Upon returning my novel, my one critique partner pointed out I had a couple of high-frequency words. She suggested I word search them, just to see how often they come up.
At first I thought it would be a quick exercise of replacing a couple of “saunters” with something better, but her simple suggestion sent me on a two-week mission to find and eliminate high frequency and weak words from my novel.
This exercise helped me realize something about my drafting process. When I first drafted the novel, I sometimes put in commonplace reactions, such as “she smiled” or “he frowned”, because my instinct tells me the character will have some kind of reaction. The thing is, when I am in the midst of drafting, my characters’ emotional arc, as well as their personalities, are not yet fully developed.
It was only in the revision stages that I really knew exactly who each character was, and where a particular scene or reaction fell in their emotional arc. Going back to all those “smiles” and “shrugs” and “frowns” via a word search, I now had the bigger view to fill out the descriptors with more personal, meaningful reactions. Sometimes that meant adding a paragraph, and in some places a scene, that was missing to complete the emotional arc of the character.
Doing word searches also allowed me to designate certain words or traits to specific characters. We all have words we love to use – our personal vocabulary. I made sure that certain words (especially slang or teen expressions) were used sparingly and only by certain characters.
How do you do a word search?
If you write in Scrivener, the search box is in the top right hand corner of your screen.
- Make sure “Manuscript” is selected in your binder to ensure Scrivener will search your whole manuscript and not just a selected scene. Type the word you want to search in there, e.g. smile
- By clicking on the drop-down menu (arrow next to magnifying glass), you can select if you want to search for whole words, phrases etc.
- A list of the scenes containing that word will appear in your binder on the left-hand side. When you click on a scene, your search word will be highlighted. You can edit the scene right there, and Scrivener will save your edits.
- When you are done with that word, click on the x in the search box to clear your search. You are now set to type in the next word in your search.
- When you click on "Find", a Navigation box will open on your left-hand side, with a list of all the places you used that word.
- The search word will be highlighted in your text.
- You can navigate your search with the arrows, and you can edit in the document as you go.
- Clear the search by clicking on the x.
Where do you start?
There are some words that are high frequency for most writers. Start with that list. Here are a few I searched:
Walk Nod Turn
Smile Laugh Just
Go Little Tiny
Really Very Look
Then there are some words more specific to your own writing. These are some of the ones I searched:
Saunter Snort Dorky
Stroll Gaze Like
Word searches are also handy to make sure you consistently spell character names the same way. Minor characters in particular, like the teacher that appears maybe twice in a novel, or a tricky last name, can trip you up
Once you are done editing on such a micro-level, reread the entire manuscript to make sure your word replacements work within the scene and chapter, and that you indeed used the right word for the situation.
Even though this was time consuming, replacing trite descriptors and high frequency words with more thoughtful alternatives added a deeper layer to my novel and clarity to my character development. It was an educating look at my writing process and weaknesses. And it was fun to play around with words.