Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Finishing Your Manucript: Scrutinize Overused Words

Writing Wednesday

I came across a note about "Writing Words to Avoid." The note attributed the following list to 10 Easy Steps To Strong Writing, by Linda George, The Writer, Jan 2004.

Either the note writer or Linda said, "When writing that first draft, let 'em fly... then throw 'em from the train."

Here's the list:

  • a little
  • almost
  • anyway
  • began to
  • certainly
  • definitely
  • even
  • exactly
  • fairly
  • just
  • perhaps
  • probably
  • proceeded to
  • quite
  • rather
  • real
  • really
  • seem
  • slightly
  • so
  • some
  • somewhat
  • sort of
  • started to
  • such that
  • usually
  • very
  • which

I find this list useful not because these words should never be used, but because they need to earn their place in my manuscript. These are words we tend to use often in normal conversation and so they creep into our writing and dilute the ideas we're trying to convey.

For example, "almost" is occasionally useful to describing a degree of completion but it muddies the meaning when we use it to imply "a little less than." I kept the phrase, "... they had almost reached the trees when ..." (degree of completion) but removed the "almost" in the phrase "... he said, almost too brightly." The problem with the second, more common usage is that by saying what it almost is we're not saying what it is.

Similarly, "began to," and "started to," are occasionally useful when it's important to know that something happened in the context of starting some action, as in, "he started to run and then tripped." Often, in our writing, we use "began to" and say what a character started to do when it would be clearer and more concise to say what they did.

And that's what it really comes down to: overused words like the ones in the list are suspect because they blur the meaning. They still have their places, but those places are almost always fewer than you thought in your first draft.

What other words you would add to this list?

Deren blogs daily at The Laws of Making.
Image: Simon Howden /


Scott said...

Nice list of what one group I was in called "weedy" words, words that pop up and ruin your garden.

If you're firmly within a certain character's point of view, avoid "telling" filters like:

* felt
* saw
* thought
* heard
* understood

If you're really in the character's POV, then everything in there is what the character sees, hears, feels, etc.

I had an agent reject a work once because she said I pulled her out of the story too often by telling her how the character felt. Now I notice these things all the time.

Other things to look for when editing (I'll go into more detail about editing in a post of my own later) are things like "be" verbs (be, is, was, were) and the much-dreaded excessive adverbs and adjectives.

Also, watch out for "as" and the simultaneity issues it can cause.

All of these words (and the words in your list) have their place, but you should be aware of them when editing and think about each place where you use them.

Scott said...

I was perusing an online writing mag this evening and happened across an article about the kids of filters I mentioned in my first comment. Definitely worth checking out.