Writing in the Age of e-Books

One of the things I love about science fiction is the ability to explore the unintended consequences of technology, from when things go awry to the ways people apply technology that the designers never intended. Look at the Internet, for example. When its tubes were originally put together nobody ever expected people to download whole movies or watch live streaming video from far-flung corners of the globe.

And now we have another example in the Amazon.com e-book reader, the Kindle.

I’ve not yet had the chance to use a Kindle myself and perhaps other e-book readers have similar functionality (if so, please let me know) but just the other day I discovered this post on the Quill & Quire blog.

It seems some enterprising tech blogger decided to use his Kindle to search for an over-used phrase–“his heart in his mouth”–in Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth and found seventeen instances. If you visit his blog you can find a screen-capture of the search results with the phrase repeated over and over…

Now this fellow, Mark Hurst, probably isn’t the first to do a search like this with an e-book reader to find what an author’s pet clichés are. But his post got me wondering about the unintended consequences of e-books for writers.

I’m not the kind of person who believes that the classic dead-tree variety of book will ever go out of fashion. But I do think that e-books will find a bigger and bigger portion of the book-market sooner rather than later, especially if devices like the Kindle, the iPhone, and people’s everyday PDAs or cell phones begin to really go after e-book functionality. And surely these devices will all have some kind of search function; it is, after all, a pretty basic command.

And will that then mean multitudes of readers begin searching for a writer’s over-used words, phrases, or punctuation? If so, surely those grammar gaffs and word woes will find their way to some forum on the internet–what is the internet for, after all, but making people looking bad anonymously?

Now, this sort of text search already goes on, to some degree. My good friend Patrick McBrine, one of the world’s future foremost Anglo-Saxonists, already uses computerized searches of Old English and Latin texts for words and word-forms to prove his point about poetic intent in the English inheritance of Biblical verse in the medieval period. But that’s literature a thousand or more years old–should we expect scholars of more modern works to begin doing the same thing? Will some enterprising English lit student begin doing keyword searches in an e-book version of Wuthering Heights? I suppose it’s already possible to do just that with the entire catalog of books in the Project Gutenberg archive.

But why would an author care, you might ask? Well, part of being a writer means loving language and desiring to express yourself as accurately and as artfully as possible. Robert J. Sawyer includes on his site an article about the word processor tricks he uses in order search for unnecessary or over-used words, phrases, and punctuation in his own work. I do something similar before I send work out to a market and I bet a lot of other writers do, too.

Fundamentally, none of us want to look stupid. Writers work hard to get their books just right before the public get to read them and nobody likes having it pointed out to them when they’ve fallen short of that goal.

If Ken Follett got wind of this guy’s post I bet he went a bit red in the face and in future work will be very careful not to use “his heart in his mouth” more than one or two times in a book, if at all. And remember this book went through numerous drafts, got past the eyes of an agent, an acquisitions editor, at least one copy-editor, a typesetter, page proofs, and still “his heart in his mouth” repeats seventeen times. But it is not surprising it was missed: Pillars of the Earth is 400 000 words long, four times as long as the typical novel.

But what text search enables is a collapsing of the book down into, say, 85 words that make the author look silly. It’s a technological trick that highlights an inescapable truth: every author has crutch-phrases they overuse. We try to know what we rely too heavily on, avoid them, edit them out, but they’re bound to creep in. They’re a bit like a syntactical fingerprint, which is why sophisticated computer programs can deduce the author of a given work based on their word use and sentence structure in prior works.

Everyone puts words together in their own idiosyncratic way. When you’re committing several hundred thousand words to paper it’s inevitable that you’re going to repeat certain phrases or structures. Once upon a time, in the age of Homer and Virgil, such repetition of stock phrases–epithets–acted as a mnemonic device, a way of ensuring proper poetic meter, and an important, expected element of poetry. Ever read The Odyssey? Count how many times the phrase “the rosy-fingered dawn” appears. After all, any one person only thinks of so many ways of putting words together.

And few people care about this kind of repetition, anyway. Probably it’s only writers and a very small fraction of readers who’d notice or care. Pillars of the Earth still sells 100 000 copies a year some twenty years after its first publication. But the brave new word of keyword searches in e-books is something authors need to consider and one more thing for writers to have hang-ups about as they write and revise.

As for myself, I know that I overuse the em-dash (–) in my writing and do my best to take it out when I revise, using the ‘Find’ command in Word to seek and destroy. Had I bothered to do a keyword search on this blog post, for instance, I would have discovered that I overuse “But”, “And”, and “Now” as the beginnings of sentences in blog posts…

– S.

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