Friday, November 26, 2010

Using Your Computer to Strengthen Your Language

by Scott Rhoades

We live in a wonderful age for writing. The personal computer has made writing and editing so much easier than it was in the old days. Word processors, with their spelling and grammar checking, make it easy to find the basic errors we all make. We can edit a manuscript without having to retype the whole thing because our changes on page 28 messed up the pagination.

We can use our computers to do much of our research from our living rooms, to keep track of notes, to create mind maps and other planning documents. We can even have our computers read our stories back to us.

There's another computerized tool that can be exceptionally valuable and goes deeper into what computers can do than many of the applications that are part of our writing routines. Computers can provide an analysis of our text that would be impossible or at least extremely laborious without them.

Many of us already use computer analysis tools to check the complexity of our documents and to help us determine the grade level of the language of our stories. But there's another analysis tool that never fails to surprise me when I run it: a simple word list.

I recently installed a free program called TheScribe, developed as a simple word processor and detailed language analysis tool for linguists. The feature I find most valuable is the word list. I pasted the first 30 pages of a manuscript I have revised several times into TheScribe, and viewed the word list. What I found was much more enlightening than I'd hoped.

For example, the word "was" appears 39 times in those pages, even after editing specifically to reduce "to be" words. "Wasn't" is in there 19 times, "be" 20 times, and "were" 11. There are 37 uses of the word "but," which could indicate a need for more variety in my sentence structures. Other words appear more often than they probably should, and for no good reason. I don't know why "Something" appears 24 times in 30 pages. I also don't know why a weak verb like "put" appears 12 times. Approximately once every three pages a character puts something somewhere. That might be a problem, or might not, but it's definitely something to look at. Something is "held" 12 times. There are certainly more interesting words than that. And why would "like" be useful 38 times, more than once per page?

Analyzing my word list makes it obvious that there's an even bigger problem, potentially, than repeating some words that are not especially strong. I'm very aware that the senses are important for helping the reader become absorbed in the character's experiences. I try to pay attention to all five senses, I think. (See the "Sensory Details" post by Julie Daines.) And yet, in these 30 pages at the beginning of my novel, "looked" appears 22 times, "see" is there 16 times, "saw" twice, and other words like "stared," "glanced," "gazed," and similar synonyms for seeing make one or two appearances each. Other sense words like "heard" are almost non-existent--not necessarily a bad thing because those verbs are almost always telling words, and there are better ways to show the senses. Still, it's clear that I rely heavily on vision, and not in especially interesting ways, and need to go back and look at those sentences.

It's hard to find these kinds of problems when you read through a manuscript, no matter how carefully you edit. But, when you take the words out of context and look at them in a list, possible problem words stick out. Many of those might be perfectly fine, but the word list gives you a guide to potential problems that need to be examined.

If you know what to look for, a word list generated from your manuscript can be enlightening and troubling. Patterns emerge that you might not be able to find on your own. Weak verbs and nouns that feel fine in context look dull in a list. Adverbs and adjectives jump out. Examining those potential problems will help you strengthen your writing in ways that would have been nearly impossible 40 years ago.

TheScribe is a Windows application, available from (While you're there, check out their excellent dictionary and thesaurus application.) It is not necessarily the best of its kind for Windows, just the latest one I've tried. I've also used TextSTAT with success. Other free word list generators can be found for Windows, Mac, and Linux. Try googling "mac word frequency" or something similar and you should find something you can use, such as Word Counter for the Mac, which I've never used, but looks interesting on its Web site.


Julie Daines said...

This sounds like something I should look into. Is it compatible with Mac?

Scott said...

The note at the end of the post has info on how to get similar functionality for Mac.