Editing With Wordles, An Overview

Wordle.net is a website that can allow you to see which words you use the most in a document. More on it in a minute.

At some point in the editing process, after the first draft (and maybe after the second one, too), I start to get picky about individual sentences and word choice. I usually realize I’ve overused certain words, like the word “that.” The word “that” can often be eliminated, creating a cleaner sentence.

If I know what word to target, I can do a Search and Replace. Let’s change these two first-draft sentences from my novel, The Jagged Man, into better ones.

I could change He was viewing images that Bradley Palmer had taken in his lab at Cornell University.

…to He was viewing images Bradley Palmer had taken in his lab at Cornell University.

…or change She had never been that great at delegating authority, never sure why people would listen to her.

…to She had never been great at delegating authority, never sure why people would listen to her.

Looking at it again might even prompt me to change the whole sentence to something like She had never been a delegator, never sure why people would listen to her.

When I ran a Search and Replace for the word “that” on a copy of the whole book (just as a test), there were 1,287 uses of it in 450 pages. Obviously I wouldn’t eliminate all of them, but if I trimmed half of them out of the book, I would have trimmed the book by at least a couple of pages by eliminating half of the instances of this one word. Imagine how much you could trim if you applied that principle to all the unnecessary words in your book; but how do you know which words you’re using too often?

Here’s a test you can try. Paste the following sentence into Wordle’s Create Window, and click on the Go button.

“If I ran this very long sentence through the very fine program, Wordle, I would very quickly discover that I had used the word very so very much that it would display much larger than the other very useful words in the sentence.”

It will probably display something like this.

Wordle for the word very, using the default setting.

Wordle for the word “very” using the default setting/

Wordle resizes words in proportion to the number of times they are used in the pasted text. Two of the words (much and sentence) are larger than the others. Both words were used twice in the sentence, so they’re larger than the other words.

“Wait a minute,” you’re saying. “The word very was used five times. Where is it?”

Good catch. Wordle’s default setting is to ignore words it believes are “stop” words (very common or unimportant words, such as “the,” “and,” or “but” …and, apparently, “very”). Also, the font they used (randomly chosen) makes some of the words difficult to read, so I usually make two adjustments. Check out Wordle’s FAQ for other ways you can adjust the way it displays.

1. In the Language Menu, I check the setting “Do not remove common words” (this will make stop words like “very” and “it” and “if” reappear).

2. In the Layout Menu, I check “Horizontal” as opposed to the current “Mostly Horizontal” setting. It just makes the text easier to read.

Those two changes will return something like this:

Wordle test for the word "very" after adjustments.

Wordle test for the word “very” after adjustments.

Now you can see the overused word “very” is back, and is larger than all the other words (although “the” and “I” are fairly large too).

You can dump the text of an entire novel into Wordle, and use the settings I suggested above to see which words are used the most often across the span of the entire novel, or you can use their default setting to gain some other insights about your book.

This is a Wordle I created from the full text of The Jagged Man (using the default setting) shortly after I finished the first draft.

A Wordle of the full text of The Jagged Man, on the default setting

A Wordle of the full text of The Jagged Man, on the default setting

Johnny and Sarah are the protagonists in the novel, Vieuxos is the villain, and Jake is a flunky who works for Vieuxos. From the Wordle, it would seem that Sarah and Jake are the two dominant characters. Seeing this displayed as a Wordle made me reexamine the structure of the book and see whether it was really true. It wasn’t. Sarah and Jake were the two most talked about characters, so their names appeared more frequently.

At the very least, seeing a graphical representation of the word use in your book can give you something to  think about. Will it make you a better writer? Not by itself. Just consider it a possible analysis tool. Another similar word analyzer is TagCrowd.

Do you have any particular analysis methods that you have found helpful?


About michaelsirois

Just a retired educator taking a stab at the Great American Novel.
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