This post is a reference post for my convenience. It’s taken from my large post on rewriting from a few years back. With some additions that I’ve noticed crop up in my writing more recently. (The horror.)
I will be editing it from time to time to add more evil words.
When I get my novel to the point where I think it’s finished I have a ritual of searching on the following words. These are all words I have a habit of overusing. I’m always sure that I will have learned my lesson, that with each finished novel I will find I’ve overused fewer words. But, um, I appear to be a very slow learner indeed. Spoiler: I always overuse the majority of them. *Sigh*
These are the offending words:
eyebrow (raise, lift)
(the) feel (of)
mouth (open, close)
None of these words is evil. In fact, all of them are extremely useful words—couldn’t write most novels without them. It’s just that I use them too much.
For example, my “eyes” problem is that I fall back on describing them (“narrowing”, “rolling”, “tightening”, “widening”) too often—especially when I’m giving characters something to do in between dialogue. Rather than searching on “narrowing”, “rolling”, “tightening”, “widening” I search on “eyes”. “Nod”, “eyebrows”, “shrug”, “smile”, and the dread “I opened my mouth to say something and then I closed it” also fall into that category.
“Just” is a hideous tick that I share with many other writers. When I search on it about 90% of the time it did not need to be in the sentence. Here’s an example from the novel I’m close to finishing:
Dymphna asked as if they had just been introduced on the street, as if there weren’t a dead man in the room.
I don’t think the “just” there is adding anything. The sentence is better without it:
Dymphna asked as if they’d been introduced on the street, as if there weren’t a dead man in the room.
Hmmm, now I see other things wrong with that sentence. Which is part of the point of this exercise. I don’t just delete and/or replace overused words I also fix broken sentences. It’s my final set of line edits before I hand over the book to my first readers/agent/editor—depending on where I am in the novel-writing process.
I’ve also recently noticed I have a tendency to start sentences with “And.” Sometimes this is needful for the rhythm of the sentence, for the way it sits in the paragraph, or on the page, though not that often. Mostly it’s me typing too fast.
My other hideous recent(ish) writing tic is in dialogue. I have lots of people cutting other people off mid-sentence. Again it can work really well. But when overused? Ugh. Hence the search on “—”
You’ll notice that none of these is the kind of words Margo Lanagan once railed against. These are words you barely notice. I find it relatively easy to not overuse Margo’s banned words, such as, “corruscating,” “crepuscular,” “effulgent,” because they leap off the page.
The problem with overused words like “got” and “just” and “eyes” is that they don’t leap off the page. You must be vigilant in your hunting. But hunt them down and stab them to death you must. But not all of them. Remember the object is never to kill off the entire species.
(This post is also to prove to a certain friend of mine that I can write an entire post without a footnote. Told ya!)
Update March 2014: Have noticed in my latest draft that I’m overusing “start to” or “begin to” as in “she started to open the door” when “she opened the door” is all that’s needed. Also “at all” as an intensifier. “She didn’t love them at all” when “she didn’t love them” does the job.
Update June 2015: In my latest draft some new overused words are: “all” as in “It was all Seimone’s idea” when usually “It was Seimone’s idea” works just fine. Yes, sometimes you need that extra emphasis. But I find that I use “all” an awful lot as an intensifier when it’s not adding much.
I also noticed that I use “and then” as a conjunction when just “and” or just “then” will do. “Back” as in “David turns back to me.” When the direction is clear or isn’t important the “back” can go. “With me” as in ” I could take Seimone with me.” The “with me” isn’t adding anything. “I could take Seimone” already tells the reader that you’re taking Seimone with you. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve deleted “with me” in this draft. It’s frequently redundant.
Another one is “(The) feel (of)” as in “The feel of Sojourner’s mouth almost touching my ear sends my thoughts far from Rosa,” which adds absolutely nothing as you can see when I delete it: “Sojourner’s mouth almost touching my ear sends my thoughts far from Rosa.”
Here’s a little edit I just did that shows you how redundancies creep in:
We stand facing each other, still holding hands, looking directly into each other’s eyes. I take a step closer.
standface ingeach other, stillholding hands, looking directlyinto each other’s eyes. I take astep closer.
We face each other, holding hands, looking into each other’s eyes. I step closer.
None of the deleted words added anything. That’s why they’re gone. I’m not saying I’ll keep it as edited but it’s better than it was. That’s the kind of editing I’m talking about and why I keep this list. Though as you can see “still” is the only word deleted in this particular edit that’s on my list. That’s how line editing goes.