Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Editing - word choice and repetition


Every now and again I'm going to do a post where I explain some technique I use in research, writing, or editing. We all have systems and ideas we try, and I think it is good to share these. You never know, someone might have a better idea, or a refinement to your technique, which you will only discover if you are open about the things you do.

I recently finished the first draft of a 5,000 word short story, currently called 'Other  People's Stories' (yes, I know it isn't a great title!). One of the editing tasks I applied at the end was checking for repetition of the same words. Sometimes you get stuck on the same word; when pouring words onto the page it repeats itself every time. That's fine while writing, since the idea is to get as many words flowing as possible; the editing comes later. I'll demonstrate a method I use with a real example from editing that story.

As I read the draft again I spotted certain words repeating themselves. So first I identified the types of words that occurred most commonly. There were two main groupings.

1> Words related to darkness.
2> Words related to fear or nastiness.

This is not surprising, given that it was a horror story!

I re-read the story, and highlighted every occurrence of a word related to darkness in one colour of highlighter, then every word related to fear in another colour.

Taking the fear words first, I then got a clean piece of paper. Every highlighted fear word was written out at the first instance, then I used five bar gates to measure each time it re-appeared. I ended up with something like this:

Scary 8
Scared 11
Jumpy 1
Horrible 4
Freaky / freaked out 4
Creepy 3
Ominous 2
Weird 1
Disturbing 2
Terrified 1

I decided that occurrences of frequency 2 were fine as long as they weren't on the same page (checked by using Word's 'Find' feature, CTRL+F). Next I searched for alternative terms I hadn't used. You can do this with a printed thesaurus but I cheated and right-clicked on a word then selected 'synonyms' from the menu. I wrote down any good alternative word choices. This gave me a list with further terms such as nervous, afraid, frightened, fearful, anxious, petrified, horrified/horrific, vile, dreadful, nasty etc. Words with only one usage could also be considered for re-use in place of an over-used word, so were added to the new list of potentials (with a mark indicating it had been used once).

I then used the find feature to locate all instances of the words I'd used too much, and examined each one to see if another word would work better (e.g. the difference in scale between anxious/nervous, then afraid/fearful, then petrified/terrified meant I could often replace a word with something more appropriate). I updated the five bar gate lists until I was happy that no word had been over-used - unless it was the only word that worked in that place, in which case it could obviously stay. It wasn't a perfect system but did help to give more variety in description, especially when you have been stuck in a rut with the same few words while writing in the rush to get the story down.

I then just repeated the process for words related to darkness, where I found:

Dark 17
Shadows 4
Shadowy 6
Shadow 3
Darkness 2
Blackness 1

I came up with further words such as gloom(y), dim(ness), shade, murk(y), pitch-black etc. and repeated the process.

It took about half an hour to do this single editing task but it gave me more confidence that at least one of the potential weak points in the story had been fixed! The rest of my editing was proofreading, re-sequencing some events for greater tension, changing roles around (originally the woman was the one trying to instigate sex), fiddling with the details of the final reveal, and making notes of the aspects that could be repeated elsewhere in the story to reinforce them.
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4 comments:

  1. This sounds very sensible advice. When I have to edit articles in work (other people's words) it can be difficult to come up with other words, I'll maybe give your tip a go. Normally I have red biro all over the printout....

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  2. Great advice, I often try to change repeating words as I write, but never really check after in such detail. I'm writing 'The Cliff Hotel' and once I find a suitable ending, I'll give this technique a shot :-D

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  3. Hi Elizabeth, red pen is good too! I think it's always worth remembering that we can edit later (and use tools that help!) and not get too hung up on the moment.

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  4. Hi Kia, to be honest, I don't always go into that much detail either - in this case I had felt the over-use was a particular issue for this story. In other cases I identify different problems to work on, and use different techniques...

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