As I try to wrap my head around the loss of my friend and mentor, former publisher Carolyn Hayes Uber, and attempt to describe her influence, her persona, her life, I am struck by a remark I heard just today that helps put everything in perspective. And the fact that this remark mentions a common editing term (the dash), is serendipitous. Carolyn would be tickled.
In the documentary Into the Abyss, director Werner Herzog interviews Fred Allen, who explains his role in executions as the former captain of the Death House team at the Polunsky prison unit in Livingston, Texas. Allen is clearly conflicted (eventually resigning his post), as he sees the lives of inmates reduced to numbers: 1954 – 2011, for example. He realizes and explains, quite eloquently, that our lives are not reflected in a birthdate or date of passing, but the dash in between. (Granted, it’s really a hyphen, but I’m not here to edit today.) Mr. Allen then asks, How are you going to live your dash?
Which brings me back to Carolyn, who lived her dash with courage and strength and humor and love. So for Carolyn and my father and my “adopted” mother Patricia and other dear friends who are no longer here, I will live my dash, really live it… bravely, respectfully, happily. I hope you will, too.
As I’ve mentioned before, writers have a tendency to rely on favorite words and phrases … often without even knowing it. Maybe it’s considered part of your style or personality, but from an editor’s standpoint (who advocates for the reader), these “catch phrases” can become annoying and distracting.
Because I’m being objective and looking at a manuscript with fresh eyes, I can easily see the repeated words (and can make suggestions or revisions). I can search for how often the word or words have been used. But you can’t do this, because you don’t know what you’re looking for! It’s like looking up the correct spelling of a word in the dictionary … when you don’t know how to spell it.
But now there’s help. Word clouds. Thanks to an attendee at my recent writing workshop, I learned of an amazing tool to self-regulate your pet prose. There are many Word Cloud programs available, which take your text and visualize your repeated words. I found one, TagCrowd, which not only creates a very cool image of the words you use most frequently, but it can also tell you how many times you’ve used them.
I worried for a minute that I was shooting myself in the foot by revealing this trick of the trade, but then I realized, if I can help one memoirist from repeating “I remember when,” one mystery writer from abusing “He couldn’t help but notice,” or any number of storytellers from plastering “In fact,” “Of course,” “That being said,” it will be worth it. I’m sure I’ll still have plenty of work to do.