Overwritten manuscripts: how to fix—PART 2

From Rick:

Last time, I pointed out several ways in which writers overwrite their stories and novels:

—unnecessary dialogue tags
—wordiness in general
—unnecessary repetition of information

To that list I want to add:

—unnecessary use of characters’ names
—repeated words and phrases

I gave one example of an overwritten passage and an improved version. However, that was more for example than instructional on how to trim your prose. This time I want to focus on some specifics and give you some tips on how to recognize—and fix—these problems in your own writing.

I’ve sure you’ve heard many times that it’s nearly impossible for writers to spot problems in their own writing, and the reason given is that it’s too difficult to be objective of your own work. While this is partially true, it’s not that hard to find your flaws if you know what to look for.

I’m going to tackle these five problems in this post and the next one, but not in the order I listed them. Let’s do the easiest ones first.

(1) REPEATED WORDS AND PHRASES

One of the hardest flaws to spot is the repeated use of certain words and phrases because we get into the habit of using them and we aren’t aware we’re doing it. A good editor should catch many of these, but in longer works, unless the word or phrase is sufficiently overused, the editor may not catch it.

As an editor, I run into this all the time. In one manuscript, the writer liked to use the phrase “can’t help but” and it didn’t hit me right away. It wasn’t until I saw it used a couple of times within a few sentences that I realized that I’d seen it used quite a bit previously. When I did a search, I found the writer had used that phrase 141 times! Oops. The reason I didn’t spot it right away was that the manuscript was 130,000 words and the phrase was spread out enough that it didn’t call attention to itself readily.

For you, the writer, it’s going to be much harder to catch these things because, like the speaker who keeps saying “uh” or “ah,” we don’t realize we’re doing it. Only by listening to a recording of your speaking will you become aware of it. In your writing, you can use a text-to-speech program (or the reading app in Windows 10), and listen for overused expressions and words, or you can find one or more beta readers and instruct them to watch for the same things. Of course, you can hope an editor will catch them, but that type of editing gets expensive.

Some writing software programs will analyze your writing and make a list of the frequency of expressions. A few of these programs offer a free version, but those will usually only let you analyze a small sample of the writing. If your habit phrases are sufficiently spread through your manuscript, they won’t show up in a small sample.

Fortunately, there is a utility that performs the right kind of frequency analysis, and this one will let you paste your ENTIRE NOVEL into it! Here’s the website:

https://www.online-utility.org/text/analyzer.jsp

This utility offers several options, the two most useful being the Text Analyzer (which looks at the frequency of words and phrases), and the Frequent Words (which looks only at the word use frequency). It’s also very fast. It analyzed a 123,000-word manuscript in under ten seconds.

In this manuscript, the most frequent word was “the” (5335), not surprising. The next words were “to” (3456), “and” (2824), and down the line to “with” (948). But right after that, one of the character names had 847 hits, followed by more common words. The next character name was much farther down the list (330 hits), and then other character names began to appear in the list.

This use of one name (which I’ll just refer to as “Mary”) is much more than other names (the next frequent character name is used only 330 times). The novel is in third person, and Mary is sort of the main character, but if Mary is a main character, why is her name used so much. This use of Mary’s name raises a red flag. Maybe the author is using her name too much. If we assume her POV is being used a lot, why isn’t the author using pronouns “she” and “her” instead? Both of those pronouns are used a lot in the manuscript (2174 and 2675 respectively), but Mary isn’t the only female character.

What I like about this Text Analyzer is that it looks at phrases of several words in length and lists them first by length then by frequency. The “can’t help but” but phrase in the other manuscript shows up in phrases of 3 words, and right under are three phrases with frequencies over 50 each (“I don’t know,” “I want to,” “in front of”). All of these three would warrant a closer look to see if the usage is appropriate.

These analyses will also help you spot the overuse of unusual words or pet words. Once you identify possible problem words and phrases, MS Word’s SEARCH function will let you find them so you can look at the context.

Finding the overuse of character names can be done the same way, but that’s going to be a more time-consuming process. Put the character name into the SEARCH/FIND and step your way through the manuscript to look at each occurrence.

TIP: After you initiate the SEARCH/FIND, you can close the FIND window. Then if you hold the CTRL key and press the PAGE DOWN you can move to the next occurrence of the word or phrase you put in the FIND box. This will work until you initiate a new FIND. This technique is a great way to step through the document and to be able to edit as you go because you can keep the same search word active and not have the FIND & REPLACE box in your face.

(2) UNNECESSARY USE OF CHARACTERS’ NAMES

This same text analyzer can also be used to find unnecessary use of character names, but it’s not as easy to use for that purpose because your characters’ names will likely be scattered in the list.

