Ok, so can you tell by the uncharacteristic twang of my title, that I've been watching a lot of Firefly lately? (P.S.: Best. Show. Ever.)
But to the topic of my post ... I already talked about my attempts to reduce my WIP's word count by Chainsaw and by Pruning Shears, but today I wanted to talk about specific words that are overused and/or unnecessary. How do you get rid of 'em? Easy! Carve them out, one by one.
We've all seen the lists. Five overused words! Top Ten words to carve from your novel! Comprehensive-overwhelming-list-of-words-you-need-to-cut!
So I sat down, and I did it. It was the most painful part of the process by far. Cutting the big stuff? Characters, scenes? Easy! Tightening up sentences and paragraphs? So fun! Trying to cut specific, commonly overused words? Torture! Here's what I learned.
- Cutting overused words did improve my novel.
- It did not reduce word count!!
- Some words are super easy to cut, others required a total re-write of sentences or paragraphs.
Shallow Cuts, aka The Easy List:
These, are my faves.You can fly through these ones, often (but not always) with very little re-writing. While they're part of everyday speech, you can often cut them out of a sentence without changing its meaning. Here your word processor's "Find" feature is invaluable. Does the sentence read all right without the word? Great!
Find. Highlight. Delete!
- Almost, about, around, approximately, basically, nearly
- Very, really, truly, actually, exactly, utterly
- Somewhat, somehow, sort of
- Little, (a/little) bit, all
- Adverbs (do you
reallyneed that adverb?)
- She noticed/saw/looked (the reader knows if it's described, it's the MC who saw it)
A Little Deeper:
These get trickier. You probably will need to replace or re-write, not just cut.
- Is it for a simile? Is your WIP overrun by similes??
- "Felt like" "seemed like"? The verbs might be able to stand on their own (but these are kinda weak verbs ...)
- Other possible replacements: same as, this way, about
- "The [Subject] was [Verb]ing"
- This is actually an easy one. Just replace with: "The [Subject] [Verb]ed"
For example: "She was dancing" changes to "She danced."
Maybe it's just me, but editing for these overused and otherwise problematic phrases was often painful, and sometimes resulted in reworking entire paragraphs to accommodate the revisions. The end result was satisfying, but the process was loooong.
- It was/There was
While this sort of construction can be used to add emphasis to the sentence, overuse diminishes that power, and makes the writing sound a bit stuffy. The problem is there are lots of different reasons that you might have used it.
- She/he/it was + [adjective]
Use action, feelings, dialogue, or body language to convey the message. For example:
"She was tired" could easily be conveyed by saying:
>> Her arms drooped.
>> She considered another shot of espresso.
>> "Please tell me this shift is almost over."
- She/he/it was + [location]
People, and even objects don't always just have to be there. They sit, sprawl, spread, sway, stand, lay, hang, dangle, perch ... etc.
- Was it too passive?
This can be a trickier fix, but too many instances of "was" might mean you're slipping into the passive voice. Passive sentences aren't always bad, but too many can be distracting.
While overused, taking "suddenly" out of a sentence can leave it sounding too flat. Unfortunately, reworking can be a pain. I find I'm left with a few options:
- Show the characters' reaction to the event (check out the Emotion Thesaurus' Surprise section)
- Provide a longer lead-in to the event, then describe the event in more dramatic detail.
- Leave in the suddenly. Cause face it - some things happen suddenly!
Your Own Personally Overused Words:
Everyone writes differently. The words I overuse may not be the ones you overuse. How can you spot these in your own work? It's difficult to do on your own. Betas/critters can help, but if you need some instant computerized feedback, these resources can be invaluable at helping you spot problem areas:
Other Great Resources on Overused Words:Janice Hardy - Spit n' Shine || Rachelle Gardner - How to Cut 1000 words || Vampire Words || AK - Just & Other Words that Plague 1st Drafts || Overused Adverbs, Adjectives || Overused Words || Peggy Edelman - Wordle Underrated || How Do You Know When Your Manuscript is Ready? || Words that can weaken sentences ||
What words or phrases do you think authors overuse? Which words show up too often in your own work? What tips do you have to make this part of the editing process less painful?