Create word clouds with Wordles

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There's the old saying about a picture being worth a thousand words. While the count may not be exact (maybe this picture is worth only 950 words), the idea is still the same: sometimes verbal information can actually be presented better as an image. We've all seen the little charts and graphs they put in the newspaper; they wouldn't be there if they didn't help us to better understand the underlying story.

Word clouds are an interesting way to present data based on how often an item is repeated in a chunk of text. If you were looking at a paragraph, for example, you're going to notice some interesting things about how often terms occur. There will always be a lot of instances of "the" and "and", but once you get past those types of words, you're going to see that keywords for that text tend to appear more often than other words. Your paragraph about widgets will generally feature the word "widget" more times that any garden-variety passage of English prose. When you make a list of the words in that paragraph, and then resize them such that words that appear more frequently are in a larger font than words that you run across at a lower rate, you have an idea of what a word cloud is. You may have even seen them on Flickr or Del.icio.us.

You can generate your own word clouds with Wordles. Enter text into a web form, or even point the tool at a page you've created, and it will generate a word cloud that gives you a visual idea of just what your terms are doing. If you think you've written a page about widgets, but you see "gadgets" as the biggest term in your word cloud, maybe you need to go back and tweak your writing.

Wordles is a free online service. While you can access it with just about any modern web browser, you need to have a recent version of Java (version 5 or 6) on your machine as well to make it work.

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