Monthly Archives: June 2011

Word Counter

One of my favorite writing tools is Word Counter 2.1, from Supermagnus Software.

http://www.supermagnus.com/mac/Word_Counter/

The price? Free. The value? To quote a popular credit card company, “Priceless.”

If you’re like most of my students, you’re asking yourself, “Doesn’t every word processor include a word count function? What’s the big deal?”

Yes, most editing and word processing applications do count words, sentences, and paragraphs. However, I’m more interested in two features that are either incomplete or missing from word processors and layout applications: word frequency counts and readability analyses. Again, most applications provide at least the ability to create these reports, but none of them match the speed or ease of Word Counter.

There are several reason I use Word Counter:

  • Not every text editor I use provides real-time word counts;
  • Word counts are curiously inaccurate within some applications;
  • Macros for Word that provide frequency counts are painfully slow with long documents; and
  • Readability statistics from within programs are limited to one or two methodologies.

The application website explains Word Counter’s basic functions:

About Word Counter

Word Counter is a Macintosh OS X application that performs a word count and a character count, but it can do much more. It can be used independently or in conjunction with other applications such as TextEdit, Microsoft Word, Pages, TextWrangler, and others.

Word Counter can automatically update the count based on a user-defined time interval. It can show the progress achieved towards a set goal for the total number of words and characters. It also can perform bulk counts on multiple files and folders simply by dropping them onto the window. Word Counter can count the number of times a particular word appears in a document. It can even create a sortable summary table of all words in the document, with the number of times each word appears and the length of each word. Word Counter can also calculate estimates for readability statistics using the well known Flesch-Kincaid readability formula and many others.

Word Counter can handle various file types including plain text (txt, text), rich text (rtf, rtfd), Hypertext Markup Language (htm, html), Microsoft Word (doc), Microsoft Word XML (wordml), Apple’s web archive (webarchive), the Adobe Portable Document Format (pdf), and others. This program may be useful for writing a manuscript or an abstract with a strict limit on the number of words or characters allowed.

I do not live in Microsoft Word, though it is one of my primary tools. I write most drafts of documents in Scrivener (see my overview of Scrivener). Scrivener has excellent word count and document length “target” features, far better than those of Word, but I have had some minor issues with its Project > Text Statistics function. Don’t misunderstand, I consider Scrivener to be as close to ideal a writing environment as exists, though the menu structure can be a pain to navigate. Enough about Scrivener. Try it (and buy it) if you don’t already use it.

Since I create documents in Scrivener, Final Draft, Movie Magic Screenwriter, InDesign, Dreamweaver, and a half-dozen other applications, it is great to have a single application to generate word count and readability stats. Most of my documents are eventually “printed” to Adobe PDF files. Word Counter will analyze a PDF or even a folder filled with PDFs in mere seconds. I’ve had Word Counter analyze 45 files, all very long documents, in under a minute.

Most of my students aspire to being professional writers or designers. Some writers, including me, accept jobs that pay by the word. A good, indisputable word count is important so clients can’t argue with the billing statement. Word Counter is definitely the most accurate counting system I’ve used. For example, is “J.C. Smith” one word, two words, or three? One of my clients would argue it is one word and I can set Word Counter’s preferences for that standard.

In Word Counter’s preferences, I can tell the application to count only words with two or more letters. I can tell it that hyphenated words are one word or that Word Counter should consider each segment as a word. Is an email address one or more words, since there is at least one punctuation mark (the @ sign)? You can even create an “exceptions” list to exclude minor words from counts. Yes, some publishers do not pay you for a, and, an, the, and similar words.

Another tangent. I would rather bill by the hour, since research and document design can take as long as the writing and editing. Friendly advice to writers: avoid per-word payments except for simple assignments with minimal research and design requirements.

Word Frequencies

Counts are great, but my primary reason for using Word Counter is its Word Frequencies function. When we speak and write, most of us have definite patterns of word usage. My writing patterns include several problem words and phrases that I overuse. Examples include any, every, just, and so. I have a long list of adverbs I’d like to remove from my writing. By obtaining a report of how often words appear in a text, I can revise the text to reduce the counts of problem words.

The Supermagnus website explains its frequency function:

Word Frequencies

Word Counter also provides an interesting feature that summarizes the frequency of every word in a document.

To use the frequency option, the document to be summarized must be open in either the main Word Counter window or in the TextEdit window (depending on the current data source for the counts). The Word Frequency window can be accessed from the main menu. Press the Count button to begin the analysis. Once the count is complete, Word Counter will display every word that appears in the document as well as how many times each word appears and how long each word is. Columns can be sorted by clicking on the column name/column header. This can be useful if you want to know how many words longer than 10 characters you are using, or to see if your choice of words may be repetitive.

My students tend to doubt their writings reflect personal patterns. Word Counter enables me to quickly and easily demonstrate to students their patterns. I can generate the Word Counter frequency report and email a copy to the student author of a project. Students are surprised to see how predictable writing patterns are. A student using “however” six times per page in one paper is likely to repeat the pattern in another.

Readability

The final feature of Word Counter I want to highlight is its Readability Statistic reporting. Yes, Word generates some basic readability statistics, but nothing I’ve seen matches what Word Counter reports. The report from Word Counter includes more than 40 statics, including more than a dozen “grade level” calculations. As a writing instructor, this is wonderful.

