How to Use Word Clouds to Guide Your Revision

We all tend to have our favorite “go to” words that we like to use, but often, we’re not even aware of them. During the revision process, searching out these words and replacing or deleting them can be a challenge when we’re not even sure what they are.

Thankfully, online word cloud programs can help immensely with revising at the sentence level because we can see where our problems are.

There are several free online programs that don’t require a registration and have different features. You can play with them and figure out which one you like the best. For this post, I plugged chapter two of my YA mystery into three of my favorite word cloud programs.

Step #1 – Identifying your Favorite Weak Words

First, choose a story or chapter that you want to revise. I don’t recommend putting in an entire novel. You could, but it might be a little bit overwhelming.

Wordle:  In wordle, the more often a word appears, the bigger it is in the word cloud, which is a great way to find those words you tend to repeat.

In this chapter, the main character’s name is Carter, and his phone is a major part of the plot which is why those words are bigger than anything else. I’m probably not going to revise much for those words.

The words I’m looking for are the words that I don’t need or that tend to hint at “telling” rather than showing.

For example, in this word cloud, the words: know, want, like, get, think, even, and back jump out at me.

I also see one of my favorite words, just. I didn’t know how often I used that word until a writing friend read an earlier novel and pointed out several hundred instances of it. Granted, it was a full length novel, but I tend to overuse it.

Vocab Grabber:

Vocab grabber is nice because the cloud is a neat horizontal square, and it includes every single word in the chapter. You can also sort the words in order from most common to least common.

In this one, the verb have jumps out as the most common word. It’s not a strong verb, so I can definitely go back and revise some of those sentences to tighten them up.

There are also quite a few weaker verbs and filler words on the first two lines that I can look for to revise such as: can, like, about, will, and mean.

Vocab grabber also has a nice feature not available in the others. In the right hand column next to the word cloud, there is a list of sentences from the text you plugged in. If you click on a word in the word cloud, it shows the sentences that word appears in, so you can see instantly how you used it.

Tag Crowd
This cloud was the smallest of all of them, but it has a feature that the others didn’t. You can set it to include the total number of times each word appears. But, it also only shows about 50 words at a time.

Words that jump out of this one that may need revising are: think, looked, and turned.

If I combine all of the words I’ve discovered from each of these word clouds, I have a list of about ten or eleven words that I can look for specifically in my text. This will help guide me in removing repetition, choosing stronger words, and writing tighter sentences.

 Step #2 – Finding your Favorite Words in your Story

You’ve now got a list of words that you tend to repeat, that point to telling rather than showing, or that are weaker. The next step is to open your original Word document where you’ve written your story. Make sure you’re on the “home” tab, and in the top right corner, click on “Find.”

Begin plugging your list of words one at a time into the Find box. Word will highlight each instance, and you can go to the sentences to see if you can replace the word with a stronger one, cut it completely, or tighten up the sentences by rewriting.

 Step #3 – Revising to Remove Repetition and Tighten Sentences

This is the most difficult step because you have to find new words, cut phrases, and do the actual work of tightening up your writing.

For example, I discovered in two short paragraphs that I used the word like or liked three times. That’s too many. So I revised the middle one to appreciated which sounds much better and cuts on the repetition. I probably wouldn’t have found that without using the word cloud strategy.

In another example, Carter is sitting in class when his teacher speaks to him. In the original, I wrote,

“Carter?” He looked up from his notes toward Mr. Hunter.

Three lines later I use the word “look” again, so I revised the first usage of “looked” to:

“Carter?” Mr. Hunter stood at his desk, his phone in his hand. Carter hadn’t even heard it ring.

This is the time-consuming part of revision, but I think you’ll find that it’s worth it, especially if you want to make your writing shine. But, word clouds make the process much easier.

What words do you tend to repeat and have to look for over and over as you revise?

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