Halloween is a good time to let bad habits die As a fantasy writer, I love all things magical, and recently I have turned that attention into researching Wiccan beliefs. (This is a purely scholarly pursuit, I promise.) One of the major Wiccan holidays is […]
Overused words will ruin your prose
Every writer has words or phrases that habitually show up in their work. Like a verbal tick, writers insert them without even thinking. They become fillers when we need a beat in dialogue, or a crutch when we’re not sure what the character should really be doing. They badger the reader by constantly drawing attention to themselves, forcing the reader to see the prose, rather than the story. Don’t let overused words ruin your novel.
Identifying an overused word
I recently finished a book by a well-known author, published with one of the big five, everything we all want to be, and I noticed something strange: the people in this book smiled.
They smiled for deception. They smiled sarcastically. They smiled to calm their nerves. They smiled when they wanted to gloat over a victory. They smiled for just about every emotion, except happiness. And just like that mole on the end Grandpa’s nose, once I noticed it, I couldn’t stop.
I’m not sure if I noticed it because it was used in such a peculiar way or because I listened to the book rather than read it. (If you haven’t listened to your WIP read aloud, I highly recommend it. Nothing will point out bad writing faster than having it blared out your laptop’s tinny speaker by that lady who answers the phone for your credit card.)
After noticing this peculiarity, ever time I heard the word “smiles,” it was like being smacked in the head. It yanked me right out of the story and doused in a mad dose of the giggles. So I started thinking about it. This person is a well-known author, light years ahead of me, was I just imagining this thing? I had to know.
The Kindle app has the ability to count the specific instances of a word in an MS. I typed “smile” into the find bar. Result: 153. Spread out across a 400-page novel that meant someone smiles on average every two and a half pages, which for some words would not even be noticeable. But these instances weren’t spread evenly through the book. They clustered together appearing as many as four times on a page. Nearly every time two characters interacted, they smiled at each other at some point during the conversation. The smile had become a crutch: a habitual word choice inserted without thought.
Word crutches are something most writers have
Word crutches appear in places where the inner ear senses something is off in the prose. Either a beat is needed between lines of dialogue, a paragraph is too short, or a non-POV character needs a moment to think about something.These crutches bog down a manuscript and make it feel repetitive, or in the case of this particular book, paint an absurd picture where despite pints of blood and gore, everyone is perpetually grinning.
More often than not a good CP will find your crutches. However, they will likely not become apparent until well into the MS. So if you’re only passing out your MS in chunks, you’re missing an important opportunity.
Scrivener also has a built in text analysis tool. Select a document. Project> text statistics. You can even organize the list by frequency.
Once you’ve analyzed your text and found a few candidates, do a “find” in your word processor (I used Word. If anyone knows how to make Scrivener display the number of matches without replacing the word, please let me know) Be sure to click the “find whole word” otherwise it will include all the instances where your word appears as part of another word e.g. “port” in “support” Although you may have to run the search twice to account for plurals or verb tense.
Let’s take a look at a few examples from my MS.
Ex. 1 Mouth.
85 This is a maybe. This isn’t a romance, so this seems like an excessive use of a word that doesn’t come up much in daily conversation. I’m going to go back and make sure that it isn’t being used in the same way, or in some strange way that draws attention to itself.
Ex. 2 Eyes
272 This one is definitely a problem. I noticed it originally in my first draft. My supposedly adult MC was constantly rolling her eyes, which made her come off as a snot-nosed tweenager. But it looks like my characters are still spending too much time staring at each other.
Another good one to search for is “look,” since this can indicate you have too much telling in your descriptions.
But wait, I have 5000 “The’s.”
Little words that are used frequently in daily conversation get a free pass e.g. articles the, a, an, common pronouns, and even the dialogue tag said disappear on the page. And to some extent other frequently used words. The opposite is also true. The more unusual the word, the more your reader’s ear will pick it out. The same goes for words that evoke a strong reaction. How may times do you think your MC can use vomit before it begins to sound stale?
Can I just fix it with a thesaurus?
No. Simply subbing one word for another will not fix an action that has become habitual in your manuscript. If I change half the “shifted his eyes” to “shifted his gaze,” it isn’t going to change the underlying problem that my characters are standing around staring at each other. The crutch word is just the symptom. If I fix the real problem: my characters need to be doing more, the crutch word will disappear on its own.
The next time you read through your MS look out for habitual phrases, actions, and overused words. Taking time to eliminate these from your prose will keep it feeling fresh through the entire story.
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The love interest is an integral part of contemporary plot structure. But too often that character is little more than a pretty face designed to be the main character’s dream girl. Today’s love interest needs to be more than just a skirt waiting to be rescued. Make sure your love interest is a person who matters.
Why I Write Fantasy
This is my first post on the blog hop The Insecure Writers Support Group: a monthly blog hop therapy group for writers.
(If you’re here for my writing lessons and have no need for this warm-fuzzy-feeling stuff, I’ll see you on Friday.)
February 7 question – What do you love about the genre you write in most often?
Why I write Fantasy
When I was young, fantasy novels were a way to escape. The adolescent mind rebelling against some perceived injustice. The sense of wrongness in the world that I had no word for, just the driving need to escape. I read all kinds of fantasy because anywhere was better than here.
In my teen years, the nameless repression began to identify itself as the message of my “true” role in life became apparent. I fled to fantasy. Whether it was Star Trek or Dungeons and Dragons, fantasy was a place where female characters weren’t penalized. I didn’t care if my heroines fought with swords, magic, or phasers. They could fight. Anywhere was better than here.
As an adult, I began teaching in an urban school in a poor neighborhood. I watched my students do incredible things despite the struggles of poverty, and I thought, “If only they were living somewhere where they didn’t have these problems.” Surely, anywhere was better than here.
Then I moved to a wealthy suburban district and watched the students there struggle not under the weight of poverty but of impossible expectations. I saw this at every school I taught. Every background, every race, every environment. No matter where I went, my students had the same needs, the same hopes. Only the monsters changed.
This is what fantasy does. It illustrates what is common to all people. By telling stories in cultures that do not exist, it strips away the reader’s preconceptions and politics. By changing these rules, those biases no longer affect the reader’s experience. This leaves readers only the shared human experience. The basic needs that unite us: shelter, safety, belonging, and self-expression are present no matter how foreign the setting.
Fantasy allows us to drop the expectation and biases of our own culture in favor of the common human experience. Fantasy isn’t about escaping. It’s about examining what is common to all human experience. The buildings may be different, but people are all the same. This is why I love fantasy and why fantasy is so important.
Fantasy shows us that everywhere is here.
Thanks for reading,
To continue on the blog hop