Friday, July 20, 2007

Tooling Around


A collection from the grave of a 10th century Norwegian weaponsmith.

It's not a joke when I say in my header that I am barely post-Luddite.

I recognize nearly every one of those 1,000 year old tools - and know how to use them - so you may understand why I view this advanced machine called a PC with some suspicion and considerable caution.

Now and then, someone will mention that tool-in-a-tool-in-a-tool called the search and find function in Word, which identifies one's personal, habitual over-use of selected words.

A valuable pair of pliers, without doubt. One that allows you to reach into the matrix and extract/ replace repetition. We tend to become over-fond of certain adjectives, for example, or over-work was.

But like any good tool, it can be abused.

One may succumb to high-lighter-itis and attempt to remove/replace them all in an excess of out-damned-spot.

A lot of words, particularly connector/directional words, like as, when, then, before, etc., are largely invisible to the reader, something like the dialogue tag said. Such words may need extraction only when they are used inappropriately and confuse the reader by their placement, or when they represent a tedious pattern of sentence construction.

Recently, I found I used the word when a total of fourteen times in a piece about 7,500 words long. Sounded like a lot. I flexed my pliers and reached for the tongs. Then I realized. When occurred on average once every two pages. Considering the basic utility of the word, that didn't seem excessive. I had almost succumbed to high-lighter syndrome. Most of them stayed.

Search and find should be a tool - not a tyrant.

29 comments:

Steve G said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Steve G said...

Here is a site that has a nifty Concordance program. It’s not cheap, but it has a 30 day free trial. Run a 70K story through it and you will be surprised at how often you use certain words.

Jaye Wells said...

Point well taken. However, sometimes I need search/replace to crack the whip. For example, when I used the word "that" 2,000 times in my first book. ~shudders~

Bernita said...

Thank you, Steve.

Ouch, Jaye!
The curse of proper grounding in grammar - which doesn't always translate into smooth prose.

Charles Gramlich said...

Very good point about not letting a tool turn into a tyrant. And I think you're right about how many of the function type words become largely invisible to the reader.

Gabriele C. said...

I'm not against tech tools, but all those search, grammar and spelling check programs in Word plainly suck, and I don't use them. I even spend an hour deleting all the stuff form the auto-correct and then added the tree or four words I really need.

Bernita said...

Thank you, Charles.
That's my excuse, anyway...

I'm still exploring them, Gabriele...very cautiously. I like the red lines ( though their reaction to proper names makes me laugh), but I tend to ignore the green.

raine said...

Gawd, I rarely, if ever, use the bloody thing for that.
Usually I just print the stuff out. I can catch on paper what I can't see on the screen.
Dunno...maybe it's the idea of having the computer sort of blaring out, "Hey, dimwit--here's another one you've overlooked!"
(You only used "when" about once every two pages?? I'm bowing down and paying homage...)

takoda said...

"When?" I'm having the same reaction I had when Miss Snark posted about "that knats."

I'm thinking, hmmm, don't remember see that too often in my manuscript.

I did a search for 'that,' and like Jaye, shuddered. Every paragraph or two (I didn't do a word count of this) had an unnecessary 'that.' THAT was a great learning exercise. Now that I've sent my ms off to the publisher (thanks again for the good luck wishes last week!), I'm wondering about 'whens.'

About those tools, any for personal hygiene/grooming? Just darkly curious is all...

Bernita said...

Raine, you may notice that I carefully avoided mention of the count for other, more notorious, words.

That seems to be one of the common surprises, Chris.
Personal hygiene? Only indirectly, I'm afraid.

The Anti-Wife said...

When a friend read the second draft of my manuscript, she mentioned my reliance on the word "crap" to describe many of the situations and told me I should try to be more descriptive. When I searched for "crap", it boggled my mind how often it appeared. It was a wonderful lesson in overuse. My manuscript may be crap, but the word no longer dominates the pages.

Bernita said...

"Draft" is the key word, Anit-Wife. That's what tools are for.

Jon M said...

Those pesky tools, I attack the word 'was' perhaps a little too readily.

The picture reminds me of a very unpleasant trip to the dentists!

Robyn said...

Me too, Jon! I just know one of those things is a tooth extractor.

The search tool doesn't really help me; I tend to use the same word, or a derivative, in the same paragraph. He dismounted with a mounting sense of dread, kind of thing. I have to look for those errors myself.

Bernita said...

"Was" has its place, Jon.

Hmmm, I do that too, Robyn.

You two might well be right about ancilliary use. Craftsmen had to multi-task in those days.

writtenwyrdd said...

