Writing & Editing: Find & Eliminate Words You Overuse

All writers have our pet set of words that we use over and over again. It’s fine to write them in your first draft, but make sure you seek them out and eliminate them before you turn in your final copy.

As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, “The Writing Process: Find & Eliminate Stupid Words“, I’m working on editing a paranormal thriller novel, and I figured I would share some of the things I’m looking for in this week’s blog posts. Yesterday, I posted my working prologue before any of these edits. At the end of the week, I will post the prologue after the edits.

Today’s editing directive: seek out and eliminate words that we overuse.

In a short story, we might be able to get away with using our favorite words at least once or twice, but not so in a novel. I still remember when my friend and highly important advance reader, Jill Bond, made a ticker sheet of the words I used too much in my second novel, Out of the Shadows. We discovered that my main character, Davian, crossed his arms at least once every 3 pages, and he glared every 4. In fact, most of my characters glared at least once every 10. It was a frustrating, yet imperative lesson for me, and because of it, I created a list of words that I use far too much. Before I turn anything in, I use Word’s Find/Replace function to seek them out and murder them. Here is my personal list:

Dialogue Tags: Most editors will say that we ought to use “said” and not worry about how often we use it. Using other dialogue tags muddies up your prose. The reader will skip over “said’s” without really registering it, so they aren’t a problem. However, sometimes the character is yelling or whispering, or muttering–something that is different from the tone of the rest of the conversation. Those times call for a separate word. Many of my stories feature men in battle. This means lots of yelling, sarcasm, muttering, and grunting. Because of that, I overuse these words:

  • Yell
  • Mumble
  • Mutter

Character Gestures & Verbs: I also have a few character motions and pet verbs that have no redeeming value that I overuse.

  • Manage (In a first draft, my characters usually “manage to clime the tree” or “manage to find the hidden portal.” In fact, they do so much managing you would think they were CEO’s.
  • Crossed his arms: They do this all the time. They really need to be more creative… 😉

Facial Expressions: I’m a big believer in body language. Unfortunately, my characters faces often to most of the talking instead of their bodies. This is a problem because it makes it easy for me to be lazy and tell instead of show. Here are my character’s favorite facial expressions.

  • Smile
  • Frown
  • Sigh
  • Glare
  • Eye (as in, “He eyed the intruder and watched him carefully.”)

I have a typed, one page mini-thesaurus that I created to help me deal with these annoying, overused words. For instance, I have listed for alternate words for “yell”: Shout, Cry out, Howl, Scream, Shriek, Screech, Squeal, Roar, Bawl, Whoop, Holler, Bellow. Because it’s only one page, I can find synonyms quickly instead of typing the word into an app or thumbing through my handy-dandy Webster’s thesaurus. It makes the editing process quicker, which is important when you are editing an 80,000 word novel.

Note: Don’t just pick a synonym out of a thesaurus because you are exhausted and tired of dealing with words. Pay attention to a word’s connotation and the character who will be performing said word. Davian doesn’t shriek, squeal, or bawl. He’s a man’a man. He will shout, roar, holler, or bellow. And if I use up all those words in a scene, then I’m overdoing it.

In the prologue I’m working on, I made these changes as a result of searching for the above words:

  • “’No priests,’ muttered Gustave. He might have deserved absolution for his sins before the attacks, but not now.” This is a classic example of how using “muttered” can tell instead of show. I wanted the reader to understand Gustave’s guilt. I hear him muttering in my head, but that’s not the important part of this sentence. It’s the guilt he feels that causes him to mutter. If I can increase the reader’s understanding of the guilt by showing it, the reader will hear the mutter on his own. Changed to: “Gustave stared at the ground, still refusing to look the marquis in the eye. ‘No priests.’ He might have deserved absolution for his sins before the attacks, but not now.” Note that I don’t need a dialogue tag because the reader knows Gustave is talking. (Writing tip: Combining character action with dialogue eliminates the need for “said,” and it keeps your scene moving.)
  • Yesterday, I changed this sentence because of the “had been.” I also attacked the “eyeing” verb that I know I overuse: “The marquis had been eyeing him strangely for the past four months.” Changed to “The marquis’ gaze had often fallen on Gustave for the past four months.” I’m not 100% happy with it, but it’s a good start.

