Counting how many times I use REALLY, VERY, WAS, FELT, THOUGHT, and all those other, pesky, weak words.

Photo by Crissy Jarvis on Unsplash

I copied my work-in-progress (a horror novel) into a web app that counts the number of times I used each word. As I expected, words like the, a, and the characters’ names popped up a lot. However . . .

During my initial self-editing process, I had tried to get rid of most of the weak words, you know, the words all those helpful writing websites warn you about. (References below.) Specifically, I tried to reduce the number of times I used:

  • a lot
  • actually
  • basically
  • began
  • believed
  • down
  • felt
  • heard
  • huge
  • just
  • knew
  • large
  • little
  • looked
  • many
  • mostly
  • noticed
  • probably
  • quite
  • ran
  • rather
  • realized
  • really
  • saw
  • seemed
  • some
  • started
  • that
  • then
  • thought
  • totally
  • up
  • very
  • virtually
  • walked
  • was
  • were
  • wondered

For example, if I had a sentence like, “The child walked across the road,” I’d substitute, “The child lurched across the road.” After all, she was a zombie.

For a sentence like, “He felt guilty for missing curfew,” I’d substitute, “He shifted from one foot the the other and fiddled with the buttons on his shirt.”

The results:

My self-editing paid off in some places, but not all. I was left with very few very’s and really no really’s, thought’s, or felt’s. But what verb showed up more frequently than any other? Was it said because the book has plenty of dialogue? Noooo. It was was, to the tune of 1000 repetitions!

Aw, fudge.

That means I was telling instead of showing, or I was using passive voice (gasp!). It wasn’t a pleasant chore, but I went through the manuscript and rewrote a bazillion sentences. I left the was’s in dialogue because people do talk that way. And I left the was’s in minor descriptions: “It was eight o’clock.” But I beefed up the other sentences with stronger, showing verbs.

Instead of, “She was sad,” I’d substitute something like, “Her breath came in hitches. She blew her nose. A minute passed before she spoke again.”

Using a web app to count the number of times I used each word was an eye-opening experience. I recommend trying it:
https://www.online-utility.org/text/frequent_words.jsp
Or a simpler app with shorter results: https://wordcounter.net

And here are three references explaining why we need to curtail the number of weak words we use in our fiction:
https://dianaurban.com/words-you-should-cut-from-your-writing-immediately
https://www.louiseharnbyproofreader.com/blog/filter-words-in-fiction-purposeful-inclusion-and-dramatic-restriction
Lakin, C.S., et al. 5 Editors tackle the 12 Fatal Flaws. Ubiquitous Press, 2015.

Happy writing!

61 thoughts on “Counting how many times I use REALLY, VERY, WAS, FELT, THOUGHT, and all those other, pesky, weak words.

  1. H. L. Mencken, the famous journalist, used to caution new reporters not to use the word “very. “ He instructed them to use the word “damn” in its place, which any editor would quickly remove. Whether Menchen would approve of computer algorithms or not, I can not say. Good for you for finding tools to increase your creativity. You are an inspiration.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. You have cited all the common pitfalls of first books, Priscilla. I also had to eliminate loads of was usages out of my first book. I now look out carefully for them as I go along so that I don’t have to spend hours eliminating them afterwards. We also all have our pet words that we use repeatedly. I try to watch out of those too but they creep in.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Good point that we each have our own pet words. I haven’t figured mine out yet, but I have noticed I use participial phrases frequently. I’ve read that I’m not supposed to do that, but I noticed that Shirley Jackson did, so I’m in good company.:-) Thanks for commenting, Robbie!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. “Was” is such a fundamental word. Did you ever find yourself writing something to replace it that ended up convoluted and vague? I think the ultimate test isn’t how many instances of any particular word we have in our writing, but how smoothly the prose reads. Not arguing with you (well, not really), but I have this urge to quibble writing rules that outlaw specific words. 😉

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Yes, I know you have the urge to quibble writing rules.:-) I think at this stage of my writing journey I need to learn the rules inside and out before I know when it’s appropriate to break them. And as of yesterday, I now officially have a mentor, so I’m hoping with her eyes on my work I’ll get more specific guidance regarding the rules I should follow or break.

      To answer your question, yes, some of my new non-was sentences were awkward, so I went back to the original “was” sentences in those cases.

      I’m so glad you commented, Audrey!

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Definitely the best approach, to learn the rules before bending or breaking them. But since writing is more art than science, some of the rules are more like guidelines. Glad you weren’t put off by my quibbles.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Weak words slip in no matter how long we’ve been writing. They’re like gnats, LOL.
    The longer I write, the more aware I am to avoid them in the process, but I still catch them on read throughs and edits. It sounds like you’re hard at work on your WIP, Priscilla. Wishing you much forward progress!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Back when I taught creative writing, I’d have the occasional student who believed, fiercely, that said was overused. When that involved cutting he said/she said where it was clear that someone was saying something, that worked well, but when they turned themselves inside out finding synonyms for said, it made me want to pull my hair out. If they’d have just left it in there, it would be as invisible and and or but.

    I don’t know that I ever convinced anyone of that, though.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree with you, Ellen. I totally leave my “said”s be. He yelled and she exhorted aren’t the same because you kind of stop and see the dialogue tag when you’re reading instead of the dialogue itself. Thanks for your comment!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. My face is red. If I put this particular post in the word-tallying web app, I’d find a lot of weak words. Then again, I was posting about my fiction writing. My blog has a more laid back, chill, casual tone. Thank you for popping in, Angela!

      Like

    1. I totally think about passive voice during the writing process, and if I can’t think of an alternative on the fly, I leave a marker in the text (like 3 x’s). That way I’m sure to find and fix it (or leave it if that’s best) on the edit.

      Thanks for commenting, Alicia!

      Like

  6. What a great discipline. I always search my finished document for ‘just’ and ‘ly’ – those pesky adverbs!

    Like

  7. The editing nightmare! I’ve never used that site, or any other for word repetition count, but after my first editor gave me a wake up call to all the -ly words I had swimming in my book, I started paying attention. I also cut filter words that escape when i’m drafting and do rewrite a million sentences as well. Thanks for sharing those links, I’m sure going to try them out.

    Liked by 1 person

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