Eliminating overused words

Overused words will ruin your prose

Every writer has words or phrases that habitually show up in their work. Like a verbal tick, writers insert them without even thinking. They become fillers when we need something in the space, or a crutch when we’re not sure what the character should really be doing. They badger the reader by constantly drawing attention to themselves forcing the reader to examine the box, rather than the story inside. Don’t let overused words ruin your prose.

Identifying an overused wordrepetitive-phrases-pin

I recently finished a book by a well-known author, published with one of the big five, everything we all want to be, and I noticed something strange: the people in this book smiled.

a lot.

They smiled for deception. They smiled sarcastically. They smiled to calm their nerves. They smiled when they wanted to gloat over a victory. They smiled for just about every emotion, except happiness. And just like that mole on the end grandpa’s nose, once I noticed it, I couldn’t stop.

I’m not sure if I noticed it because it was used in such a peculiar way, or because I listened to the book rather than read it. (If you haven’t listened to your WIP read aloud, I highly recommend it. Nothing will point out bad writing faster than having it blared out your laptop’s tinny speaker by that lady who answers the phone for your credit card.)

After noticing this peculiarity, ever time I heard the word smiles, it was like being smacked in the head. It yanked me right out of the story and doused in a mad dose of the giggles. So then I started thinking about it. This person is a well-known author, light years ahead of me, was I just imagining this thing? I had to know.

The Kindle app has the ability to count the specific instances of a word in an MS. I typed “smile” into the find bar. Result: 153. Spread out across a 400-page novel that meant someone smiles on average every two and a half pages, which for some words would not even be noticeable. But these instances weren’t spread evenly through the book. They clustered together appearing as many as four times on a page. Nearly every time two characters interacted, they smiled at each other at some point during the conversation. The smile had become a crutch: a habitual word choice inserted without thought.

Word crutches are something most writers have.

Word crutches appear in places where the inner ear senses something is off in the prose. Either a beat is needed between lines of dialogue, a paragraph is too short, or a non-POV character needs a moment to think about something. These crutches bog down an manuscript and make it feel repetitive, or in the case of this particular book, paint an absurd picture where despite pints of blood and gore everyone is perpetually grinning.

Finding Crutches:

More often than not a good CP will find your crutches. However, they will likely not become apparent until well into the MS. So if you’re only passing out your MS in chunks, you’re missing an important opportunity.

Scrivener also has a built in text analysis tool. Select a document. Project> text statistics. You can even organize the list by frequency.

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If you are working in Word, you can run your text through edit minion, or pro writing aid, which will also give you some other interesting nuggets, like passive sentences and cliché alerts.

Once you’ve analyzed your text and found a few candidates, do a “find” in your word processor (I used Word. If anyone knows how to make Scrivener display the number of matches without replacing the word, please let me know) Be sure to click the “find whole word” otherwise it will include all the instances where your word appears as part of another word e.g. “port” in “support” Although you may have to run the search twice to account for plurals or verb tense.

Let’s take a look at a few examples from my MS.

Ex. 1 Mouth.

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85 This is a maybe. This isn’t a romance, so this seems like an excessive use of a word that doesn’t come up much in daily conversation. I’m going to go back and make sure that it isn’t being used in the same way, or in some strange way that draws attention to itself.

Ex. 2 Eyes

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272 This one is definitely a problem. I noticed it originally in my first draft. My supposedly adult MC was constantly rolling her eyes, which made her come off as a snot-nosed tweenager. But it looks like my characters are still spending too much time staring at each other.

Another good one to search for is “look,” since this can indicate you have too much telling in your descriptions. Also, consider doing a was/is search to find passive sentences that could be rewritten in active voice.

But wait, I have 5000 “The’s.”

Little words that are used frequently in daily conversation get a free pass e.g. articles the, a, an, common pronouns, and even the dialogue tag said disappear on the page. And to some extent other frequently used words. The opposite is also true. The more unusual the word, the more your reader’s ear will pick it out. The same goes for words that evoke a strong reaction. How may times do you think your MC can use vomit before it begins to sound stale?

Can I just fix it with a thesaurus?

Probably not. Simply subbing one word for another will not fix an action that has become habitual in your manuscript. If I change half the “shifted his eyes” to “shifted his gaze,” it isn’t going to change the underlying problem that my characters are standing around staring at each other. The crutch word is just the symptom. If I fix the real problem: my characters need to be doing more, the crutch word will disappear on its own.

The next time you read through your MS look out for habitual phrases, actions, and overused words. Taking time to eliminate these from your prose will keep it feeling fresh through the entire story.

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