Tag Archives: overused words in writing

#amwriting: words to seek and destroy

It’s been about a year since I last discussed what have been termed “weed words.” Certain words and phrases don’t add to the narrative and only serve to increase the wordiness. Used too freely, they separate the reader from the experience.

In my first draft, these words are like tics–they fall out of my fingers and into my keyboard randomly, and out of my voluntary control. I never self-edit as I write the first draft because I am just trying to get the story down. The second and third drafts are where you deal with grammar and phrasing.

One of my three current manuscripts is an epic fantasy and is genre fiction. This means I must write active prose, so I don’t want to use words with no power behind them.


And these are just the tip of the verbal iceberg. I seek out adverbs, descriptors, qualifiers, and other “weed words,” look at how they are placed in the context of the sentence, and decide if they will stay or go.

In the second draft  I address larger things like the story arc, and plotting problems. I have a reader who will gladly tell me where I have gone off the rails, and he is merciless. Call me a glutton for punishment, but putting Dave’s suggestions into play is the best part of my writing experience, even though it is hard to give up some of my favorite passages.

If they don’t add to the story, they have to go to the outtakes file, my tears notwithstanding.

The third draft is the most difficult, primarily because I just want to be done with it. This is where I go on a “search and destroy” mission, seeking out instances of weak words and timid phrasing words. Consider adverbs: I do a global search for the letters “ly.” I kid you not, a kajillion of them will pop up in my left margin, and my ms will become a mass of words with yellow highlighted “ly’s.” It’s a daunting task, but I look at each and see how they fit into that context. If they weaken the narrative, I change or remove them. When it comes to adverbs, most often simply removing them strengthens the prose.

At this stage, I am preparing this manuscript to be edited professionally. The character arcs are solid, major plot problems have been addressed, and the story is as good as I can make it. Before I bother an editor with it, I want to make the process as smooth as possible. In order to find the offending words, I do what is called  a “global search.”

With your mouse or stylus, highlight the word you want to find every occurrence of. On the far right of the home tab, click ‘find.’ This will open the navigation pane.

Or, on your keyboard press the ‘ctrl’ key and the ‘f’ key at the same time. This is the keyboard shortcut to the navigation pane. Follow the instructions in this image:

LIRF Global Search all steps

Caution: if you are hasty or impatient a global search can be dangerous and can mess up an otherwise good manuscript.

Be aware: This is a boring, time-consuming task.

stop don't click replace allYou can’t take shortcuts. If you get hasty and choose to “Replace All” you run the risk of creating inadvertent bizarreness in your work.

Suppose you decide to simply eliminate every instance of the word “very” because you have discovered you overuse it. You open the navigation pane and the advanced search dialog box. In the ‘Replace With’ box you don’t key anything, thinking this will eliminate the problem.

Before you click ‘replace all’ consider three common words that have the letters v-e-r-y in their makeup:

  • Every
  • Everyone
  • Everything

Deleting every instance of ‘very’ could mess things up on an incredibly large scale.

Examine the context. Have you used the word “actually” in a conversation? If so, you may want to keep it, as dialogue must sound natural, and people use that word in conversation. If you have used it to describe an object, consider ditching it.

Do take the time to look at each example of the offending words and change them individually. The way I see it, what’s a day or two spent doing the job right, as compared to the year or more you’ve already spent writing that novel?

As always, while I am going through this, I address the occasional awkward phrasings and other things that pop up when you look at your manuscript from a different view.

It’s unfortunate, but there is no quick way to do this. Every aspect of getting your book ready for the reading public must be done with the human eye, patience, and attention to detail.

As I have mentioned before, editing programs are out there, some free, and some for an annual fee. Grammarly is one, but the problem is, these programs are unable to see the context. They operate by finite rules and will often strongly suggest you insert an unneeded article, or change a word to one that is clearly not the right one for that situation:

  • “The tea was cool and sweet, quenching her thirst.
  • Grammarly suggested replacing quenching with quenched. I have no idea why.

Context is defined as the parts of a written or spoken statement that precede or follow a specific word or passage, usually influencing its meaning or effect. 

At this time in our technology, understanding context is still a human function. Because context is so important, I am wary of relying on these editing programs for anything other than alerting you to possible comma and spelling malfunctions.

I don’t mind taking the time to visit each problem and resolve them one at a time. Remember, readers don’t forget the authors whose work they despised.


