Tuesday, 28 November 2017

On Invisible Words (Pt. 2)

I talked last time (and a very long time ago it was!) about why I'm not convinced that invisible words - that is, words so common that the reader's eye skims over them, effectively rendering them impossible to overuse - are really a thing, and how, even if they are, there remain good reasons to keep an eye out for those words that you're prone to over-favouring.

This is a dangerous topic to discuss too much, of course; I'd much rather readers don't go through my books with a fine-toothed comb hunting for all the instances of lazy word over-use, because I know damn well they'll find a few - and that despite the very best of efforts of me, my beta-readers, proofreaders, editors and copy editors.  Mistakes always slip through, and eventually you have to reconcile to the fact that every book needs to be called finished at some point.

Nevertheless, by the same measure you can but try, and with the second of the Black River Chronicles - and even more so with my work-in-progress White Thorne - I've been mixing up my approach in the hope that new tools or techniques might shed fresh light on the problem.  The degree of success hasn't been everything I might have hoped, and I still feel there must be a piece of software out there I don't know about that would make this job a thousand times easier.  (I've heard Scrivener suggested, but no-one seems altogether sure.)  At any rate, this is where I've got to so far...

I began with word clouds.  You know word clouds, right?  If not, here's one I made for The Sign in the Moonlight and Other Stories.  Because it turns out free word cloud generators are awfully easy to find on the internet (this came from WorditOut) and a useful side effect of their functionality is that they list words in order of usage.  Plug your novel in there and, hey presto, you've got an insight into the frequency of your word usage, and from there it's just a matter of figuring out what you're okay with - eliminating every instance of "the" is likely to prove a tall order! - and what you hadn't realized you'd been doing and are ashamed about enough to address.

Only, the word cloud solution has its limits, and one of them is that the data it throws out, not being at all intended for fiction-editing purposes, isn't that well-suited.  So I moved on.  My next port of call was Edit Minion, which I'm a lot more inclined to recommend; maybe not so much for this precise problem but in general it's worthy of a gander, and where else are you going to find out if you're overusing Shakespearean quotes?

The problem remained much the same, though: trying to use a bit of software for a role it was never really geared for.  And by then I was running out of time to waste on hunting for solutions, and in need of something guaranteed to do the trick.  So in the end, I went old-school; like, really damn old-school.  And the tool I've ended up relying on most in recent weeks is the humble Find and Replace function in Word, which has a great deal more depth and functionality than you might ever have realised; I know I hadn't a clue until I really started playing.  But if you want to, for example, highlight every single instance of a word throughout your manuscript, then that's chump change for Find and Replace.  Or how about highlighting every different form of a word?  Or homophones?  Once you dig into it, Find and Replace is kind of awesome.

Anyway, the battle continues.  I've a long - and ever-growing - list of words that I know I use too often, and I'd heartily recommend to every author that they start developing one too, because it's steadily training me to vary up my vocabulary, and to seek out the right words rather than the obvious ones.  It's tough work, frankly, it's no fun and it's certainly not the sort of playful creativity that we all imagine writing's supposed to involve - but it does the trick.

Then again, maybe there's an even better way to be found.  And if I ever stumble across it, I promise to share in part 3!

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