Self-Editing - Word Frequency

A great manuscript uses as few words as possible. When editing, find words to delete one-by-one. Superfluous verbiage slows down the read, tires the reader, and annoys the hell out of agents and publishers.

A word frequency counter is a software program (app) that determines how often words appears in your manuscript, producing a report that can be displayed on screen or easily imported to a spreadsheet such as MSExcel.

Counters have settings to ignore simple and common words, such as and and the.

Most counters provide a wide array of functions, though a report detailing how often each word appears is often sufficient.

To find a counter to use or purchase, query "Word Frequency Counter" in your search engine. A few offer free service, but you must upload your manuscript to their server and download the results. Some have trial subscriptions so you can evaluate them before purchasing.

After a free trial, I purchased
Hermetic which reads directly from MSWord files and provides output that can be imported by MSExcel.

Disclaimer: Mention of products, links, or web resources anywhere on IQ140 does not constitute an endorsement. This information is provided for your convenience and it is strongly recommended that you research the applicability, usability, stability, reliability, and affordability of these software applications for your purposes.

Whatever Counter you choose, it must display words ordered by their occurance and listed alphabetically. The functionality to provide a file that can be imported into a spreadsheet is the most convenient method of preserving the list and manipulating the information.

About Word Count

There's a perverse competition in the writing community related to word count. "I do 1,000 words every day before going to work," one writer brags on Facebook. "I did 5,000 today," another thumps his chest.

One can copy a few thousand words from the dictionary; the end product is alphabetical gibberish. How many good words have they added to their manuscript?

Good words:
  • Convey meaning and do it in their fewest number
  • Are not superfluous
  • Are power words not soft words
  • Are active voice not passive voice
  • Are not frequently repeated
The power of the Word Frequency Counter as a tool is how it reveals flaws in all these areas.

Editing with Word Frequency

The frequency report directs you to unnecessary words, passive voice errors, monotonous constructions, the overuse of adverbs, and other writing taboos. It is used in conjuction with a thesaurus.

Bernie is the protagonist of the manuscript from which the [edited] word frequency list shown above was created, hence his name appears often. Your list may include love or gun or warp as a legitimately high ranking word in your story.

Working from your list, use the Find function in your word processor to locate the occurrance of each.

The examples below:
  • Are not presented in any significant order.
  • For brevity, just a few are given. It is up to you, as an author and writer, to extrapolate to your writing.
  • As they are common, many of the words that follow will appear on the report for your first draft. However, these are not all-inclusive.
Was indicates both soft writing and use of the passive voice.

"Bernie was speaking to..." corrects to "Bernie spoke to ..."
"He was thinking..." becomes "He thought..."
"He was thanked by Bernie." should be "Bernie thanked him."

Each energizes the writing while reducing the number of words.

A word common is speech, but unneeded in writing:

He knew that he had enough to drink, and that guzzling all night would kill him.
He knew he had enough to drink, and guzzling all night would kill him.

The sentence is more powerful with the elimination of this unnecessary word.

Other extraneous words: very, really, actually, et. al.
It has been argued that written dialog should emulate speech which very often uses these words. Reading literally takes more effort than hearing and unnecessary words really weary a reader. Remove all words that leave the sentence actually unchanged after their deletion, and often passages also become more dynamic.

Very is a flag to use the thesaurus:
He is very tired. ==> He is exhausted.
She told a very funny story. ==> She told a hilarious story.
He was very confused. ==> He was discombobulated.

Literally should never be used in a metaphor.

But and However
Verify that each use of these words is appropriate:
  • Often used interchangably, they are not. But indicates a contradiction to the statement that precedes, while however modifies or provides an exception. The difference may be nuanced.
  • Determine if the clauses conjoined by but or however read just as well or better as two sentences.
  • If these words are used often, the rhythm of the writing may become metronomical: da but da, da however da, da but da, da however da... Rewrite the sentences/clauses so but or however are not required.
Look at had for possible reconstruction of sentences:

He thought about cashing-out, liquidating what he had, and running away. He had tumbled from middle-class to subsistence. His ability to endure his life had all but evaporated.
   reads better as
He thought about cashing-out, liquidating everything, and running away. The tumble from middle-class to subsistence crushed his ability to endure as life all but evaporated.

