Stage II: Self-Editing
(2 of 3)

Word Frequency

It will now become clear how essential a word frequency counter—henceforth just Counter—is to varying word usage making your manuscript more interesting, aka less boring. Find the initial discussion of the functionality of a Counter
here.

The secret to a great manuscript is to use as few words as possible. When editing, find ways of cutting words one-by-one. Superfluous verbiage slows down the read, tiring the reader.

Whatever Counter you choose, it must present a display with the ranking of the occurance of each word. If the output file is an MSExcel file, or a text file that can be ported to it, then MSExcel can be used to order the list alphabetically (to find a specific word you wish to investigate) or by rank as shown in the graphic below.

There are 6,571 distinct words in this sample 52,000 word manuscript.

Examining high frequency words: the first word on the list that is suspect is that. Everyone overuses it. Half of the 643 occurances are likely to be deleted:

He knew that he drank enough, and that drinking through the night would kill him. The sentence becomes more powerful with the elimination of two unnecessary words.

He always thought he'd cash-out, liquidating whatever he had, and run away, He had tumbled from middle-class to subsistence. His ability to endure his life had all but evaporated.
   versus
He thought about cashing-out, liquidating everything he owned, and running away, His tumble from middle-class to subsistence crushed his ability to endure. His life all but evaporated.

Dealing with the numerous hads forces a rewrite with action words that enhances enhancing the sentence.

Take a look at all the words used twice. Note the use of unusual, non-English, or sequipedalian words. Plethora, is a perfectly good word, but it stands out. An astute reader will notice if it's used twice. Dirth, zenith, and nadir are great words to throw in to stimulate the reader and keep from using hackneyed terms like a bunch of, not much of, the highest, the lowest, etc. Similarly, non-English expressions such as raison d'etre, c'est la vie, or pisser dans un violon should appear only once in a manuscript.

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. ==> 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?

Turned, walked, looked... these are weak words whose frequency ranking should be noted. If weak words cannot be omitted, use the thesaurus to select replacements, or rewrite sentences—sometimes entire paragraphs—to work around them
He turned to watch her walk toward a table
       ==> He watched her stroll toward a 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, looking for one offense reveals others.

Often the stage direction can simply be struck:
She turned and glared at him.
With a nod, he turned and made his way toward the elevator.

Really, very, actually, literally (the last often used incorrectly):
It has been argued that written treatment of dialog should emulate speech which very often uses these words. If Ummm, like, and ya'know, are sticken from dialog, why not streamline it all? Reading literally takes more effort than hearing and unnecessary words really weary a reader. Remove all words where the sentence is actually unchanged after it's deletion and you'll often find it also becomes more dynamic.

Find literally and verify that it is used correctly, though regularly, it too can be omitted.

Very offers an opportunity to use the thesaurus:
He is very tired. ==> He is exhausted.
She told a very funny story. ==> She told a hilarious story.
He was confused. ==> He was discombobulated.
He is very exhausted; She told a very hilarious story; etc.

Almost and about are overused for a different reason. How often are you indecisive? "It was almost two o'clock when he arrived."
This is your world: "He arrived at two o'clock."
About a week later... ==> A week later...

If the time element is essential—the ghost appears at midnight—then be specific: He crept into the cemetery five minutes before the critical hour.

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


Summary

The scenarios illustrated here use the Word Frequency Counter to search-and-destroy bad and boring word usage. The specific words, phrases, and constructs discussed are not all-inclusive; there's no doubt others will come to mind as you work through your manuscript.

Much use of the Counter is in conjunction with the 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: called, smiled, 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.
Check 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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