Thursday, September 09, 2010

Those Pesky Overused Words

L'Shannah Tovah to those who are observing the New Year. It's 5771.

We all have crutch words--those words that seem to crop up in a manuscript, edging out other, more useful or appropriate words. Some of them seem to be the equivalent of the spoken "um" merely vamping until thoughts coagulate. I have a list, but even after I cull my known offenders, others seem to be sucked into the manuscript--after all, nature abhors a vacuum.

I've started trying to search and destroy these words as I go, checking every few chapters. Easier to cull 50 appearances of "just" now, than 500 of them later.

But sometimes, there's a word that will be repeated simply because it IS the best word, and to start substituting makes things even more awkward. A door is a door. How often do people go through portals? If it starts to sound like your digging through a Thesaurus to avoid repeating a "limited function" word, you might be better off repeating it.

One trick to help you find your crutch words in Word is to use the Search function to find them and highlight them, or you can change the font color. They'll certainly jump off the screen. In case you're not familiar with the process, this might help:

In “Edit” on the toolbar, click Find. Then click the box that says Highlight. Then click “More” at the bottom, and you’ll see lots of new options. Depending on what you’re looking for, you might want to check the ‘whole words’ and/or ‘match case’. For example, if you’re looking for “just” but don’t want to find “justify”, check the ‘whole word’ option. If it’s a proper name, you’ll probably want to match the case. Then put the word you’re searching for into the “find” box and click “find all”.

When the search is run, you can click on a color up at the top of your toolbar. You can repeat for a different word using a different color.

A slightly more advanced option is to use the “Replace” function and the formatting options. You put your search word in the ‘find’ box, again deciding if you want any of the other options. But instead of highlighting, click the “Format” option at the bottom. Then choose Font, and choose a font color (it’s in the middle of the pop-up window). Thus, if you’re looking for “just” you can find “just” and replace it with “just” formatted to appear in red. Click replace all, and if you’re like me, you’re manuscript will be peppered with red justs.

And, just for fun, here’s a fun piece that’s been around. The reference I have says it appeared in Reader’s Digest, but I don’t have a reference. If anyone knows its exact origin, feel free to post it in the comments.

What's UP?

We've got a two letter word we use constantly that may have more meanings than any other. The word is up.

It's easy to understand up meaning toward the sky or toward the top of the list. But when we waken, why do we wake up? At a meeting, why does a topic come up? Why do participants speak up? Why are the officers up for election? And why is it up to the secretary to write up a report?

Often the little word isn't needed but we use it anyway. We brighten up a room, light up a cigar, polish up the silver, lock up the house and fix up the old car. At other times it has special meanings.

People stir up trouble, line up for tickets, work up an appetite, think up excuses and get tied up in traffic. To be dressed is one thing, to be dress up is special. It may be confusing but a drain must be opened up because it is stopped up. We open up a store in the morning and close it up at night. We seem to be mixed up about up.

To be up on the proper use of up, look up the word in your dictionary. In one desk-size dictionary, up takes up half of a page and lists definitions up to about 40.

If you are up to it, you might try building up a list of the many ways in which up is used. It will take up a lot of time, but if you don't give up you way wind up with over a thousand.


Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

I use "just" a lot, too! Ha! Sometimes I'll just repeat it, though, as you mentioned. It's sort of a filler word. Other words are more vivid and the reader might remember if I'm repeating them a lot. And my characters nod way too much...cutting back on that.

authorguy said...

Thanks for the techniques. My publisher uses them to highlight the was and were in a story, and I've often wished I knew how to do the same thing.

Marc Vun Kannon

Terry Odell said...

Elizabeth - I'm getting better about noticing "just" when I'm typing, but now I've discovered "away" creeping in all over the place.

Marc - glad to share. I learned most of this by trial-and-error, so if I can help someone else, I'm glad to do it. (And I wonder if anyone ever highlighted "was" for Lee Child!) Hasn't hurt him.

Mary said...

Just wanted to let you know that I know I use "just" just way too much. Then I used Word to correct this and the poor thing just shut itself down it worked so hard.
Bet you just can't guess what my word is. Just in case I'll give you a hint -- It isn't "Up." :0)

biancaswan20 said...

Reading my galleys, I found everyone shivering all the time. I searched and tried to replace the shivers with another feeling.

Hales said...

I have a list of words that are bad words for me lol meaning I overuse in most of my stories. I have a three page list of no no words and words that are lazy in writing.

Debra Glass said...

Thanks for the highlight tip! I have phrases I tend to use per book. A different one each time but I abuse it.

Autumn Jordon said...

I have words too I highlight. After I checked myself several times for certain words, my fingers stop before I type them. It's like do you really want to do that? That is one of my flag words.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

I discovered I use too many "ly" adverbs like "really." It's surprising how easy it is to use certain words too often like "was".

RCM said...

Thanks for the tip, Terry.
These things can really be a pain. I use a couple of great writing tools that help identify these as well. One of them will give me an instant count of all word frequencies. Another helps find dozens of common edit errors and highlights them in various colors.

Since much of my stuff is on-going storylines that get published rather quickly, it's really important to have these resources available.

Terry Odell said...

Mary -- just get on with the writing!

Bianca - oh, yes, the overused reactions. My characters smile and grin way too much.

Hales - keeping a list is a good idea. We tend to be blind to our own idiosyncrasies.

Debra - 'for a moment' was one of mine. Ugh. A kazillion repeats.

Autumn - yes, "that" isn't always needed. Good that you can catch them before they hit the page.

Jacqueline - there's also a way to highlight 'ly' at the end of a word using Word.

RCM - yes, there are some good tools out there. Relying on our own eyes doesn't work. We see what we expect to see, and if we didn't notice the crutch words as we wrote the ms, odds are, they'll remain invisible on a read-through.