When writing for some audiences, the text cannot be too complex. When I explain to students that writing at a college level is not always desirable, they are stunned. But, it is logical that some writing needs to be simplified. Legal warnings, for example, must have a high probability of being read and understood by the majority of consumers. Courts have used readability calculations to determine if instructions and warnings were dangerously complex.

The Word Counter website explains its Readability Statistics function:

>> Readability Statistics

Word Counter can provide various statistics to help judge the readability of text.

Many formulas exist to judge readability and caution must be exercised when applying a readability test to a document. Some tests are more appropriate for certain types of documents and it is important to think carefully when choosing a test. Some tests are better for text written at a grade school level, some are better for technical manuals, and some are considered flexible enough to judge the readability of almost any type of text.

Word Counter makes estimates for various elements of the text including the number of syllables and number of sentences. These estimates might deviate from counts done manually. In addition, even though many of the readability scores require a short passage of around 100 words, Word Counter will make its estimates based on the entire text. This should help average out any of the discrepancies in the estimates. In testing Word Counter and comparing the results to other online tools, some of the estimates were found to vary widely, probably because of differing underlying computer algorithms to make the estimates.

Keep in mind that all of the measures are simply standardized ways to judge the readability of text and none are perfect, and their pros and cons have been debated for years. A 1939 article by Irving Lorge in The Elementary English Reviewappropriately states: “It seems reasonable to conclude that reading difficulty is a difficult criterion to define.” If you would like to learn more about readability, there are multiple online references describing these measures and the appropriate uses for them. A very good reference is The Principles of Readability, by William H. DuBay.

Along with Grammarian Pro and Scrivener, Word Counter is a tool I recommend to professional writers, students, and writing instructors. Best of all, it is a free tool (donations accepted).

The Purdue Online Writing Lab

The Online Writing Lab (OWL) at Purdue University (http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/) is one of the two websites I check when I have a writing related question. The other is the Tameri Guide, of course, since Susan and I tend to add content to Tameri based on our experiences writing and teaching. I am a bit envious of the great content on Purdue OWL, though. It is probably the best academic writing site on the Web.

Recently the OWL began adding slide shows, movies, and podcasts for students and teachers. The MLA and APA citation guides were already invaluable, but I’ve started to accept that students want content in digital form.

The podcasts’ content focuses on rhetorical concepts. Because students struggle with ethos, pathos, logos, and kairos, any additional explanations are helpful. I’m for anything that helps students sort through the complicated textbook definitions of these concepts.

For a few years the OWL has been adding PowerPoint presentations on a range of writing topics. I’m not a fan of PowerPoint; slides are best used to introduce topics. Slides, by their nature, are superficial and should be accompanied by further reading and discussion. Still, the slides help students focus on key topics and concepts they should remember. The long list of available presentations is impressive and I do encourage teachers and students to browse the OWL library.

The OWL movies focus on visual rhetoric, but they too can be useful for writers. Unless we’re discussing audiobooks, most of our words appear on pages or screens. Design affects the perceptions of texts, including how seriously a reader approaches the words. The OWL movies are a good starting point for discussions of visual rhetoric.

For the basics of academic writing, you won’t find many resources equal to the OWL. Again, the website is:

http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/

What I Want in a Story

When I read a story, I’m a “journey” reader. I want to read the “hero’s journey” or the “personal journey” story. I’m starting to believe more novelists and short story authors should read screenwriting books. Too many novels are poorly paced, with no compelling character development. I’ve admitted that I’m not a literary reader. Give me a fun story.

I am not every reader, but if you look at book sales the ones that are chart toppers are the ones with great character development. Young adult literature authors are particularly aware of the need to tell compelling journey tales.

If you aren’t familiar with the journey structure, read about screenwriting. Why do I suggest screenwriting books? Because they are about structure: Hollywood readers reject scripts that don’t follow standardized structures. In feature film scripts, the mythic journey is a standard formula. In screenwriting, the journey goes by many names with slightly different models, but these differences aren’t nearly as substantial as their proponents claim.

Chris Huntley, author of the essay “How and Why Dramatica is Different,” describes six popular “journey” models in these words:

  • Syd Field describes a dramatic structure he calls The Paradigm, which is a plot structure with a Main Character woven in.
  • Michael Hauge describes two throughlines as the Outer Journey (plot) and the Inner Journey (journey to fulfillment for the Hero).
  • Robert McKee describes two throughlines blended together—collectively called The Quest and the Central Plot.
  • Linda Seger describes an “A Story” or “story spine” as the major thread of a story coupled with Main Character development.
  • John Truby describes two throughlines blended together in his “22 Building Blocks” of story (which is an expansion of his 7 Major Steps in Classic Structure). These two throughlines are similar to Vogler’s hero’s inner and outer journeys.
  • Christopher Vogler describes two throughlines as the Hero’s Journey and the Hero’s Inner Journey.

My point is that blockbuster films (as opposed to art films or experimental films) are generally stories about personal development and discovery. There is a clear plot “spine” of events in a main character’s life upon which the story is constructed. The story is about a person becoming something, someone, different.

I’m not suggesting any one screenwriting book over another. I have a shelf of them. Read them all. I also recommend reading blogs by screenwriters and every screenwriting magazine (all two or three of them) you can locate in a bookstore.

In a future blog entry I will explain why the journey model is such a compelling model for mass market novels.