Look at poor Vsevolod Mikhailovich Garshin. The artist immortalized him at the unfortunate moment he realized he was faced with a gazillion hours of searching for overused words in his manuscript–and all of them in Russian.
I wrote a post on this subject three years ago, but it’s time to dust it off and play with it again. Overused words can be fun if done right:
Mark Twain said, “Substitute “damn” every time you’re inclined to write “very”; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”
Well now, we could have some fun with that!
Think of how often some beginning authors use the word very in their work:
“We are doing very well, thank you,” replied the vicar. “The weather is very nice, and the food is very good.”
Let’s do as Twain suggests and see what happens:
“We are doing damn well, thank you,” replied the vicar. “The weather is damn nice and the food is damn good.”
That was fun. The word ‘damn’ leaps out at you, because you don’t really expect it. I personally enjoyed replacing ‘very’ with ‘damn.’ But, hilarious though it is to give the vicar potty-mouth, in reality it’s unnecessary. Simply eliminating ‘very’ and not replacing it with anything goes a long way toward improving it:
“We are doing well, thank you,” replied the vicar. “The weather is nice and the food is good.”
Some times we repeat certain words and phrases for emphasis. This article is not about using repetition when crafting narrative. Instead, we are thinking about words that are overused, and which we can often do without.
In our rough drafts we overuse certain words because we are flying along and they are easy–they say what we want and we can keep on moving.
But in the second draft, we must look for them. Let take the word ‘very.’
Once you are finished with your first draft, do what is called a global search – in Microsoft WORD you click on the ‘Home’ tab, and at the far right hand side click on ‘Find,’ OR press the ‘Ctrl’ key and the ‘F’ key at the same time. This will open the ‘find and replace’ menu:
In the ‘find and replace menu, type the word ‘very’ and click on ‘find next’. The word ‘very’ will be highlighted in blue, and you can delete it. I don’t recommend doing ‘replace all’ with any overused modifier, because you will create more problems than you can imagine! Look at each individual instance of the word, and either delete it or change it to a stronger word.
Deleting them or changing to a stronger word will help you grow as writer. You will begin to think about your sentences and stretch your vocabulary.
Next do the same with ‘that’ and ‘had.’ These are words we all use too freely in our first draft, and until an editor pointed it out to me, I had no idea how they weakened my work. They are good words, used infrequently and only when another won’t do the job.
Here is a list of words that can appear with great frequency in your rough drafts, some of which are considered ‘tired.’ Some of these words can be made into contractions to eliminate wordiness. Some can be cut altogether, and some will need to stay. However, some of these words are ‘telling’ words, and we want to avoid that wherever possible. Look at each instance and make that decision.
We all use these to excess in our rough draft, because we are laying the roadbed of the superhighway that is our book. The words we spew at this point are the framework we are going to build the true story around, the story that was in our heads, but that the rough draft doesn’t do justice to.
This is where our thesaurus comes in handy. We need to express the thoughts our overused words evoke, but we don’t want to repeat them over and over. When a word seems to be cropping up with great frequency, try using the global search option. It will tell you how many instances of the word appears in your manuscript, and you might be surprised.
Highlight the word and right-click on it. A pop-up menu will appear. From that menu, choose ‘synonyms.’ Click on that, and a list of words with similar meanings will appear. If you need more than can be found in that list, click on ‘Thesaurus’ (at the bottom of the list) or google the word and add ‘synonyms’ to your search.
Consider my recent experience with gaped–a beta reader pointed out that I had my characters gaping at each other far too regularly. I had to go through it and have them stare, exchange glances, or simply look away. In several instances, I cut that sentence because it wasn’t really needed.
It can be difficult to see the words you have overused when it is your own work. But you can run your ms through a free, online program like Word Count Tools and that will give you a heads up on how many times you have used each word.