Beth Trissel said...

This is an obsession of mine! AARRGGHH, and even after I've gone over and over it, there they are again.

Sheila Deeth said...

"Just" is one of mine too. And "that" and "then." I'm glad "that just" means I'm normal after all.

Patricia Stoltey said...

My favorite word was back (step back, lean back, go back, turn back, jump back), but I also peppered my first drafts with pretty, just, some, really, and more. As I became more aware of what I was doing, I broke those habits, but substituted new words in their place. Luckily, my eagle-eyed critique group catches them. I add them to my list and do a Find on each word during my revision stages. It seems we just really can't help it.


Sylvie said...

How about the word "then?" Then tends to be a heavily used word I watch for in my writing and in the writing of those I critique. and the list goes on... :)

Carol Ann said...

Thanks for the tip, Terry! I plan to use the highlight technique in future. The list of overused words is long. I tend to search for very and really quite often.

Carol Ann Erhardt

Becca Dale said...

As I write this response, I sort through my overused words. Shiver comes to mind as does chuckled as well as gasped. I am diligent against only but not as much as I fight just. Overall, I don’t think I overuse any one particular word as often as some do.

LOL Did you notice my truly overused word? As you are all intelligent, I am as confident as I can be that you did. I have to reword entire paragraphs at times because as does not always create a simple remove or replace situation. Highlighting is an invaluable tool for finding these buggers. Thanks for the reminder.

Kathy Otten said...

Thanks for the tip about changing the color. One of my overused words is dark. And I read the up thing before, but can't remember where. It could have been Reader's Digest cause I do tend to pick it up.

Joyce Elson Moore said...

Terry: Good reminder here. For myself, I have to watch for repeated gestures, too. You make a good point about "door". Sometimes opening, or entryway, sounds a bit forced, like the Thesaurus is on your lap. That's why I like Ancient Rome. They had curtains :D
Thanks for a good post.

Terry Odell said...

Beth, they sneak in whenever you close the document.

Sheila - once you know what they are, they're easier to find. But it's still a hair-pulling moment when you see that count!

Patricia - 'back' is one of mine. I'm aware of it, but still let it show up too often.

Sylvie - yes, 'then' can be used when it's not really needed.

Carol Ann - glad to give you a new tool.

Bacca - LOL! Thanks for stopping by.

Kathy - Oh, dear. Now I'm going to look for 'dark'!

Joyce - So many possibilities with curtains!

Mary Ricksen said...

Just, had, that, those are my most overused words.
Great blog Terry, everyone can commiserate.

Terry Stonecrop said...

Great tips! "Just" is my word too. I just can't seem to get over it. Another good word to seach is "form." It's so often, at least for me, a typo on the word, "from."

Loved the "What's UP" too!

L'Shannah Tovah.

Betsy Knapp said...

I'm trying not to use "that" as much as I once did.

Instead of "She knew that Jack was a good man" it would be..."She knew Jack was a good man." I'm up and in a writing mode but I don't think my story is up to par. Just kidding.

Lilly Gayle said...

The most overused word in the written language (in my opinion) is "that." I've noticed it as a writer and when I critique others' writing. Nine times out of ten when we use the word, "that," it's just a useless filler and the sentence would read better without it.

EX: She said that she was going to the store.
Reads better as She said she was going to the store.

I find myself searching for "that" and eliminating it whenever removing it doesn't change the meaning of the sentence.

Terry Odell said...

Mary - and from the comments, there are a lot of commiserators today.

TerryS- thanks, and good suggestion on searching for those typos that are words spelled correctly so spell check won't catch them.

Betsy, you and Lilly agree about that. :-)
As long as the meaning is clear without it...cull.

And, I've just discovered, thanks to a CP, that I need to watch out for characters pasting smiles on their faces. That's one of those phrases that will jump out after more than a use or least it did for my CP.

Maryann Miller said...

Great tips, Terry. I was hoping someone would know where that great piece about "up" came from. One of the things I noticed I do a lot in dialogue is start a line with "well" or "so".
Sometimes that is necessary if the person is going to hesitate for some reason, but I often overuse it in the first draft. I don't even have to do a search to find those as I catch them when I read it all aloud.

Terry Odell said...

Maryann - I tend to have my characters use way too many 'well' and 'oh' and 'really.' One thing I do is go back through the dialogue, especially when it's a male speaking, and cull all the qualifiers. Men use very few of them (at least among other males--but sometimes it's fun to watch them hem and haw when they're dealing with the heroine.

Maggie Toussaint said...

Hey Terry,
I thank God daily for the Find feature. Without it and spell check, I'd be a huge mess.

Margaret Tanner said...

Great article Terry,
I always overuse was and that.



LaVerne Clark said...

Very timely blog Terry!

I've just finished my first round of edits and sent them back to my editor. She'd used a programme highlighting all the overused/unnecessary and ugly words - and sent it to me to work on. Oh my gosh!! I thought I'd have a heart attach when I first saw it. Close to every sentence had one of those dreaded highlights! 3 weeks of late nights later, it was sorted - but I'm aware of them now which will cut back on the edits next story. Always a silver lining! : )

Terry Odell said...

Maggie - sometimes I wonder how anyone wrote books before computers.

Margaret - I'll bet if you fix those two, three more will jump in to fill the gaps

LaVerne - awareness is the first defense!

Glynis said...

Thanks for the word tip. I have not used it before, but will try it and see. Now is my crutch word.
I enjoyed the UP snippet.☺

Terry Odell said...

Glynis - if you have any questions, feel free to ask. I tried to be as 'step-by-step' as possible, but since I haven't figured out how to do screen shots, it might not be as clear as it could.