Paring down your prose is immensely satisfying—it makes images and turns of phrase come alive, and it helps clarify your meaning, too.
Finding ways to trim what you’ve written is drudgery, but macros can help you by automating part of this process. In her post a couple of weeks ago, Corina mentioned three macros that are especially helpful to writers: NeedlessWords, TellingWords, and -ly Words.
Get a snapshot of your writing habits
These macros locate and highlight potential offenders—words that clutter your writing and cloud your meaning. They’re easy to use and can be adapted and tweaked to suit your task. I love them because they provide a rudimentary data visualization of your personal writing ticks: they show (don’t tell!) you exactly where your bad habits reside.
Give them a try—if you need help adding a macro to Word, you’ll find it here. To run a macro in Word, you’ll find instructions here. If you have 20 minutes to spare, this free 20-minute macro course will have you up and running with macros in no time.
What to do with highlighted text
So, you’ve run the macro and all the possible culprits are magically revealed on the screen before you. What’s next?
The macros have done their part—now you have to apply your own sweat. You need to look at the highlighted words and assess them, one by one. Here’s a preview of what your decision-making process might look like for the three macros I’ve mentioned.
Needless words are the words you can eliminate without changing your meaning. Words like that, which, to, in order, really, very, barely—in short, many prepositions, adverbs and adjectives—that stand in the way of what you’re trying to say.
Which words are needless?
In this sample text, you can easily see which words could go and which need to stay. I need to keep begin but can do without then, almost, just and just. (Who knew that I just love the word just?) These words cause drag in the writing: they qualify, delay and postpone the point I’m trying to make.
The other highlighted words need to stay to make the sentences they’re in grammatical. The macro can’t identify what part of speech a word is acting as—that’s your job.
The -ly words can be a pox on your dialogue: “He said sadly,” “she replied enthusiastically,” “they chirped boisterously.” And when you’re trying to bang out a quick first draft, these adverbs appear fast and furious, both in your dialogue and in straight narrative. Here are two sample passages with some -ly words highlighted:
The -ly words in the sample below, however, should be zapped. Adding adverbs to dialogue tags almost always results in flat, inanimate speech.
Telling words are different than needless words and -ly words—they provide a broader diagnosis. A cluster of these words is a symptom that you might be doing a lot of telling, and eliminating them one by one won’t solve your problem. Here’s an example:
Telling words appear most often in narrative passages, in which writers are trying to fill in story gaps or provide background information. The telling words macro can act as a red flag: if you see too many telling words, ask yourself if the narrative has become boring or flat. And if it has? This could be a good place to switch to dialogue.
What stage of writing is best for using a macro?
Most writers actively suppress their inner editor during a draft, and plenty of writing advice also recommends writing a first draft quickly and paying little attention to details like word choice. Writing macros come in handy at the end of this stage, and point to areas that will need more attention.
You can also run a writing macro when you’ve completed two or three chapters, to point out some of your writing habits. And they’re also useful in later stages, if you’re trying to reduce your word count. In other words, run them any time you want an objective snapshot of your style and habits.
Finally, many of the words targeted by these macros are needed, but maybe they are not needed as often as you think! Rhythm, pacing, tone, voice—these aspects of your writing make it distinctive and interesting, and you don’t want to strip that away for the sake of efficiency. And whether a word should be excised also depends on your audience, subject, genre and purpose.
Macros won’t fix your writing. That’s up to you. What they will do is point out what you should be thinking about—they’ll help you switch off autopilot, and that’s an enormous first step.
Image by ProAdventure
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