11 February, 2014

Analysing Your Writing

Over the last few years, I've found that writing a novel follows roughly this pattern for me:
  1. Planning - building an idea of characters and settings and plot without the nitty-gritty of details
  2. First draft - a few months of perspiration and terrible writing
  3. First break - a month or so away from the manuscript to clear my head
  4. Read-through - spotting major plot holes, scenes that need removing, adding or expanding...
  5. Second draft - usually takes about the same amount of time as the first draft, completely ripping apart the structure of the novel and making the big changes that are needed. Weeping over the scenes I love but don't work and have to go. Working at the "chapter level".
  6. Second break - a couple of months (possibly) of writing other things and trying to forget I ever wrote a novel
  7. Read-through - spotting any inconsistencies and smaller structural changes needed, thinking about language and style
  8. Third draft - hopefully only taking about half the time as the previous drafts, getting the final structure rooted and working on the story at the "paragraph level" - attempting good writing rather than just adequate plotting
  9. Feedback - getting a few trusted people to read the manuscript and tell me what they think (and reading it again myself)*
  10. Fourth draft - working at the "sentence level": picking better metaphors, removing cliches, cutting awkward phrases etc. This can be a big job, or not much more than a short edit.
  11. Read-through and edit - continuity-checking facts (weather, dates, ages of characters etc.) and trying to eliminate stylistic tics (over-used phrases and adverbs etc.) Working at the level of the word.
*If it's going well, I might get feedback after a second draft, but usually that's too early.

I'm sure with each novel this process will change a little for me, and for other authors it might be different completely. Although this is my ideal, in reality I've written at least seven versions of my novel, The Art of Letting Go - with each version varying from the previous one by a different amount, whether it's massive plot changes, basic edits or the completely re-writing of one particular character.

With The Art of Letting Go being published soon, I've been working on the "word level". Without the benefit of a professional editor, I was wondering whether there was any software that could analyse my writing for me at this stage. There are a few things out there, but none that did exactly what I wanted and so my husband - a software developer - stepped in. He wrote a basic program that could tell me the things I was interested in knowing about my novel. This included:
  • a list of all the adverbs and their frequency
  • a list of all words and their frequency
  • percentage of the novel that is dialogue
  • frequency of short phrases (to check I haven't over-used them)
The most interesting of these was the first. I wanted to make sure I was sparing with my adverbs. Some words that modify verbs aren't so much of a problem - 'not' for example. But it's those words ending in -ly that can ruin good writing. Of these, my most over-used one is 'really'. I'd used this word 162 times in my novel, and without even needing to re-write anything I was able to eliminate 37 of them (nearly a quarter!) straight away as unnecessary. I was also able to get rid of 17% of my 'probably's and 15% of my 'suddenly's (I didn't have many 'suddenly's anyway, but some people would say that even one is too many!)

I'm not going to give you a detailed analysis of everything I discovered about my writing, you'll be pleased to know, (though it may creep into later posts!) but it was an interesting exercise and one that has made my writing tighter in only a couple of hours. I feel much happier about the overall quality of the work, knowing that I've paid attention to details down to this level. How do you edit your own work in detail?

If I was to offer one specific tip for a writer analysing their work in detail today, it would be this: Find every place you've used the word 'really' and see whether you can eliminate it! Happy hunting...


  1. I'm definitely an over user of "really", and probably a lot of other "ly" words....

    1. In talking I use them all the time. I annoy myself!

  2. Are you going to sell this software? (hint hint) I would buy it. I have a list of words that I check for (especially adverbs) but I can't ever be sure I have them all!

    1. At the moment it's very rough. For the adverbs, for example, we got a list of the most common adverbs and looked for them plus any word ending in -ly. This meant words like July and ugly got on the list when they aren't adverbs. It was fine for me, but not a polished piece of software.

      Having said that, Paul did say one day he'll make it into something better so my friends can use it too! So I'll let you know :)

    2. Awesome! I'll look forward to it. :)

  3. I'd be interested in the software, 'really' interested. I think it's brilliant that you can see the pattern for your writing practice that seems to work best for you. In my current work-in-progress I haven't kept to a structure for the drafting / editing, and it shows. When it comes to editing, I benefit from the input of two vocal writing groups and I read the work aloud - a lot!

  4. Your eleven step list puts me to shame! It's very rare that I can make myself go through anything more than two or three times, unless I decide major revisions are needed. And I'm far too indisciplined to work at sentence level, paragraph level etc - if I see something that needs attention, whatever the level, I have to deal with it!

  5. Thanks Derek and billy - it's certainly not a planned structure, more just how it seems to work out for me. If I was good enough to do it in fewer drafts I certainly would! I don't plan to work down from whole structure to individual sentences either - I guess that comes naturally as each stage come together and needs less work.

    I used to work on individual sentences that seemed wrong right from the start of writing something new, only to find I had to cut them out completely later when re-structuring, so I try to let bad writing go for the first draft at least so as not to waste time. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't!

  6. Hi Chloe, and once again I find it educational to follow your posts. It may well be as much to do with what you point out, and what your regular followers have to say, but it makes good reading!
    Now regarding editing. For my own benefit, my system includes leaving my writing aside, also printing it out to edit as hard copy. Printer set to 'draft quality'. Edit, the work and leave it again. I work towards at least four drafts.
    My latest weapon is a well-priced programme called 'Grammarly'. I've written a post about it on my blog. It helps with punctuation, grammar, spelling and plagiarism.
    A good basic tool for catching those damn 'ly' words is to set them up in 'Find' on the MS Word programme. Really! LOL

    1. Loads of people have been blogging about grammerly over the last 6 months. Seems like a good bit of software.

      I was once told that the good writing happens in the fourth or fifth draft - so it sounds as if you're doing it about right!


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