Do ‘autocritters’ help?
I’m on the final hurdle of the editing marathon for my latest novel, “Starheart”, the copy edit. I’m not a great adherent of the “Rules of Writing” as I’m sure some of you know. But on a whim I decided to test my MS against an ‘autocritter’. They come under various names and are easy enough to find. Software which sucks in your manuscript, breaks out every word, and comes back with a list of how many times you used what.
The software I used is available at Savvy Authors, an energetic and helpful web-based writers’ site. Basic membership is free for those interested. Anyway, this package prepares a report after it has done its thing. The user is told that “All percentages are based upon industry averages for mass market fiction.”
These are my initial results for Starheart
The software also listed the number of times every word occurred, but I haven’t shown those results. This table is worth considering because it purports to give a comparison against ‘industry standards’. So what does it tell me?
I don’t use exclamation marks (yay me!) and I’m okay on a few others, according to whoever came up with the recommended maxima. But overall, I guess you’d have to call it a fail. Let’s see, now.
I overused ‘all’. I checked by using ‘find’ to read each one in context. And yes, I agree I had many instances of ‘nothing’ expressions such as ‘after all’ and ‘at all’.
I was astounded at how many times I’d used the ‘as…as’ construction, such as ‘as fast as’, ‘as soon as’ and so on. I managed to replace quite a few of those with words like ‘immediately’. But here we hit a problem. If I use ‘immediately’, I introduce an adverb, something this software does not detect and which (according to the Rules of Writing) should be used sparingly (sic). I found that quite often, ‘as’ occured in a construction such as ‘“where are we going?” she asked as they walked down the corridor.’ Now, I could replace that fragment with ‘Walking down the corridor, she asked, “where are we going?”’ Having been guilty of overusing ‘…ing’ words in the past, I’m careful with them. Besides, to me the meaning isn’t quite the same.
I suspect the main reason for the objection to ‘could’ is that it is often used in constructions like ‘could see’ when one is in a character’s POV, for instance, ‘in the distance she could see a train’. It’s not needed. Just tell the reader what the character saw. ‘A train meandered through the valley far below.’ But ‘could’ is a perfectly legitimate word in many other cases. For instance ‘Even her security couldn’t beat one of those.’
These can often be ‘nothing’ words. Eg ‘Let’s go, then’. ‘I don’t want to air the whole ship up just for a quick visit.’ I did go through and eliminate many instances of these two words.
I can never use those words? Never? Oh, bummer. I have keys to locks, keypads. Jess only wants calls directed if they’re important. ‘He didn’t think it important, but Longford clearly did.’ I think I’ll ignore that one.
I was fascinated to read that the count for ‘so/very/really’ was zero. Certainly I checked for ‘very’ and often I could eliminate the word. But I did not remove it from dialogue, because that’s how people talk. And ‘so’? The word is not always used in the context of ‘so fast’, or ‘so slow’, it can be in context such as ‘So that’s what you meant?’ Why would you eliminate the word there?
The word ‘really’ isn’t always used as a nothing adverb, as in ‘really quickly’. Take this example; “So you believe what she’s saying? Really?”
The implication here is that these words are unnecessary if you’re in a character’s POV. For example, ‘What the hell am I doing here, she thought.’ This is true and I take care not to use such constructions. However, I do use lines like this. “By the way, I thought the strip search was foolishness. But it’s not my command.” It’s in dialogue. Another example – ‘it would be interesting to find out what everybody else thought.’
Here again, I suspect this is mainly aimed at cases where the narrator intrudes, as in ‘she could see the train in the distance’. But what about “See what you can find out.” Or ‘Nothing to see.’ And dare I say, ‘saw’ might just be a crosscut saw (though not in this story).
I passed this one with flying colours. Here again, I think it’s about POV, the ‘could smell’ or ‘could taste’ construction. ‘She could smell something rotten.’ So much better to write ‘the stench of decay invaded her nostrils’.
It’s always wise to check for ‘that’. It can be used as a ‘nothing’ word as in ‘so that‘. The word isn’t needed in this context. You might also be able to appease the software by replacing that with which.
My favourites in this category are ‘there was/were’. You can almost always find a better way of expressing this. For example ‘There were thirty levels on this thing.’ ‘This thing had thirty levels.’ Well worth a check.
I seem to have overused these rather a lot. I’ll read through the MS and see what I think as I go. Again, I suspect this is a warning about POV and of using passive language. Why say ‘was walking’ when you can say ‘walked’? But while I’m checking, I’ll bear in mind that passive voice is perfectly legitimate in some circumstances, it’s preferable since it slows the action. And then there’s dialogue. It’s how people talk.
So there you have it. Is this type of software worthwhile? Yes it is. Anything that makes a writer think about his/her MS in a different way is useful. However, it is just one snapshot, a two-dimensional view of a complex object. I feel if you take these ‘rules’ too far, you’ll lose your own, distinctive voice. So take what is of value to you, and ignore the rest. I’m re-reading Terry Pratchett’s ‘Going Postal’ at the moment. It occurred to me, as I read, this award-winning, hugely popular author would fail the Autocritter, every time.
What about you? Do you use these tools? Do you find them helpful? I’d love to know.