Discover Your Word Crushes: What Word Clouds Tell You About Your Writing
One of the best tools for analyzing writing is a concordance—and one of the best concordances out there is Wordle. The picture at the top of this article is, in fact, a Wordle word cloud using all the text from the Writers Don’t Cry columns. Beautiful, isn’t it? The perfect representation of the language I use in this column, with the bigger words being the ones I use most frequently. And I think it evokes exactly what I want it to! Aside from the overuse of the word “one.” And maybe I could cut down on the use of “just,” too. And also, while we’re at it, do I really use “like” that much? I mean seriously: you’d think I use it, like, every sentence or something!
But, back to the topic, aside from being pretty, world clouds are also super useful for writers interested in analyzing their writing. Particularly for those who want to analyze a novel. By looking at the relative size of character names and words you can learn all kinds of things about both your book and your writing style.
Getting Started: Wordify Your Book
Ready to discover your own language habits? Take your work-in-progress or a recently finished project—or even just your blog--and run it through the Wordle machine. Click randomize and fiddle with the controls until it’s in a format you find attractive and readable. Leave this window open for the analysis portion. Later, you can save it to the public gallery, or just use screen capture to save a picture of it, like I did.
How to Analyze Your Word Cloud
Congratulations! You now are the proud owner of a word cloud of your very own. Now, let’s start breaking that beautiful beast down to see what we can learn about your writing.
In most cases, your character names should be the biggest words in a novel-based word cloud. In fact, if any words rival them in size, you may want to consider making friends with a thesaurus! But aside from that, the size of the different character names lets you know roughly how much space each character takes up in the book. This makes it a fantastic way to see the airtime each character is receiving. And if any one character is getting too much or too little exposure—well, you know what to do.
After analyzing the character balance, you can right click on the character names (and place names) to remove them from the cloud. The relative size of the remaining words can tell you a lot about the focus and the balance of your book. For instance, it can tell you if your book is more action (“came,” “went,” “drew”), location (“door,” “house,” “window”), or people oriented (“hand,” “eyes,” “head”). In addition, it can also tell you something about how you handle character interaction—like whether you tend to focus on what your characters are thinking (“thought,” “know,” “head”), seeing (“eyes,” “looked,” “saw”), or feeling (“felt,” “fear,” “love”). Or in dialogue, whether your characters are asking a lot of questions (“asked,” “answered”) or being more commanding (“must,” “now,” “you”).
And of course, I’d be remiss if I failed to note that if any of the large words are generally considered uncommon, you may not want them littering your book. If not, thesauruses are dandy, and so is the backspace key.
Word Clouds Quiz!
To put your word cloud into perspective, I made some word clouds from some popular books throughout the ages—from the 16th century to the modern day. Looking at the word clouds, what can you tell about the stories they're derived from? Can you guess what books these are?
Check back for the answers next Monday! For hints, follow me on Twitter @susanjmorris.
Pssst! Want a hint? Two are Shakespeare, three are recent releases, and the rest are classics.
Bonus Word Cloud
And if all of those were too easy for you, here's one more bonus word cloud as a tie-breaker.