Then there is the silly mistake of replacing wholesale, and finding simple search strings like "was" replaced in words like "awash" and "swashbuckler." I've done it just recently and lived to regret it.

We all should know better, but sometimes the brain doesn't engage in time...

Dave said...

WW, the technique to search the word "was" without finding "awash" is to place a space before and after the word - " was " .

I use the spellcheck and autocorrect in WORD all the time. I have arthritis in my big fingers and they make lots of silly mistakes that WORD fixes. I can touch both shift keys with one hand, so I love the autocorrect.

But, when I look at Word's green suggestions, it's a toss up, a judgment call. It's up to the writer to use sentence fragments and passive voices or whatever.

Seeley deBorn said...

I had nightmares of little blue 'had's after someone sent my MS back with them all highlighted.

(They had a point and it was terrifying)

ORION said...

I believe conscious repetition is wonderful wonderful wonderful...

mcewen said...

Thank you. A thoroughly useful post.
Best wishes [newbie]

Bernita said...

I'm not advanced enough to make that mistake, WW!

I don't have that excuse for my silly mistakes, Dave. The wavy greens often make me go "huh?"

Another curse of having had certain rules of grammar hammered into one's skull, Seeley.
"Had" is something I have to watch for too.

Indeed it is, Pat! I'm excessively fond of purposeful repetition.

Thank you, McEwen.
Nice to see you.

Absolute Vanilla (and Atyllah) said...

I find I always have to take the pliers to the word "clearly". I suspect we all have "pet" words that creep in way too often. But there's nothing like reading one's work aloud to really find out what needs to go and what can stay. I refuse to be tyrannised by search and find - they can be tiresome twins!

Bernita said...

Reading aloud does help to disconnect us from the spell of our own words, AV.
I suppose having another read aloud might be even better - but difficult to come by.

kmfrontain said...

Good post, Bernita. Search and find, highlighting, colour changing font, or whatever you use to target overuse in writing should be a precision instrument, not a weedwhacker that also cuts the good plants down. Balance is always the key to good writing, and the ability to see when enough weeding is enough.

I disagree about some words being largely invisible however. I don't believe in invisible words. Used often enough, repetitively, with the same syntax before and after, these so called invisible words turn a smooth read into a read filled with burs. An average reader may not notice why some reading material is nicer to read, but it's this ability to alter syntax appropriately that is one reason an author creates a really good story.

But you know I'm a rebel with regards to rules, Bernita. I use saidisms because said is a boring word. Not invisible, just boring. I've done purple and super-humongous sentences. I've used omniscient and semi-omniscient, and first person when lots of persons said first person sucks (and I got a hell of a decent review for my first person experiment--and yes, Loved Him was an experiment). And lastly, I've done plot "no no's" because I don't censor while I write, which makes subbing manuscripts problematic.

So I've seen the disapproval that comes of breaking the "rules. Perhaps this has made me more sensitive to when words need to change and when not in manuscripts not belonging to me. That's why I always say, "if it works, it works" and leave a thing alone. It's also why I welcome discussion from an author. I try to keep my reasons technical rather than based on personal feelings about a subject, but art is about feelings, ain't it? Again a good reason to welcome discussion. :-)

Bernita said...

Oh, Karen, I love the "weedwacker" image!
Perhaps "invisible" isn't the best choice of words, more at "unconscious," perhaps - which ties better with your idea of reader reaction.
I like a few saidisms now and then.
Editing based on technical reasons is the best kind, in my book - then the writer understands, can adjust their style, and, best of all, try to avoid the worst excesses in the future.

kmfrontain said...

Unconscious is a very good way of viewing it, because it's like watching a good actor. You aren't thinking "this is so and so acting" when you watch a good actor on the screen. Maybe at the beginning you do, but not as the movie progresses. You just suspend disbelief and believe in the character. Good writing is like that. It helps a reader suspend disbelief and stay hooked into the story.

kmfrontain said...

You know, discussing this has reminded me I'm a visual reader/writer. I write like I'm a movie director shoving characters around and making changes to a set.

LadyBronco said...

Ugh -

I am prone to 'that-itis'...
when I went back through my MS I about had a coronary at how many times it was used unnecessarily.

Bernita said...

Unless one visualizes a scene - from both the inner and outer perspectives - it's apt to fall pretty flat, I think, Karen.

One of the big advantages of the high-lighting, Lady B, is it forces one to pay attenntion to the repetitions - so one can make a conscious, objective decision whether to delete/ alter or not.