A Handy Cure for Word-itis

Every so often my habit of aimless Web surfing pays off. This week I discovered a site over at WriteWords that checks the number of times particular words and phrases are used in a manuscript. 

I’m already in the habit of checking for words and phrases I tend to frequently overuse: “just then”; “at that moment”; any characters with “blonde” hair. (One time, a beta reader pointed out that every single minor character in my story was a blonde.) But I plan to use the tool to find stealth offenders–words or phrases I repeat without being aware of it.

For example, I just ran the tool against a few recent chapters, and discovered that the word “eyebrows” is repeated four times in five chapters. Yikes. That’s a red flag. It probably means I’ve overloaded some sections with too many of what I call “dialogue tics and gestures”:  a raising of eyebrows; furrowing a brow; reaching for a drink and taking a sip. 

In the phrase frequency finder, I found six instances of “began to.” Ack! Either a character does something or he doesn’t do it. There’s no “begin to.” I’ll have to go edit those out. The thing I like in particular about the phrase frequency finder is that you can search for phrases of various lengths.

Give these tools a try, and let me know if you think they’re useful. Did you turn up any unexpected instances of repeated words or phrases?

24 thoughts on “A Handy Cure for Word-itis

  1. I just finished my latest WIP. Good timing. Thanks for the link, Kathryn. It will be interesting to see the landmines in it.

    Do you know the limit you can cut/paste into it at one time? What worked best for you?

  2. I was wondering about the limit too, Jordan. I tried it with five chapters and it didn’t choke. It looks like it just goes in as a text file, so hopefully that means it can take large amounts.

  3. When critiquing chapters for my group, I’m usually using MS Word. I will get a jolt when I’ve run into a word too many times. I’ll then turn to Word’s find feature and search for the term.

    I once found the word “coffee” 18 times in 3 chapters and the word “seem” 31 times in 4 chapters.

    Aside from “began”, I also scan for “start” because I have to catch myself writing “It started to rain” and then never indicating whether it rained or not. Like when it started to rain and so someone sought shelter etc. Which is weak. So I would change it to something like dark clouds forming in the sky and small droplets of water pricking the skin or something more substantial than “it started to rain”.

    I think when drafting, it’s fine to write “began” and “started” and many other words which get overused. It’s great to have them in there when revising. I think that’s why it’s more fun to revise. Those are like placeholders, waiting for you to come back and flesh them out. πŸ™‚

    • That’s true Diane–in the first rush of writing it’s even useful to reach for an easy word, rather than struggle too much over each sentence. One can always go back and rework them.

  4. I found one of these a couple of years ago and integrated it into Word. Works great.

    I also have a list of words that tend to be overused. Before the final draft, I run Word searches for each one and remove as many as possible. (Words like, “was,” “that,” “actually,” words ending with -“ly” as a quick adverb hunter. Things like that.)

  5. Kathryn, wonderful tip. Thanks so much. (The editor of my first novel chided me with: “Do you know how in love you are with the word ‘just’?”)

  6. I’ll have to try is out – though I did just discover in my current WIP that one of my characters had her ‘eye on the clock’ three times in just one chapter! How’s that for a tic:)

  7. What a great find. I wonder if we could use this tool to edit our lives. Maybe cause an alarm to sound or a red light to start flashing. “Oh no, there I go again.”

    I’m afraid to try this out. I’ve already found millions of little tics, yunno. That I “like” use to excess. If one is crafty enough, global search and replace might correct these foo-paws. This would work well with public speakers, too. Just bleep out the uhhhs and ahhhhs and yunnos. Maybe shoot a little electric shock into them, too.

    I haven’t read the other comments, but I would expect Basil to run wild with this one.

    • I overuse favorite words in speech, too, Adam. One time my sister turned to me and said, “Is ‘draconian’ the word of the day?” I must have used it once too often!

  8. Thank you for this post.I tried the link on the first five chapters of my WIP. Amazing. And I thought I was nearly ready.

  9. It’s amazing how distracting this kind of repetition can be. I recall the pleasure evoked by an author’s use of “starfish” to describe a small child’s hands – the first time. By the 8th or 10th time she used that same image in the novel it became not only obtrusively repetitive but grating.

  10. I’m in love! I dreamed about an app like this. Would be fun to put a bestseller through the wringer and see how many justs, onlys, eye rolls, etc someone like James Patterson used in a recent book.

    I put my sh**ty first draft of about 150,000 words into the Word Frequency app and it processed the whole mess in about a minute. The phrase frequency counter will be extremely useful too. Apparently it can search for phrases of any length.


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