Twenty-eight words becomes twenty-five and the rewrite adds the action word: crushed.

Had is a flag for passive voice.

Common verbs in need of synonyms: walk, look, etc.
Note their frequency ranking; if they occur often, Find each and look for the adverb nearby. The thesaurus will provide a better verb without descending into adverb hell:
  • Walking happily is prancing
  • Walking casually is strolling
  • Strolling casually is strolling (this is the source of the disdain for adverbs)
Become familiar with the synonyms of these verbs so you can use them while writing; it will become automatic. The thesaurus has unique lists for verb tenses: walk, walked, walking; look, looked, saw.

Stage Direction
Writers picture the action as they type and often have selected the actors who will play their characters when Spielberg options their story.

Common physical action verbs, such as walked, turned, and looked that appear on the list at high ranking should be reviewed. They are often clues that you've written stage direction:

She walked to the door, turned the knob, pulled it open then stepped into the hallway is a painfully protracted version of She left the room.

FYI: Movie scripts do not include stage direction. The movements of the actors are instructed by the director and often ad-libbed, so why bother?
  • He turned to watch her walk toward the table
           He watched her stroll toward the table
  • He turned his collar up and walked briskly downtown.
           He hiked-up his collar and raced downtown
  • He turned the paper over and wrote...
           He flipped the paper and scribbled...
  • His face turned hot.
           He flushed.
In this last example, it's not a matter of the word turned as much as a poorly written description of what the character was experiencing. Often when self-editing, seeking one offense reveals others.

Often the stage direction can simply be struck:
  • She turned and glared at him.
  • Smiling, he turned and made his way toward the elevator.
Almost and About
Almost and about are overused for a different reason. How often are you wishy-washy? "It was almost two o'clock when he arrived."
Be decisive and concise: "He arrived at two o'clock."
About a week later... should be A week later...

If the time element is essential—the ghost appears at midnight—and the reader knows that, It was almost midnight when he got to the cemetery, doesn't convey foreboding as well as He crept into the cemetery five minutes before the critical hour.

Another opportunity to spice it up:
He walked almost a mile. ==> He trudged a mile.

Scan the word frequency list for unusual, non-English, or sequipedalian words. Unless that level of language is consistant with the tenor of the manuscript or the speech pattern of characters, these words should only be used once or they will stand out and could be considered pretentious.

Plethora, is a perfectly good word. Dirth, zenith, and nadir are great words to throw in to stimulate the reader and keep from using hackneyed terms like not much of, the highest, the lowest, etc. Use only once per manuscript; astute readers will notice if they're repeated.

Similarly, non-English expressions such as raison d'etre, c'est la vie, or pisser dans un violon—which will not appear on the word frequency listing—should not appear more than once.


The Word Frequency Counter is employed to search-and-destroy bad and boring word usage. These examples are common, but not all-inclusive. Use them as models for finding additional transgressions in your writing.

Key points:
  • Much use of the Counter is in conjunction with a thesaurus.
  • Check the frequency of all words. Scan the list from top to bottom including words that occur only once. Are you sure of their precise meanings?
  • Check common words that make a moderate number of appearances: maybe, perhaps, always; and common verbs in all tenses: call, smile, feel, want, etc. Use more descriptive active-word synonyms.
  • Half your buts can be howevers and half of each can be eliminated by restructuring sentences.
  • Avoid stage direction: walked, turned, called, etc. Seek synonyms when these words are necessary.
  • Reduce overused words: that, had, very, really, actually, literally, about, almost, etc.
This might appear exhausting, but it's the soul of writing perfection. You're organizing a few thousand of the 170,000+ words of the English language into a cogent message. Is it going to be clear, illuminating, intriguing, entertaining, enlightening, or is it just going to be?

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