    Chris Hall
    November 28th, 2009 03:44

    I was going to do this for each chapter of my NaNoWriMo this year (or each day), but the method I found for doing it was a little involved and I figured my time would probably be better spent actually writing.

    Might do it just for fun with the half or so of my story that I will have written when I validate later tonight (hopefully).

  9. 9
    November 28th, 2009 04:07

    This looks like fun, I’ll try it out after I get tonight’s typing done.

  10. 10
    November 28th, 2009 05:03

    I tried it out and I was really surprised when I didn’t see “sigh” right away – all my characters have sighed at least five times each.

    I switch “looked” and “stared” around a lot… so they’re pretty much even, lol.

  11. 11
    November 28th, 2009 05:30

    Oh my gosh…this is so much fun! I started running through all my papers for school in here :-P.
    I also did all of Scott-la’s Nano Tips and the biggest words were:
    Just, Writing, Days, One, Nano, Story. Make. November. Read. Two. and Justine was pretty noticeable too.

  12. 12
    November 28th, 2009 05:50

    thanks scott-la this is an awesome idea!!!!

  13. 13
    November 28th, 2009 05:51

    Haha comment number 13 :) Awesome

  14. 14
    November 28th, 2009 06:07

    I did it in the sections I wrote so far… besides the character’s names, my biggest words were “asked” and “just”. “Eyes”, “told”, “dragon” and “around” were pretty big too. “Mother”, “really”, “know” and “well”, all those were kind of big.

  15. 15
    November 28th, 2009 06:43

    I use “eyes” sooo many times… “back” and “looked” and “just” as well.

    plus “dragon” and “summoria” and “girl” and “now” and “powers” and “year” and “world” and “man”

  16. 16
    Team toshi banana
    November 28th, 2009 06:54

    Oh that’s bubbly! I never thought of that although I do use wordle with my poems. It’s fun to see the words all out of order. :)

  17. 17
    Haley Rae
    November 28th, 2009 07:49

    I’m doing this straight away! Thanks so much!

  18. 18
    Haley Rae
    November 28th, 2009 07:53

    That website is FABULOUS!
    Not surprisingly, “Eyes”, “looked”, and “back” were all quite big. Other than that, I think the words that were used often were quite relevant.

  19. 19
    Haley Rae
    November 28th, 2009 07:55

    And “just”, of course. Why is it so easy to overuse that word??

  20. 20
    November 28th, 2009 08:33

    Hmm. I seem to have a problem with “thought” and “really”. Thanks for the tip! It’s a great site!

  21. 21
    Serafina Zane
    November 28th, 2009 09:46

    I love doing these. Unfortunately, what I usually find out is that, aside from overusing “like” and “dunno”, I curse way more than I ever remember doing. All of which are symptoms of my greater weakness for endless dialogue exchanges…

  22. 22
    November 28th, 2009 10:35

    These writing tips have been fantastic! Thanks for sharing tips that work for you and Justine.

    I’m posting for the first time since discovering your books and blog a few weeks ago. I loved Leviathan and wish I’d caught you at Wordstock. I’m one of those adults who loves YA, also a writer and a grad student in Portland State University’s book publishing program (we run Ooligan Press).

  23. 23
    November 28th, 2009 14:49

    Ah thank you for the brilliant tip Scott-la! I just did mine, the biggest words (apart from the main characters) are ‘eyes’ ‘just’ ‘sometimes’ ‘back’ ‘looked’ and ‘now’. This will definitely help me once redrafting :) All the tips this month between you and Justine have been fantastic, thank you for helping us! I can use all this advice in the future too, which is a bonus :D

  24. 24
    November 28th, 2009 21:21

    That’s really cool. Do you have one for the completed version of Leviathan?

  25. 25
    November 29th, 2009 00:02

    I tried this and it was really useful. My most common were my character’s names, but the other ones were “asked” “eyes” “around” “nodded” “back” and stuff like that. It would be nice if you could do a post about dialogue tags, such as “blah blah” she said, or she asked, or she shouted. I get a lot of trouble with those.
    Thanks for the super helpful tip!

  26. 26
    Haley Rae
    November 29th, 2009 00:17

    Lindsey! I have just the website for you!

    It’s a website called “Words other than said” – it’s incredibly helpful, and there’s a ton! Check it out!

  27. 27
    November 29th, 2009 03:05

    Oh wow!
    Thank you so much Haley!!

  28. 28
    November 29th, 2009 06:43

    i laugh at myself fyi the story i put into wordle wasnt for nanowrimo but a fanficition and looked and like where the biggest words then one of my main characters. then the persons whos point of view it is i couldnt even find…i fail lol but i dont say the main povs persons name very much…cuz its in her point of view… im going to have so much fun with this :D(one was used alot to… hmm)

  29. 29
    November 29th, 2009 11:21

    ohmygodohmygodohmygod! i leave this place for what, 2 months? and everyone i know is gone!
    hi new/not new people. u probly dont know me.
    im usually not this peppy or annoying.
    i dont remember scott-sensei’s entries to be as long….
    haha the word that i use most would probably be “dude”
    wat a shame…

  30. 30
    November 29th, 2009 12:41

    Where’s “barking” in that word cloud? It stuck out as the single most overused word in Leviathan.

