Sunday, October 11, 2015

How to Get Rid of Your Favorite (Overused) Words and Phrases

Many years ago I critiqued a 400-page manuscript by an author who loved the word, “smirk.” Smirk. Smirked. Smirking. All the characters smirked at everything. By the end of the manuscript, I detested the word in all it’s various forms. In fact, I think this is the first time I’ve written that word in years. To this day, when I see that word in a story, I cringe.

Repetition of favorite words or phrases is something I notice when I’m reading. No matter how well written the story is, overuse reduces my enjoyment. How many times can the characters “snort in disbelief” or respond “saucily” before a reader tosses the book aside for something better edited?

Don’t misunderstand. We all have favorite words and phrases. They’re great when you’re drafting a new story. At this stage in the writing, it’s more important to keep the momentum going, not stop and debate word choice. While favorites are handy in a rough draft, they have no place in the final manuscript.

How do you get rid of them?

The time to get rid of favorite words and phrases occurs during the self-editing phase of writing a story. And yes, self-editing is part of the writing process. It’s helpful to lower the volume on the creative side of your brain and concentrate on the technical side of writing when self-editing. I say “lower the volume” on your creative side, because it will need to be accessed when you revise those favorite words and phrases.

The easiest way to find your favorites is to make a list of them in a notebook or on a spreadsheet. They are, after all, your favorite words or phrases. That means you like to use them. A lot.

Now grab a favorite from your list, do a search for that word, delete it, revise the sentence and voilá you’ve edited it out of your story. The computer offers writers an unprecedented capability to avoid repetition of a favorite word or phrase. Use it.

Also, be aware that new favorites are always popping up. Ask your beta readers to note repetition of words or phrases when they read your newest manuscript. Pay attention when you edit and keep an eye open for those favored words and phrases. Add them to your list.

I’m not saying you have to remove every single favorite word or phrase, I’m saying, be aware of them. If you feel that particular favorite word in that particular passage makes the story stronger, keep it. Be judicious in the use of favorite words and phrases. Avoid overuse and always reach for the best words to convey your meaning.