As part of the groundwork for their publication of the upcoming “One More Day” anthology and my debut novel “Inspired”, J. Taylor Publishing sent me a manuscript preparation guide – i.e., a checklist to help me line-edit my story to their tiptop satisfaction. One of my first tasks is to eliminate any overused words from the text.
Being a reader/writer who is swiftly annoyed by seeing the same words “used to excess” within a short space of time, I can appreciate the value of this editing step, though gosh knows it can be a challenge. I mean, just look at the list of words and phrases I’ve been instructed to look out for:
– again and again – as it were – at present
– at the same time – basically – completely – could
– currently – despite the fact that – due to the fact that
– essentially – etcetera – extremely – feel/feeling/felt
– furthermore – had/have – hear/heard – in any way, shape, or form
– in order to – in fact – it is imperative that – it is important that
– just – knew/know – look/looked – maybe – moreover
– over and over – presently – quite – really – see/saw
– simply – smell/taste – so on and so forth – that – then
– therefore – totally – very – was/were – watch/notice/observe
With my anthological tale, I was able to check off some of these words straight away, because they hadn’t made an appearance in this particular short story. However, had the story stretched into a novel, or been told with a different narrative voice, who knows? I may well have employed every item on the list many times over… rather like I did with “Inspired”. (It’s actually shocking how many scores of “have”s and “know”s you can cut out, and still be left with a hundred more!)
There’s a reason these words made the list in the first place: People use them. A lot. And while frequent use doesn’t make a word bad in and of itself, it can be a sign that your writing isn’t getting all the creativity it’s due.
“But… b-but…” you may stammer, lip trembling, “every word in my story is there for a reason! I can’t just cut it!”
I know that feeling. And in some cases, it may be true; that word, whatever it is, could well be the only one that will perfectly suffice in that instance. Far more often, though, any given word can be replaced. Phrases can be rearranged, the thesaurus can be mined for a lustier synonym, some sentences can be deleted altogether.
It’s the job of the self-editing writer to decide a word’s worth on a case by case basis. If the heavily repeated word is easily interchangeable, make the change. If it doesn’t add anything to the sentence except extra syllables (and you don’t have some sort of rhythmic, poetic reason for leaving it in), remove it. If, after much thought and experimentation, there is simply no way to touch that word without damaging the integrity of the story, leave it.
Yes, I said “leave it”. It’s okay to use a word when it’s needed. That’s what words are for. It’s just a matter of intention. Maybe you chose that word with care for artistic reasons; maybe it’s a part of the story’s symbolism. Maybe you’ve got a character with habitual word choices; that’s fine, that’s just part of who they are, and could actually be a handy way of telling one voice from another at a glance. Decide for yourself why the word is there. Keep your mind open for words that might better say what you mean, or that do little to affect their own sentences, but which improve the story as a whole.
Thus shall I tell myself as I return to tackle my little mountain of remaining line edits. Back into the fray!
Tell me, readers: What words do you think get major overuse in the writing you see? How about words that you don’t think get enough love?
* For the sake of illustration, I’ve colored all the listed words used in this blog post in purple, a metaphor for things that make me happy (like words, and blue!) and things that make me tense if I see too much of it (lookin’ at you, red).