Kay: Kill Your Darlings

This word cloud was built from the text of this post.

Last week my critique group talked about “empty” words—the words we don’t need and don’t notice we use too often. My go-to favorite unnecessary word is “just,” a word I discovered that I’d used 368 times in a 127-page (so far) manuscript. By the time I finished searching and replacing it with a blank space, I’d cut 250 words from my text. Other favorite empty words we found: really, actually, and well.

The problem with finding empty and overused words is that unless you know your favorites and keep a diligent eye out for them, you don’t really (see what I mean?) notice them as you type. They’re in there before you realize it, and they’re invisible to you when you reread your work.

A fun way to discover what words you’re using a lot is to build a word cloud, which shows you at a glance which words you’re using most in your text. Scrivener has a built-in feature for this purpose, but if you’re not a Scrivener user, there are other ways to do it.

Several free programs will build word clouds for you. Tagcrowd is available for most platforms and word processing systems. Cut and paste your copy—the entire book, a chapter, or, say, a blog post—into it and let ’er rip. WordClouds is fun, letting you choose what shape, color, and type font you’d like to see your word cloud in.

Word clouds are not necessarily an accurate reflection of words you want to delete. For example, my WIP has a light mystery plot that revolves around a car factory, so the words “car” and “factory” come up at a disproportionate rate in my word clouds. However, these aren’t empty words in my manuscript—they have to be there. Still, using a word cloud is a fun way to see what words you’re using the most, and the cloud might give you an idea of what words you might want to throttle back on.

Have you ever tried this technique? How do you locate the empty words in your manuscripts?



8 thoughts on “Kay: Kill Your Darlings

  1. This sounds so cool! I can’t wait to try this out, because I know that I do tend to use certain words too much, but I can’t really identify which ones they are.

    As I mentioned over on Elizabeth’s post, I’ve spent the week in Ilona Andrews’ Kate Daniels series. One phrase that the husband-and-wife duo seem to love is “the sixty-four thousand dollar question” which refers to an ancient gameshow popular in my mother’s time. I like that phrase a lot, too, so I don’t mind seeing it once or twice in a book. But since I’ve read six and three-quarters books in five days, I’ve seen that phrase A LOT. I’ve taken to pondering over it, which isn’t a good thing, when my concentration should be on the lovely warm fuzzy love story, and the assorted slicing-and-dicing of various bad and good guys. I think I’ve done the series a disservice by binge-ing on it. I should have held myself to one novel a week, and cleaned off my writing desk instead.

    The series is wonderful, though.

    Back to your technique — I bet it would be great for figuring out hidden themes. Sure, “car” and “factory” should show up a lot in your story. But if one of the big words was “liar” or “sestina”, that would throw a new light on what your story is about.

    I’ll have to give it a try!

    • Sestina! I’d be willing to bet my bottom dollar that that word never shows up in my book. As for common-but-old-fashioned expressions—my critique group hates ’em. Should I use them anyway? That’s the sixty-four thousand dollar question!

      • LOL, sometimes weird-ass words creep into my writing. Startlement, for example. And I have to think long and hard about keeping them in. But if “sestina” showed up, I think she’d have a reason for being there that I couldn’t argue against logically.

        (-: I will say this: when Ilona Andrews used “that’s the million dollar question”, I about fell off my chair. Escalation? Yep! Okay, I can roll with that!

        How else are we going to turn current expressions into Shakespearean adages of long-lasting power unless we use them? LOL.

        • Funny thing, Michaeline, I’ve read lots of Ilona Andrews and never noticed that particular quirk. Now it’s going to make me smile every time I read it. The Andrews signature words I always notice are ‘punched’, as in ‘his feet punched the floor,’ and ‘carved,’ especially biceps.

          Jeanne sent me this great link a couple of days ago and I love it. Garbage words are relatively easy to weed out, but working out whether you use a word in a quirky way, or your use of a word is more frequent than the general population is trickier. One of the many benefits of a good beta reader. Here’s the link: http://www.npr.org/sections/monkeysee/2017/03/31/521836700/nabokovs-favorite-word-is-mauve-crunches-the-literary-numbers

        • Here’s another one, from Lois McMaster Bujold’s fantasy books: sessile. I had to look it up. It fitted perfectly as Lakewalker vocabulary in the Wide Green World books, but recently I came across it somewhere else (the latest Penric novella?) and it flipped me out of the story for a moment.

        • Oh, that’s a super link! I love Glen Weldon!! I wish I had time to listen to the MonkeySee podcast more often, but they got edged out by my David Bowie obsesssion. Maybe next year I won’t be listening to All-Bowie, All-The-Time on my morning commute.

          I didn’t notice sessile particularly, but Lois uses “twigged” and even though I think she’s only used it two or three times, I find myself using it in real life. (In this case, it means to realize, in the sense of having a brick drop. Maybe it comes from the twig breaking in the forest, and that’s your only clue before the puma pounces on you. Not sure.)

  2. I have not done a word cloud, though that looks like a very striking way to do it. I write what I’m going to write, then run it through EditMinion.com or take it to critique group. In a 2k bit of story, group does a better job of noticing the fourth time I’ve used “organ” on a page (it was a surgery scene, but still, there are other words…) EditMinion is great for the 12 times I used “that” and catches passive voice and adverbs as well.

    I like writing. I’m not so fond of the revising.

Let Us Know What You Think

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s