Many years ago I worked as teacher’s aide at St Kilda Primary School. During that period I became VERY familiar with the list of the 100 most used words in the English language, which the children were expected to know how to spell, (including the very tricky ‘because’).
One of the features I love (to hate) about the writing program Scrivener is that it produces for me a kind of personalised report on my most-used words. Sometimes I spend a long time contemplating which word will capture most precisely what I want to say, and I like to think that when I engage in this process I’m choosing from all the possible words that are available to me. But it turns out that much of the time I’m actually following an extremely well-trodden pathway to a storeroom full of words I’ve used many many times before.
I don’t mind so much that words like only, more, other, even, still and never turn up so much in my books because, in many cases, there are few alternatives to these. But when it comes to more descriptive language, it’s a little mortifying to realise how repetitive you are as a writer. For example, 14 objects in Monkey See were enormous, and an exactly equal number were tiny. Why isn’t anything a normal size in my world? And why is everything either beautiful or terrible? (14 occurrences each). Also, in terms of action, my characters apparently have only two options: they can do things quietly, or they can do them immediately.
Given that the main setting of my novel is on the coast of Chile, in what is currently the city of Santiago, and that the story revolves, to some degree, around how to respond to tsunamis, it is perhaps not surprising that I mention the ocean 30 times. It is harder to explain why I mention blood just as often. It’s not a horror novel I’m writing after all.
It is about a sadistic cult though, which is how I can justify so many characters being deranged/delirious/paralysed and/or ecstatic. But why is there so much scraping and clanging? And who knew so much frying and melting would need to take place?
Since the action of my novel takes place in a post-technological society, and my characters are on a quest, horses get a lot of mentions (22). Less easy to understand is why there are so many scenes involving soup (16 mentions). Even harder to fathom are my endless references to teeth (22), lips (17) and even tongues (17). A Freudian psychoanalyst would no doubt have a field day with my list; my development clearly stalled at the oral stage!
You will be pleased to know that references to shit are balanced by references to peppermints (I know, right?), the number of things destroyed is exactly equal to the number of people being rescued, ditto killing vs recovering, bombs are balanced by births, and cocktails and morphine are also in perfect balance. Also, and perhaps most importantly, vomit plays no greater part in the story than marbles.
When you were quietly enjoying that game of marbles and the cook asked you to take over immediately because they were about to give birth, you didn’t realise you’d be expected to make a soup by frying tiny horses, (including the melting of their lips, teeth and tongues). It was enough to make you vomit. If it wasn’t for all those cocktails you’d have become deranged!
Rooting out these word weeds was, of course, just one part of my editing process. But it was a very satisfying one!
Your turn: What are the words you’re magnetically attracted to?
15 thoughts on “Monkey See: Journey to a Book (Part 2) – Editing”
Do you need to do further research trip to Chile? I’d be happy to accompany you …
I REALLY do Melinda! And I think I also really need a research assistant!
Ugh, I notice myself repeating words and phrases ALL THE TIME in my blogging. Unfortunately, I’m much too lazy to edit. I do tend to notice it when authors repeat certain phrases though, so it’s definitely a worthwhile editing pursuit!
I think blogging is a little different because it is much more conversational in tone (your blog particularly) and in conversation we all tend to re-use phrases so I think it’s accepted. I wonder though if there is an app that lets you see your most commonly used words across all your blog posts? If there was do you think it’s something bloggers might use?
Great post, Annabel. There were a few words I use a lot, especially in poetry — ‘still’ (as in not moving), ‘shift'(as in a slight movement), ‘perhaps’. I did a check through a draft of The Anchoress before I sent it out, and I know I repeated lots of words very often, though would you believe I can’t remember them? Perhaps the same way we forget the details of childbirth! But I remember clearly that my editor pointed out ‘there’s an awful lot of breathing in this novel’!! — the struggle to communicate my narrator’s physical experiences intimately. And so hard to find other options. I used ‘prickle’, ‘heat’ and even ‘throb’ a lot — who would have thought it of an anchoress??!
‘Throb’ haha! When taken out of context that word always seems hilarious. In my last novel, which was about a family dealing with someone in a coma, my editor picked me up for how much sighing went on. The physical things can be hard to convey without being repetitive, can’t they? I love that you compare it to childbirth!
I was once told to stop having my characters’ stomachs sink and/or sour.
Interesting. I don’t think I’ve ever had a character do that. I wonder if we tend to write into our characters the bodily sensations we tend to experience at times of stress/intense emotion. I tend to feel things in my chest rather than my stomach so perhaps my characters reflect that? It’s interesting to reflect on, anyway.
I suspect ‘rather’ might pop up in my writing the way it does in my speech. Such an eviscerating, scaredy-cat word, as though afraid I haven’t chosen the right adjective.
I can see how you interpret it as such Mike – I’m sure you HAVE chosen the right adjective, so you can comfortably get rid of all instances of ‘rather’. I overuse ‘pretty’ as a modifier – pretty quick, pretty stupid etc.
I don’t write so I can’t comment but I did really enjoy reading your post – nice that you can be so open about your work.
Thank you 🙂
That’s a really helpful tool to have, Annabel. I downloaded a trial of scrivener, but it seemed too confusing!
It is confusing at first. I watched the video and was overwhelmed. I think, in hindsight, the trick is just to start writing and learn the features as you go. Natasha Lester developed a course for the Australian Writers Centre which you can work through at your own pace. It takes you through from the basics to the more fancy functions and is super friendly: worth checking out.