I just found the 'word frequency' tool in Scrivener's text statistics, but so far all I've done with it is read down the list (it occasionally generates amusing sentences) and check that words like "puissant" haven't started multiplying.

Is there a way to use word frequency data to improve my writing?

  • 4
    It's true obscure words shouldn't be repeated much, but in some cases I'd advise against their use altogether. The problem with puissant is it doesn't sound like its meaning; who would guess it means powerful or potent as opposed to pusillanimous? It's rather like calling a woman pulchritudinous, which (as Steven Pinker noted in A Sense of Style) doesn't sound at all like you're saying she's beautiful.
    – J.G.
    Feb 22, 2018 at 6:39
  • 3
    Another reason for not using obscure words just occurred to me. Audiobooks are very popular now, and obscure words can cause audio problems. Firstly, if it's a word the listener's never heard, not only is the meaning lost, if it has an unusual spelling, they can't easily look it up. And secondly, the narrators themselves often don't look up pronunciations, they just have a crack at it. For a listener who does know the pronunciation, that's grating. And as a writer, you could end up with a poosont judge who's the epitomb of officiousness!
    – GGx
    Feb 22, 2018 at 13:29
  • Miéville was a bit too fond of 'puissant' in The Scar for me (which is where the example came from), but I do adore his vocabulary ;)
    – mkbk
    Feb 23, 2018 at 1:04
  • Personally I enjoy reading novels with obscure words--they add texture and can help differentiate POVs--and while I've come across some unusual pronunciations through librivox it's never bothered me much. Thank you both for your advice though!
    – mkbk
    Feb 23, 2018 at 1:30

2 Answers 2


How to evaluate repeat words:

1. Not all frequencies are created equal.

a, an, the, he said, she said etc ... <- These are fine. They are considered invisible. You can prune them out if you like, but do not need to necessarily.

2. However. Some common words that tend towards becoming frequent, are more problematic.

heard, look, thought/think, smile, nod, knew, understood, etc ... <- these types of words are used heavily by beginners, because they're quick and easy. But, you end up with bobbing heads, smiling at each other, and it's neither realistic nor enjoyable to read about for very long.

2a. Some of these words are simply shortcuts. 'Smile' and 'nod' are examples of shortcuts. In my opinion, these are the written equivalent of an author stammering. (I have too many 'smiles' in my story at the moment.) To say a character 'understood something' or 'realized something' may indicate laziness on the author's part (a shortcut). (It's also telling instead of showing.)

2b. A subset of these are something called filters. Filters are those physical actions that a character does to experience their world.

I can write following, which has two filters (bolded):

Janice heard a car pulling into the driveway. She knew they were here.

Assuming we are in Janice's point of view, we can skip the "Janice heard" and 'She knew.' It goes without saying. We can play with the actual sound instead:

Gravel crunched under tires, a slow sickening sound. They were here.

So, the words heard and knew are filters, because they put a layer between the story and the reader, a bad thing. Sometimes it is appropriate to use these words, but not always. Look for the word frequency of shortcut words and filters.

3. The same thing happens with phrases and gestures. For example: Looking out of windows, pouring some sort of drink, falling to sleep <- These are phrases that are essentially just filling space, giving the characters something meaninglesss to do.

They might be better than nothing, but too much of any of these sorts of meaningless actions becomes a problem.

4. 'ly adverbs' (and too many adjectives) - If scrivener allows, see if you can find all adverbs or all 'ly adverbs.' Also look for adjectives. Yes, we want some, but if you've ever read something with too many you know how annoying they become. Readers lose the story. This is less a case of repeating words, and more a case of relying too heavily on a particular part of speech. (Adverbs can also be seen as a sort of shortcut.)

So, how to use the frequency tool? Scan through your results. If you see something in the list that you didn't realize you were using so heavily, check your document. Play with alternatives for those words. Some can be deleted straight out.

The worst repeats are the ones in the same paragraphs, because the reader brain remembers what was earlier in the paragraph. And so if you use a word later in the paragraph that was also used earlier in the paragraph, it will start to pull the reader out of the story. By the end of the paragraph they may want to throw the book across the room.


You have an excellent answer from @DPT for what to do with the results. Just a few tips that are Scrivener specific:

In the Word Frequency window, you can click on Count to sort them into numerical order. This will help to put all those words like 'I', 'it', 'and', 'she', and so on, to the bottom and allow you to start with the less frequently used words.

Still scan these single words. You can spot spelling mistakes here that you may have missed during the edit.

In the latest version of Scrivener (not sure about earlier versions) you can use the Options in Statistics, and under Word Frequency Options, 'Set List of Words to Ignore' and in there you can add the words mentioned above so they never come up in the stats to begin with.

Finally, I agree with @J.G., use the stats to find and replace obscure words. You're trying to create a picture in the reader's mind. Obscure words muddy the image. For a great example of a literary masterpiece that doesn't resort to anything even close to purple prose to create mastery, read The End of The Affair.

  • Thanks for the Scrivener specific tips--found a 'rampart' that should've been 'rampant' by scanning through the single words. I've read other works by Greene and enjoyed Neil Gaiman's Norse Mythology with its very clear prose, but if 'algid' is chillingly appropriate I'll likely be unable to resist (once).
    – mkbk
    Feb 23, 2018 at 2:04
  • @mkbk Resist! Resist! Don't do it to yourself or your reader! For the love of all that is good and well-written, just say cold! :)
    – GGx
    May 3, 2018 at 17:34
  • @mkbk and I love Gaiman too - haven't read that one, so I will!
    – GGx
    May 3, 2018 at 17:34
  • “Good writers have two things in common: they prefer to be understood rather than admired; and they do not write for knowing and over-acute readers.” ― Friedrich Nietzsche
    – GGx
    May 4, 2018 at 14:45

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