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So You Wanna Write A Book: Find Repetitive, Redundant, Reoccurring Words

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When you put on that editing hat, one of your jobs is to locate dull, repetitive words and cliché phrases that put readers to sleep.

We All Have Our Faves

I have a short list of words I love so much that I have to be cognizant of them in my manuscripts. My apparent favorite is “just.” As in, “I just don’t get it.” Or “I was just ready to run inside when…” Or “Just as I suspected…” I might have used that dang word five times on one page. So I use the “Find” tool on my computer to highlight all the “just” words in my manuscript. Then, I conquer and delete them as needed.

But how did I realize my fascination with the word “just” in the first place? After all, these overused words are sneaky and know how to hide. One way to discover them is to have someone read your first few chapters and highlight words that pop up frequently. We all have them, but they’re tough to find on our own.

Another way to locate overused words in your writing is to Google “most common overused words in writing,” then use that handy “find” tool to see if you’re guilty of overusing those words yourself. One article I found helpful is from Grammarly.

Words that will seem overused, like “says, the, and” don’t count. I know, you’ve probably already figured that out, but I’ve been asked that question, so I figured I’d share the answer.

Dull Words Are So Boring

One of my pet peeves (and anyone who has received one of my critiques knows this) is when writers use phrases such as “She went to her car” or “He went north on Church Street.” Went is such a nothing word. Even saying, “He veered his car up Church Street” is better than banal ol’ went. And maybe she slips into her car. Descriptive words help the reader visualize your story better.

Others that annoy me:

  1. “She noticed something in the bushes.” – way too general. What does her eye catch in the bushes? A flash of pink? Branches shaking? Something is a useless word that can almost always be replaced.

  2. “Sat, look, saw” – all of these words are okay used once or twice…but let’s get more creative if characters are going to be sitting, looking, or seeing often in your story.

  3. “He didn’t say anything.” – Okay, we know he’s not speaking, right? Because, you know, dialog is missing. Maybe his facial reaction is all we need. “His eye-muscle twitched.” There you go. The sentence is now descriptive rather than redundant.

  4. “She began to smile.” – Um. No. She smiled. End of story. Pun intended.

Clichés are so…clichéd.

Please, please, please…unless your character speaks with clichés because that’s the sort of person he or she is, don’t use them. Find a more clever way to say “sliced as easy as a hot knife through butter” or “scared the hell out of her.” They’re overused, they’ve lost their originality, and a reader will scan through it without much notice. And if you want to argue that these are tried and true sayings, feel free. But editors and my agent have pointed out clichéd phrases in my own work…phrases I didn’t catch because I was so used to using them!…and politely asked me to find a fresh way to give my point. Use that creative brain of yours to turn a new phrase. Then, pat yourself on the back for being so awesome.

Let’s Talk About Weasels

Not the cute, wily animals, but the words. Examples include: very, suddenly, that, basically, like, quite, practically…the list goes on.

So what makes them weasel-ish? They’re sneaky. That’s right…they aren’t noticeable at first. But they’re there…and guess what? They know how to take over your writing. I like this post on Weasel Words by Keli Gwyn. She does a great job pointing out how Weasel Words are ineffective.

Cutting out these useless words can tighten up your prose. It turns a long, drawn-out passage into a succinct, clear one. The trick to finding them is going through each sentence with a fine-toothed comb. (Did you spot my cliché?) If you can take a word out of the sentence and it doesn’t drastically change the meaning or context of the sentence, you’ve eliminated a Weasel Word. Now, go ahead and use the “find” tool to locate that word throughout the rest of your script. Decide whether or not that word should stay. Edit accordingly.

Cut Out the Repetition

Okay, so you’ve found your overused words, scrapped the clichés, and destroyed the weasels. Now, it’s time to find words that live too close to the same words, even though they have different meanings. For example:

Her mouth twisted into a sinister smile. She watched the twister as it swirled and twisted through the sky. It would hit the ice cream shop next. Where she and Ben both ordered twist cones. And now it would be gone forever. She laughed, realizing how twisted that sounded.

Yes, I exaggerated for effect. Anyone in their right mind would realize they’d overplayed on the word “she.”

Haha, kidding. But you get the idea. The word “twist” needs to be replaced so it’s only used once. It’s amazing how easy it is to use the same word several times on a page in different contexts and not realize it. In this case, I suggest putting away the manuscript and coming back to it with fresh eyes in order to locate repeated words.

Writing Exercises:

Edit these paragraphs so that they’re no longer redundant, repetitive, contain clichés, or too wordy.

  1. Theresa stood outside in the cold, practically freezing her butt off. Her boyfriend had told her off, but she stood her ground. Which was why she was standing outside in the cold watching him drive away, her suitcase by her really frigid feet.

  2. Matt went toward the yelping dog, holding out a friendly hand. He hoped the dog’s bark was worse than its bite, he really didn’t want a gash in his palm. The dog bared its fangs and growled. Obviously, this wasn’t a friendly animal. But maybe he could get on its good side.

  3. Robots make much better pets than animals. For one thing, they clean up after themselves. Even though you can’t exactly pet or cuddle a robot, they’re still a more easier option. And definitely cleaner.

This is a five-part series developed by K.L. Gore for Lilac City Rochester Writers, presented on October 27th, 2018. Articles:

  1. Fixing pacing issues that either slow the story down or rush a scene into confusion

  2. Discovering where your character’s arc has flattened

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