Word Frequency Counters – An Essential Tool for Writers

Word frequency counterYou punch out a hundred-thousand words of brilliant prose. How many different words do you think are contained in your work? I’ve found that I use about six to seven-thousand words in each of my manuscripts. Of course, walk, walked, and walking are counted as three words, so the scope and breath of the lexicon I’ve employed is a bit more restricted.

The real question is how many times have I used “walk” or any of its variations. As touched upon in Adverbs Are Not the Enemy, there are many synonyms for walk, most of which give a much more distinctive image to the reader of the nature of the walking. Skulk, saunter, promenade, shuffle, and stumble are a few. You could write, “All eyes were upon her as she walked across the room.” How much more descriptive is, “All eyes were upon her as she sashayed across the room?”

A word frequency counter (WFC) is a software program that reads a manuscript, then provides a list of every individual word and how often it appeared.

Sample Word Frequency ListThis is the very top of a list created for a novel of mine that was written in the first person. Hence, “I” is at top with “my” not far behind. A bit more about the mechanics of using a WFC appears toward the bottom of this post.

The first time I analyzed a manuscript, the first word that struck me was—you guessed it—WALK for which there were over 600 occurrences in a manuscript of 100,000 words. I opened the manuscript in Word, hit Ctrl-F to open the “Find” dialogue box, and typed in “walk.” This allowed me to go through my document and find every instance of walk, including walks, walked, walking, and sidewalk. I read each sentence and decided which synonym would best replace this vanilla version of the concept. There are 60 listed in a post by Daily Writing Tips. I replaced more than four out of five, improving the writing immensely. Still, about 20% of the time “walk” was best suited to the sentence and I let it stand.

“She walked briskly up to him at the bar,” became, “She strut up to him at the bar.”

Not only did I eliminate one of those pesky adverbs, but the sentence took on new flavor and power. She had attitude, not just the energy to walk briskly. And I did his hundreds of times throughout the work.

Comfy Chair tip #5: The first draft is the easiest part of writing your manuscript. Be prepared to painstakingly scrutinize your work for hours, days, and weeks. It took me about six hours exclusively on the “walk” project.

Then another annoyance materialized. “Turned” appeared 500 times. That’s a whole lot of turning.

“If you don’t like broccoli,” Eveyln said, “then here’s your ring back.”
Errol turned to her and said, “Pawn the ring. You’ll need the cash for Whole Foods.”

It seems I had my characters spinning like tops. Every time two people were in a conversation, I was compelled to let the reader know that one rearranged body position to face the other, when it was obvious to the point of being unnecessary. See, Don’t Stage and Block.

This exchange is better presented as:

“If you don’t like broccoli,” Eveyln said, “then here’s your ring back.”
“Pawn the ring. You’ll need the cash for Whole Foods.”

Bonus tip: Not just stage movement, but the attribution is unnecessary. In a conversation that had previously identified the participants, who else would answer her, if not Errol?

I wasn’t surprised to see “was” high on the list, but 2,297 times? I was sure the counter had gotten that wrong, but it hadn’t. Here are two examples why:

He was chewing his food deliberately, savoring each bite.
She was writing a note explaining why she left.

I used the passive voice hundreds of times when I should have used the active. I corrected to:

He chewed his food deliberately, savoring each bite.
She wrote a note explaining why she left.

Does it change the meaning? Not really. Does it read better? Absolutely. There’s action. The characters are doing something, not just floating along at the whim of food that needed to be chewed or a note that wanted to be written.

Chalk up another full day finding every “was” and evaluating the need for an alternative. It’s a legitimate word, a common past tense of to be, and 500 remained when I was done. In the process, I cut almost two-thousand words out of the manuscript: was chewing became chewed, was writing became wrote. The work took another quantum leap toward the easy and engaging read I wanted it to be.

I found all all this in a manuscript I was convinced was ready for publication simply—or simple mindedly—because I couldn’t find any spelling or grammatical errors.


The Mechanics of Using a Word Frequency Counter:

Some WFC counters read directly from a file, usually a .DOC or .DOCX file, while others require you to cut-and-paste the entire manuscript into a text box. It then writes a new file with two columns: each word and the number of times—the frequency—it appears in your document. The output file can be put in alphabetical word order, either A to Z or Z to A, or presented in order of frequency, listing those words that appear most often on top or bottom of the list. These are options that are part of the software, however I prefer to transfer this output file to Excel where I can manipulate it any way I wish including combining multiple versions of the same word into a single line item: walk, walked, and walking, for example.

Which WFC program to choose?

I’ve used two, but there are others. I downloaded this program for free and they’ve never asked me to pay for it, though, within reason, I would. It’s very simplistic and the output is a little hokey, but if you have some facility with Excel, you can massage it to usability.

I have used a more sophisticated program from WordFrequencyCounter.com, but—as of this writing—their web site seems to be experiencing some difficulty.

I downloaded another from Hermetic systems, but had trouble getting clear output. I didn’t play with it very long for lack of patience. The input screen was very complex and not intuitive.

All I needed—and likely you as well—is a list of words and how frequently they appear in the manuscript. Then the work begins.

I’d like to hear from you if you’ve found other common writing-flaws that word frequency counts can uncover. Post a comment. I am also open to suggestions of new software you’ve used they’ll you’ll swear by instead of swearing at. Vendor input is welcome.


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