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?