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#amwriting: the dreaded zero relative pronoun

Epic Fails signOften, first-time authors will submit their work to a writing group, and immediately run afoul of the guru who ignores the story, but focuses on pointing out every instance of the word ‘that,’ snidely remarking “This is clearly a novice effort, so I won’t dig too deep.”

While this is an unpleasant experience, the guru does have a point. Certain uses of the words ‘that’ are unnecessary and bloat your narrative.

The word ‘that’ is known to editors and grammarians as the dreaded ‘Zero Relative Pronoun’ and it has siblings, ‘which,‘ and ‘who/whom‘.

As an editor, I often have to explain why I am suggesting the deleting of so many instances of the word ‘that,’ ‘which,’ or who(m)’ in a manuscript. At first glance, this seems nit-picky and can get new authors fired up, as they honestly don’t understand what the problem is.

The words ‘that,’ ‘which,’ and ‘who(m)’ have a unique place in our English language. They can be invisible—in most instances, we hear them, but we don’t see them.

According to WIKIPEDIA (THE FOUNT OF ALL KNOWLEDGE) (and I quote:)

Zero relative pronoun:

English, unlike other West Germanic languages, has a zero relative pronoun (denoted below as Ø) — that is, the relative pronoun is only implied and is not explicitly present. It is an alternative to that, which or who(m) in a restrictive relative clause:

*Jack built the house that I was born in. OR: Jack built the house Ø I was born in.

*He is the person who(m) I saw. OR: He is the person Ø I saw.

Relative clauses headed by zeros are frequently called contact clauses in TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) contexts, and may also be called “zero clauses”. (end quote)

Let’s examine Wikipedia’s examples more closely and in simpler language:

If you look at the words ‘that’, ‘which,’ and ‘whom’ as being implied, the above sentences would read like this:

*Jack built the house I was born in.

*He is the person I saw.

For the sake of simplicity, let’s focus on the word ‘that’:

Because the word ‘that’ is a zero relative pronoun, it usually can’t be the subject of the verb in the relative clause. Sometimes, though, prose demands a more wordy approach, and in such a case, the zero relative pronoun can’t be omitted because it is the subject.

*Jack built the house that sits on the hill.

*Jack built the house that was damaged by the tornado.

SO, in this case, we keep the word ‘that’.

*Jack built the house ___ sits on the hill.

*Jack built the house ___ was damaged by the tornado.

We don’t use zero relative pronouns in non-restrictive relative clauses, or in relative clauses with a fronted preposition, such as: From where did the idea come? The preposition ‘from’ begins the phrase and is a formal form of English.

We could say: Jack built the house in which we now live.

But it would be simpler to say: Jack built the house where we live.

However, zero relative pronouns can be used when the preposition is stranded:

*Jack built the house that we now live in.

These principles are also true of ‘which’ and ‘who/whom,’ so always keep in mind the implied words, and don’t bloat your prose by writing them out.

Grammar rules scare people because they tend to be phrased in complicated, hard to understand ways. But knowing a few of these rules will improve your skills. Your initial laying down of prose, or free-writing, will become instinctively better.

chicago manual of style

Understanding grammar rules  can be like trying to decipher the assembly instructions for a complicated  Swedish bookshelf from a big-box store.

But knowing a few of these rules smooths out the narrative. Your readers will easily understand what you meant, and will enjoy your work.

Some people have the luxury and the desire to take college level writing courses and learn about this and other writing techniques at the outset of their career.

Others, like me, are thrown into life and just begin writing in our spare time, putting the story down the way we see it. We have the hardest path, but by taking advantage of the free education offered by researching via the internet, and attending writing seminars as we can afford them, we are on the way to becoming better writers.


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Crafting the narrative: the potty-mouthed vicar

Portrait of Vsevolod Mikhailovich Garshin by Ilya Repin

Portrait of Vsevolod Mikhailovich Garshin by Ilya Repin PD|100 via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Heh heh.

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:

find graphics

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.

  • about
  • am
  • are
  • bad
  • beautiful
  • big
  • could
  • did
  • fine
  • good
  • great
  • had
  • has
  • have
  • is
  • look
  • looked
  • nice
  • quite
  • seems
  • so
  • some
  • that
  • then
  • think
  • very
  • was
  • well
  • went

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.

Historical_ThesaurusThis 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.


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