I realize that this doesn’t look like a lot of changes. I have been using this list for so long, that my mind automatically forces me to change “smile” and “frown” to something that shows instead of tells when I write my initial draft. Here are some sentences that I already changed before I reached this stage:

  • “Only one man refused to share the crowd’s joy. Gustave Géroux leaned against the tavern wall with his hands thrust in his coat pockets.” Much better than frowning, eh?
  • “The marquis snatched the note out of his hands and read it. ‘La Ténazeyre forest? Interesting. The same forest where the wolf was shot. Appropriate, don’t you think?'” Again, no mentioning of frowning is necessary. The use of “snatch” and the obvious sarcasm with “Appropriate, don’t you think?” let’s the audience visualize the marquis’ face without me spelling it out.

Stay tuned for tomorrow’s post on overused words and phrases that all authors fall victim to!

Fantasy novelist M. B. Weston is the author of The Elysian Chronicles, a fantasy series about guardian angel warfare and treason. Weston speaks to children, teens, and adults about writing and the process of getting published. For more information on M. B. Weston, visit www.mbweston.com. Find out more about The Elysian Chronicles at www.elysianchronicles.com.

About M. B. Weston

M. B. Weston is an award-winning fantasy, pulp, young adult, steampunk, and paranormal author. Her attention to procedure and detail gives her works an authentic gritty, military feel that takes an adventure tale to the level of a true page-turner. Weston’s writing attracts both fantasy and non-fantasy readers, and her audience ranges from upper-elementary students to adults. A gifted orator, Weston has been invited as a guest speaker to numerous writing and science fiction/fantasy panels at conventions across the US, including DragonCon, BabelCon, NecronomiCon, and Alabama Phoenix Festival. She has served on panels with such authors as Sherrilyn Kenyon, J. F. Lewis, Todd McCaffrey, and Jonathan Maberry. Weston has spoken to thousands of students and adults about the craft of writing and has been invited as the keynote speaker at youth camps and at several schools throughout the US.
This entry was posted in Editing Your Work, The World of Writing, The Writing Process and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Writing & Editing: Find & Eliminate Words You Overuse

  1. I never thought before to make a list of over used words in my writing. It’s a great idea, thanks. I know that for me, the word “had” is almost a crutch. It crops up everywhere and makes my writing passive. I try to avoid using it unless absolutely necessary, but still find it sneaking its way into my writing. Also, a lot of my characters do things “indignantly”, like speaking, muttering sniffing, huffing and puffing, even, yes, crossing arms.
    Also, I’m curious what you think about hiring proof readers. I’ve recently found one online, but am a bit leery about the professional status of this individual, and whether or not it’s actually worth my time and precious little money.


    • M. B. Weston says:

      I would be nervous about hiring someone to proofread your writing unless you are sure he or she is good at it. I would check references before committing to anything.

      However, it might be more cost effective to find a critique group. Then you aren’t paying money and several other people are looking over your work. I’ve also found that several people who love to read would jump at the chance to read your novel for free, as long as you promise them a free copy of it when you get published. 🙂


      • Thank you for the advice. I really appreciate it. I’ll definitely look into a critique group.


      • M. B. Weston says:

        No problem! The other thing I have discovered is that you want to aim for making sure readers like your work more than aiming for writers liking your work. We writers can get much to hung up on the nitty-gritty. Readers see past so much of that and concentrate on the story. A person who loves to read is a better test subject. (You still need writers to give you critique, but concentrate most on what your readers have to say.)


      • I see. It makes sense. I know I somehow manage to pick apart every story I read, without even thinking about it. Thank you, again, and so very much, for the advice. Writing is a lonely world, and living in a small town like I do, meeting other writers is hard to do. There aren’t many resources or groups for writers in the area. It’s nice to get perspective from someone who knows about the craft.
        Oh, and I wanted to wish you luck with your latest novel. =]


      • M. B. Weston says:

        Thanks! I probably could use your advice on that. Paranormal is out of my league…

        I live in a smaller town too. It’s difficult to find other writers, and even more difficult to get the people who know you to understand why you can’t always come out to play…


      • Well if you have any questions feel free to contact me. I’m not entirely sure how much help I’ll be, since I’ve only been at this a few years. I’m still relatively new to the world of writing. But I’d love an opportunity to check out some of your work.
        But, I gotta log off and get some writing done for the day. I’m sure we’ll hear from each other soon. =]


  2. Barbara says:

    Try an online writing critique group for free. Check out Critique Circle.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s