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:
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.
- 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.