EDITING CLUE: Catching Those Overused Words

Every writer will tell you there are words they use unconsciously. Words or phrases they repeat in their writing, regardless of whether they’ve previously identified their tendency to overuse them.

Some offenders are little words like “and” or “then”. Some are descriptive words like “dark” or “quick”. In romance novels, you’ll often find “arm” or “eyes” (eg: he put his arm around her shoulders; she looked up into his eyes.) Sometimes it’s the “telling” words like “felt” or “thought”. And then there are gestures like “smile” or “nod”. (I once used “smile” in a manuscript 135 times! That’s more than once for every three pages of the story.)

So how do you catch them? I find my overused words using a word cloud. A word cloud counts the number of times each word is used, and assigns a value to it: the more a word is used, the larger it will show up. My offending words will sometimes show up larger than the characters’ names!

Here’s an example of a word cloud using the current draft of a manuscript I’m working on:

MS Word Cloud 2 – WordItOut

Adam and Jesse are the main characters, so that’s as it should be. And “said” can stay… well, you know why. One of Adam’s endearments is “love”, and it is, after all, a romance. So that one will be ignored.

But I need to pay attention to all the other words that show up in outsized letters. The first thing I’d do is break them into groups like this:

  • back, eyes, hand, head, face, eyes (features)

  • all, one, some, more (quantity)

  • again, now, here, about (timing)

  • know, like, over, only (miscellaneous)

Breaking them down makes it easier to edit while keeping my mind in one lane.

Now, I could make corrections by using a “search & replace” to substitute some of these words with a synonym. For instance, for “back”, I could replace some with “behind” or “rear”. But does that really improve the reader’s experience? Or is it just a way to make the word cloud look better? And isn’t it possible to make things worse?

For instance, say I use the S & R function to replace “back” with “behind” or “rear” in the following sentence:

The boy turned, kicked a stone out of his path, and trudged back to the widow’s farm to help bring in the hay.

Neither of those words makes any sense at all, and a reader would shake their head over it. Not to mention the times when “back” means a body part not to be confused with “behind” or “rear”.

I’ve discovered something that makes it easier to revise, and at the same time, improve my manuscript. I’ll choose a word, tell the WP program to “Find All”. Then, before taking another step, I choose the highlight function—it will highlight every time the offender shows up in my story.

I do a grouping of words at one time, choosing a different highlight color for each offender. After that, I only have to skim through the manuscript for the highlighted words. Rather than reading the entire story to find each usage, I can easily identify them and make corrections that fit in with the tone of the scene.

Then I’ll repeat the steps with the next few offenders. It takes a while, but it’s worth it in the end. I know that each correction I’ve made is appropriate not only for the sentence, but for the story itself.

Do you have any overused words you’ve identified? Do you still find them cropping up in your writing?

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