Friday, January 1, 2016

Revision Time: Over-Used Words

A popular post from January 2011

We all do it. It's nothing to be ashamed of . . . unless you don't fix it in the revision stage.

What is it? The dreaded repeated word curse. It's dead wood that sucks the life out of your sentences. Pulling out the dead wood of repetition isn't hard, but it does take time.

Doing a search of your document for these is worth the effort. Some of the most common culprits include:

The empty verb/action:
Was
90% of the time, find a stronger verb. And don't resort to passive and other awkward constructions to avoid it.

Another: would
I see this one a lot: Every day, she would make her children their lunches.
Try: Every day she made her children their lunches.

Much cleaner. Also avoid gerunds (was -ing).

Finding fresh ways of showing emotion and small actions and gestures can be hard, so those and other verbs tend to multiply like rabbits if you aren't careful, such as:

look
glanced
thought
realized
began
smile
started


Empty words:
You may find a time where one of these is needed and adds to the work. But those times are rare.

Often, these words are meaningless modifiers. If I say something is "really big," what does that mean? Big compared to what? A boot? A watermelon? A truck?

As a general rule, avoid meaningless modifiers, including:
Just
Only
Actually
Suddenly
Very
Really
Little
A bit

Directionals
Sometimes we go overboard explaining the how and where. When in doubt, cut it. Especially when you have two directionals next to each other (such as "she looked over at her mother").

from
over
at
toward
up
under
around


Other words
The most common extra word I see is that. Sometimes it's needed, such as to clarify which of something. But often, it's just a filler word, such as:

Paula saw that the class was staring at her.

Talk about a weak sentence altogether:
1) Since we're in Paula's head, don't tell us she saw anything; we'll figure out she's the one with the eyeballs.
2) We've got a weak gerund verb with was staring.
3) And then that is shoved in with no purpose.

A stronger sentence: The class stared at Paula.

(Then show her reaction.)

Every writer has their own pet words or phrases, and sometimes they vary from project to project. I've been known to catch myself repeating one word, and then in an attempt to avoid it, I inadvertently find a new favorite word and repeat it realizing what I'm doing.

Several years ago, an editor pointed out the overuse of heart in one of my manuscripts. Puzzled, I almost challenged her. How could I overuse such a specific word and not realize it? I searched the document, and lo and behold, oodles of emotions mentioned the heart in some way.

If my heroine saw the hero, her heart rate sped up. If someone was in pain, their heart thumped against their ribcage. Fear? Heart raced. Heart, heart, heart. I think I took out a good 10 instances in that book.

The Takeaway
Search your work for the most common repetitions. Several writers I know have lists they keep of words to search their manuscripts for. That's a great idea. Cut most of them.

Then have someone else read it for you. I wouldn't have known about heart without someone else catching the repetition. Your readers may find a repeated word you never imagined.

As always, don't even worry about this stuff until the revision stage. Don't paralyze your creative drafting mind by stressing out over repetition. This is for when you put on the editor hat and clean things up.

Just be sure the hat does come out at some point.

For other sneaky self-editing issues see Stephanie Black's great post.

8 comments:

Kimberly said...

Great post! I'm halfway through my rough draft now and can't wait to begin the revision process (I'm weird like that). Thanks for giving me another tool to use.

Susan said...

I love revision too, Kim. Annette, you're always so full of technical knowledge. I love it. Thanks for sharing.

L.T. Elliot said...

I'm bookmarking this post. Seriously. And you're right about Stephanie's post. Smart idea!

Rebecca said...

Great advice! Just like Laura, I'm bookmarking this post.

Michele Holmes said...

This is a great list. I need to tape it between my eyes when I'm writing!

Stephanie Black said...

I bookmarked this post--SO helpful! Sneaky deadwood words always manage to creep into my manuscripts.

And thanks for the mention!

sher said...

Just what I was looking for! I've just started my revision and this is exactly what I needed : )

The Survival Mama said...

By far, THE best revision post I've read. Perfect list for me on my final polish....I never see these words!!

THANK YOU!

The Survival Mama