    But this word cloud thing is ultra-fabulous. I hate when cool words are used more than once in the same paragraph. D:

  31. 31
    November 29th, 2009 12:41

    That is so cool i am so going use this!!! :^)

  32. 32
    the OTHER Tally Youngblood (be afraid...)
    November 29th, 2009 22:46

    Ping to general pub.: OMG it’s been 4ever since I’ve been on here!! (OH HI RIVA-LA! I said that since I THINK we’re friends. I hope we are. :D)
    Anyway, this is the biggest problem I’ve ever had when writing. (usually fan fiction since all my ideas usually just wither up and die after the first chapter or two because I’m so flippin busy. Plus fan fiction is AWESOME! :D Grr… Hence the fact that I haven’t been on this site in a while (the busy part. And i’m starting to write more fan fiction again! YAY! Speaking of which, I’ve had a bunch of homework I’ve been procrastonating (typo. A favorite big word of mine) on so I’m off to do it. Hope all of u Americans such as myself had a bubbly/icy THANKSGIVING! What bird did you guys have? I had turkey but I’ve never been a fan. It’s too dry… I’m more of a chicken person. I could be a vegetarian except for the fact that I love chicken too much. And bacon. Mmmmmm… BACON! AHH! CURSE THE RAMBLINGS AND BLOGS I PROCRASTONATE ON!!!! No offence Scott-la I love this blog. G2G! :D

  33. 33
    Ellen Booraem
    November 29th, 2009 22:49

    This is the most helpful tip I’ve gotten in months. I fed in my soon-to-be-final draft, and was delighted to see that character names were biggest. But there’s this huge and unnerving “like” and slightly smaller “back” and “know.” (To my astonishment, I can’t find “just” at all. )

    Time to search and destroy.

    Thank you!

  34. 34
    November 30th, 2009 01:27

    “Just” “back” and “one” were my biggest. NOT GOOD. Thanks so much for this tip!

  35. 35
    December 1st, 2009 10:18

    awesome tool! i sent the link to a friend of mine who’s working on her 2nd book right now and we both loved it! :) i found many “just” in mine, so i went through and got rid of the unnecessary ones, as well as changed many of the necessary ones to something else. afterward, it looked MUCH better. and at first i was concerned that my main character’s name wasn’t super huge, but then i was DUH b/c it’s from her pov, so it’s not like she’s going to refer to herself in the third person, so that was ok. and the main guy that she loves/hates, well, his name is HUGE. like, more than twice the size of anything else. so that’s a good sign. . . :)

  36. 36
    December 1st, 2009 10:21

    ps – i totally bookmarked the link for wordle. :) even my husband thinks it’s super cool!

  37. 37
    Sarah Ayelet
    December 3rd, 2009 06:13

    I didn’t know something like this existed. That’s really cool and useful in a bunch of ways.

    I really like the word seventeen (you do have to admit it sounds rather pretty) but I don’t think I have much of a tendency to overuse it, lol :)

    Anyway, the only thing that really stuck out to me as being possibly a bit overused in Leviathan was “barking,” especially “barking spiders,” but I’ve got to hand it to you as a whole, great writing! I would love to write that successfully…

  38. 38
    Rex&Zane Fan
    December 4th, 2009 11:32

    like, back and just were my most common words. one of my character name, absolutely TOOK OVER. more than i thought it would too. i don’t consider him the absolute main, but he’s more interesting… so it makes sense. but i’ll watch out for it…

  39. 39
    Rex&Zane Fan
    December 4th, 2009 11:38

    … looking at everyone elses comments, i notice the EXACT words as mine mentioned… is that supposed to be creepy? ALL OUR MINDS THINK THE SAME!!!

  40. 40
    the OTHER Tally Youngblood (be afraid...)
    December 29th, 2009 00:21

    Ha! I just realized the Wordle mentioned Newkirk! One of my favorite not main characters, and I imagine he’s kinda hot LOL! :D

  41. 41
    January 23rd, 2010 05:50

    omg! how bubbly-making! i love too! wish i could send in a word cloud– but i can’t copy it! it’s totally bogus!
    ps: am i the only person here who knows how to use name suffixes correctly!? bogus!!

  42. 42
    January 23rd, 2010 05:52

    oopsies! bogus of me– i did my suffix wrong too!!!

  43. 43
    February 21st, 2010 21:55

    I can’t find barking. Wth.

  44. 44
    July 11th, 2011 04:36

    Just looking at the word cloud, I wondered if anyone had noticed this before (is too lazy to re-read through all the comments), but Deryn’s real name may be just as large as Alek’s, but it’s also way darker. So much darker in-fact, that if you were to only take a passing glance at the cloud, you may not even see it.
    Maybe the colours don’t mean anything anyway…
    Simply some food for thought~

  45. 45
    Midshipman K
    April 13th, 2012 23:10

    I enjoy the word ‘perspicacious’ too much. hehehehehehehehehehe

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