cj Sez: Like the gremlins of misspellings and typos that show up no matter how many times the document is proofread, beta read, edited, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera, I’m still finding repeated words in my manuscripts.
First drafts are usually full of the words that are top-of-mind, the ones with which we are most familiar. These familiar words allow writers to push through that raggedy first document rather than take time to search our minds or a thesaurus for better ones.
It’s when writers get into the rewrite, rewrite, and rewrite mode that we see how our familiar words/phrases simply can’t live up to the task in our manuscripts. They may rise to the surface as trite or overused once we get into the edit cycles.
My solution is to use Word (or whatever software you’re using) to “Find” how many times you repeat a word. I search my entire manuscript for some word I find too often during a quick review, and then replace or delete (most often delete) the offending repetition. This neat trick often leads to word choice or phrasing improvements that I didn’t see before.
Verbs. I usually start with the things I know I use too often, but one creative writing instructor I know suggests starting with the verbs . . . the “to be” verbs (is, were), but says don’t worry about occasional usage. Next go to active verbs. I find a lot of look, smile, walk, glance, shrug, frown, and variations of each. How many are too many. I suggest that if they begin to annoy you when you see them in the text, there are too many. I also suggest that you read your work out loud. Overused words will jump off the page and bruise your brain. Yaarrgh!
Nouns. Don’t forget to check for nouns. I always find dozens of coffee, latte, mouth, eyes, eyebrows, and hands. I also check for “then” and “while.” When I find a lot of these, I know I have a problem with poor transitions and a lot of complex sentences that tend to slow down the reader.
Adverbs. Several years ago, The Guardian.com* published Elmore Leonard’s ten rules for writers, and his number 4 is about adverbs. Said Leonard: “Never use an adverb to modify the verb "said" . . . he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances ‘full of rape and adverbs’.” (*http://bit.ly/1Xvbg5c )
Mr. Leonard is not alone in offering this advice. That bit about the writer “exposing himself” refers to author intrusion into the reader’s enjoyment of a story. The writer is telling the readers what he/she wants them to know/sense about the character. Writers should never intrude into the reader’s story.
My suggestion: Find a strong verb that doesn’t need an “ly” helper—i.e., instead of “walked heavily,” perhaps “plodded.”
Adjectives. Are your characters often gorgeous, handsome, tall, sexy, ripped; your rooms large, tiny, trashed? Adjectives are important and necessary, but it’s incumbent on writers to find their own unique voice to describe things. Sometimes it’s by omission of the obvious words.
One of my favorite examples is the opening line of “Brave New World” by Aldous Huxley. “A squat, gray building of only thirty-four stories.” By comparison, the reader is able to visualize that all the buildings in Huxley’s new world are skyscraper tall except that particular one. The building is shorter and uglier (squat, gray) than all the others in this bright new world. The line is a promise of extraordinary things that will happen in that odd building.
I find that the more often I search for and delete or replace overused words, the fewer I find because I am learning to recognize my tendency for repetition. Perhaps you will have the same result. What are your favorite overused words? Have you searched for them?
That’s it for this post. You-all guys keep on keeping on, and I’ll try to do the same.
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