Since you hopefully do not have a huge number of character names, a better way is to highlight the character names one at a time. Go to the FIND and REPLACE option. In the FIND box enter the character’s name. In the REPLACE box, enter the name again, then be sure to expand the More box to show additional search options if they’re not already showing. At the bottom of the window, under “Replace” click the dropdown arrow in the “Format” box and select “Highlight.” Then click REPLACE ALL. This will highlight all occurrences of the word (or phrase) in whatever highlight color you have selected (yellow by default) in the HOME tab.

You can now page through your document and easily see the character’s name on each page. You may be surprised how often you use the name. You can then remove unnecessary uses of the name or change it to a pronoun when the reference is clear. When you’re done, repeat the FIND and REPLACE but select your highlight color to be “no color” to remove all the highlights.

Now, you might ask why using a character’s name is bad in the first place. Simple: If the scene is in that character’s POV, then why is the character’s name being used so much? Why aren’t pronouns being used instead?

Consider the following passage. The POV is that of Adam Mathews, and the only other character mentioned is Zacharias. The first passage is how it should be written. The second version puts Adam’s name in for most of the his/him pronouns.

*****

[VERSION 1]

Zacharias owned a Victorian villa in Dartmouth that was billed as a rehabilitation facility for high-profile individuals who liked their privacy. Adam would stay there until they were ready to launch their plans, or so Zacharias had said. He still doubted whose plans they were.

Adam gazed out one of the large windows in the ornate drawing room. Elegant upholstered chairs, probably each worth a fortune, had been pushed against the walls, leaving the middle of the room and its oriental carpet vacant. He liked the room because hardly anyone ever came in here, and because it gave him a good view of the town and its harbor.

His first two weeks here had convinced him that he hated Dartmouth. Two weeks after that, his opinion hadn’t changed. The place was too touristy. Well, not touristy yet, but once the crappy winter weather went away, it would be. Crowds he didn’t mind. New York had indifferent crowds one could hide in. But tourists asked too many questions. He rarely traveled outside the U.S. because he was never comfortable in a foreign country. He felt too conspicuous here.

Zacharias hadn’t forbidden him to go outside during the day. Adam simply preferred not to. Nighttime, when the vampires prowled, was worse. Even though supposedly he had nothing to fear from them, he had no way to recognize who they were. Besides, he didn’t trust them, and it creeped him out that they could read his thoughts.

[VERSION 2]

Zacharias owned a Victorian villa in Dartmouth that was billed as a rehabilitation facility for high-profile individuals who liked their privacy. Adam would stay there until they were ready to launch their plans, or so Zacharias had said. He still doubted whose plans they were.

Adam gazed out one of the large windows in the ornate drawing room. Elegant upholstered chairs, probably each worth a fortune, had been pushed against the walls, leaving the middle of the room and its oriental carpet vacant. Adam liked the room because hardly anyone ever came in here, and because it gave him a good view of the town and its harbor.

Adam’s first two weeks here had convinced Adam that he hated Dartmouth. Two weeks after that, Adam’s opinion hadn’t changed. The place was too touristy. Well, not touristy yet, but once the crappy winter weather went away, it would be. Crowds Adam didn’t mind. New York had indifferent crowds one could hide in. But tourists asked too many questions. Adam rarely traveled outside the U.S. because he was never comfortable in a foreign country. He felt too conspicuous here.

Zacharias hadn’t forbidden Adam to go outside during the day. Adam simply preferred not to. Nighttime, when the vampires prowled, was worse. Even though supposedly Adam had nothing to fear from them, he had no way to recognize who they were. Besides, Adam didn’t trust them, and it creeped Adam out that they could read his thoughts.

*****

Granted, I overdid the use of Adam’s name in the second version, but I’ve seen some writing where the author uses the character’s name almost as much. In the first version, Adam’s name is used only THREE times, and that’s all we need to use it. The passage is clear with pronouns everywhere else. In the second version, his name appears THIRTEEN times.

Why is using a character’s name a bad thing? The primary reason is that when the scene is in that character’s POV, using the name distances the reader from that character, which is generally not what you want to do. You usually want the reader closer to the character, and the pronouns do that. With that in mind, read those two passages again and note the difference in perspective between the two.

Therefore, you should use the character’s name ONLY when necessary for clarity or for OCCASIONAL variety. Otherwise, the use of pronouns should be your default writing setting.

I’ll deal with the other aspects of wordiness and overwriting and how to spot and fix them in PART 3. In the meantime, think about your dialogue tags in the same light as character names and pronouns. When it’s clear who’s speaking, you don’t need a tag.

–Rick

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