May 18, 2015

Revealing words


Writers have reasons to be wary of technology. Ann Althouse points to an Amazon review of Fifty Shades of Grey that, thanks to the Kindle's search function, reveals the author's writerly peccadilloes:

Characters roll their eyes 41 times, Ana bites her lip 35 times, Christian's lips "quirk up" 16 times, Christian "cocks his head to one side" 17 times, characters "purse" their lips 15 times, and characters raise their eyebrows a whopping 50 times. Add to that 80 references to Ana's anthropomorphic "subconscious" (which also rolls its eyes and purses its lips, by the way), 58 references to Ana's "inner goddess," and 92 repetitions of Ana saying some form of "oh crap" (which, depending on the severity of the circumstances, can be intensified to "holy crap," "double crap," or the ultimate "triple crap").

But technology giveth even as it taketh away. Writers can now defend themselves against embarrassing lexical exposés with a wide range of free online word frequency counters (like here). But it's the phrase counters (like here, here, and here) that really reveal the flaws.

The free Primitive Word Counter is a standalone Windows program that does basic text analysis. (Keep in mind that it's so primitive it doesn't understand apostrophes or smart quotes.) Textanz ($39.95) is a little less "primitive," with more tools and supported text formats.

And then there's WordStat, which will set you back a whopping $3,795. Heck, for that much, it should write the novel, edit and publish it, and attend the signing events.

Danger, Will Robinson! A very real problem with these tools is that seeing your writing so dispassionately deconstructed can make you overly self-conscious, like listening to a recording of your voice. Not all repetition is bad. It won Hemingway a Nobel Prize, after all.

One of the biggest mistakes beginning fiction writers make is trying to come up with different ways to say "said." (See rule #3.)

A few phrases duplicated in an 80,000 word novel won't be noticed. Your attempts to eliminate them might be. One thing I discovered back when I was producing educational videos was the extent to which people don't see--until it's pointed out to them--continuity problems.

I'm talking about the obvious stuff, like a prop changing color in the middle of a scene. A fascinating psychological question is what makes us notice some continuity problems and ignore others. Of course, once pointed out, you can't not see it.

With those caveats in mind, these tools do a good job of uncovering rhetorical tics, overused adverbs, and inconsistent usages. But with the curtain drawn back on your creative subconscious, you'll have to consciously learn what to ignore.

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