Several years ago, when I was working on The Watcher, I enrolled in Betsy Warland’s Vancouver Manuscript Intensive Solo program, where I had not one but two wonderful mentors working with me on my first book. One of them, A.M. Dellamonica, pointed out words I used far too often and advised me to find and rework instances of them. It’s not that any one word was bad, but when overused, these words can dull or weaken your prose.
I took her advice and found using this list to be one of the most helpful ways to strengthen and polish my writing. I started with this list on my own work, but as I became aware of these “crutch” words or phrases, I saw them in other people’s writing, so I shared what I learned with my critique partners. The words have varied for me over the years and they will vary for each writer and throughout a writing career. I’ve learned to avoid some of these crutch words in my first drafts, only to use new ones over the years.
The trick to using this list is to use your writing software’s Find function (in MS Word, it’s CTRL+F) to locate every appearance of each word and phrases on that list, and to see how many you can rework.
This list varies with each writer, and as a writer, it also changes with each work.
For instance, here is my list from the first draft of The Watcher:
- felt – It is usually a clue that you’re telling us how someone feels, rather than showing us. It’s also a way to distance the reader from the experience.
- saw / look – Another distancing word and a type of filtering. Saw (or looked) can usually be replaced by showing exactly what the character saw. “I looked across the field and saw a black horse galloping toward me” can be replaced with “A black horse galloped across the field, heading straight for me.” See this article on filter words and how they can weaken your fiction.
- eye words: glare, stare, a look (as in “she gave him a look”), glance, gaze, looked, twinkled, eyes, scan – because we get so much information from sight, and we communicate often with visual cues, writers can cling to this type of communication. Any of these can distance the reader. Using eyes too often can be distracting. Search and look for new ways to say the same thing. (See A.M. Dellamonica’s great post on eye bookisms.)
- actually, really, just, still – These adverbs leech the life out of a sentence. Search for them and find a way to pull them out.
- grin, shrug, laugh, frown, smile – These actions are a type of “mugging”. They are actions we can’t do without entirely, but they need to be used sparingly. It’s easy to fill up your scenes with them, but they’re no substitute for real action and more specific speeches.
- lips / jaw – Like eyes, lips can curve, jaws can clenched for mugging purposes and can be overused. Scan and check them all.
- nod and shook/shake my/his/her head – While also a type of mugging, these are a little different-you can get away with them more, because they’re essentially non-verbal yes and no. It’s a good idea to check each one anyway.
- started / began – Often we’ll say “she started to <Verb>.” Again, this drains the life from your prose. If you can describe a specific action, you give us the sense of a task begun with a lot more specificity. In The Watcher, I changed “Michael crouched in front of the fireplace and started to build a fire” to “Michael came in with an armful of logs and placed them in front of our old brick fireplace. Crouching on the floor beside them, he grabbed a piece of newspaper and crumpled it in his smooth, strong hands.”
- seem and somehow – It’s hard to do without seem and somehow, I know, but they generally mean you haven’t taken the time to fully imagine the scene. Take the time to flesh these things out.
To this list I’d also add:
- know/knew, think/thought, remember – These thought words distance the reader by telling rather than showing. See this article on how to strengthen your writing by eliminating thought verbs.
- like – This little word gets used far too often. It shows you how often you are using (or overusing) similes (vs metaphors). It can also be overused by authors trying to “talk to” teens in YA fiction. One of my friends recently did a search on her manuscript and found over 400 instances of “like” in the first draft a 65,000 word manuscript. It’s good to pare those back and revise.
- exclamation marks – Recently, I did a search for this little piece of punctuation in a 80,000 word YA manuscript and discovered I’d used it over 100 times. Some people go to the extreme and say you should use it only once per book. I don’t think we need to be that sparse. But I did cut my instances back to less than 25.
- that – Here’s another word we cannot do without. However, we don’t always need them. For example, the following sentence works just as well without “that”: He fell so far into despair that it took him years to recover.
- is/was (forms of to be) – These are great to look out for to avoid using passive voice. Sometimes, passive voice is useful, but in most cases active voice can make your writing stronger. This article has some good advice and tips to avoid using the passive voice.
So here you have it, my basic find and rework list that shows you some of the things I’ve overused when drafting a novel. I’m always keeping a watchful eye out for these, and the list keeps growing. I hope you find these helpful.
What about you? Do you have any words or phrases you overuse and have learned to look out for? Tell me in the comments.