Monday, November 30, 2009

Shiftless Sluggardly Words

It was a busy holiday weekend, but here and there I managed to open up my main KINDRED file and do a bit of spit polish editing. One of the things I saved for last is something I think all writers should do at some point during the editing process, and that's a search and replace for words we know we overuse, or those superfluous words like "really" and "just" and "very" that sneak their way into our manuscripts to water down our prose. I tend toward laziness; it's so much easier to fall back on several comfortable, but imprecise, words rather than hunt for one this is vivid or unusual, or gives a more nuanced spin to whatever I'm trying to convey.

This is especially true when it comes to stage business, or character choreography, or whatever you want to call the process of moving characters physically through scenes. Here are a few of my overused (and lazy) words that I did search/replace for over the holiday weekend:

looked (he/she/I looked)
watched (he/she/I watched)
turned (he/she/I turned)
that (if the sentence reads clearly without it, I nix it)
out of (when "from" would work as well, although in half the cases "out of" stayed). This one I check for brevity's sake, always on the look out for words to trim.
of the (this phrase generally means I've overwritten something. I've written "the X of the Y" instead of just "the Y" or "the X." Sometimes I reworded it altogether with a stronger noun that needed no modifying)
saw (he/she/I saw): I often use this construct when it isn't necessary. Example: "He saw the bird dive bomb the cat." If we are in his POV, then of course "he" saw it. "The bird dive bombed the cat" can suffice. The instances when I chose to leave in the "saw" were mostly in Seona's first person POV. In those cases it had to do with her voice. There's a certain rhythm I try to create with Seona's voice, and sometimes extra word padding contributes to that. For that reason I'll include it, whereas I wouldn't in Ian's more succint voice.

In some cases, changing these words caused me to rewrite the sentence rather than simply replacing Word A for Word B. Invariably I ended with a stronger, and often shorter, sentence. I also recommend reading several paragraphs around the word you've replaced, before moving on, to be sure you haven't unknowingly created an echo of that new word, used a few paragraphs upstream or down.

What words do you tend to overuse? Leave them in the comments section (and get them out of your system for the day!). Maybe you'll mention one I haven't consciously noticed in my own writing, or I've mentioned one for you.


  1. Good work there, Lori. I like hearing about your editing process. I'll have to be sure to include your words in my no-no list. I have a few of my own: Yet, very, truly, that, and (aagggh!), really, and other wordy fillers.

    Some authors have other pet words. One novel I read had the word "tangle" about 10 times - it drove me nuts because it was a good way to express her "tangled" emotions, etc. but it was so overused it lost its punch.

    Back to the old grindstone.

  2. Oh, those pesky pet words:) Which bookful do you want? TFD had too many "unravel, unraveled, unraveling" till the copyeditors had their party:) Am reading through CML and finding "cider-colored" everything. Not sure about TL:) Oh, "unbending" is paramount there. Sigh. I love to find them first and change them so your suggestion here is great:) Happy editing to you!

  3. Depends on the manuscript. :-) Seems like I get going on a word at a certain time and just beat it to death without realizing it. I think I used 'intimate' in several different ways and to mean different things roughly nine billion times in my last MS, but had never really used it before. And not really using it in this one. I've been trying to weed it out of the last one to keep it reasonable!

    I hear from an editor that 'gaze' is always overused...

  4. Carla,

    One of my favorite authors, Ellis Peters, used "suave" and "gloss" a lot, but I don't mind because they aren't words you see so much anymore, especially in physical description of characters.

    I could have also listed "gazed" (as Maisey reminded me in her comment. And "suddenly." Though that one I'm learning to weed out far sooner than the turns and looks.

  5. Laura,

    No doubt I have a pet word in Kindred, but I'm not yet conscious of it. I'm sure to be made aware of it eventually though. :)

    I like "cider-colored." But it would jump out at me if used more than twice, because it's so vivid and unusual. And because it is, it would be hard to not reuse it!

    I've found reading across genres and as many authors as I can is a great antidote for overusing words.

  6. Maisey,

    I should have listed "gaze." I even caught myself replacing some of the "looks" with "gazes." I had better do a search for them now. :)