Monday, February 21, 2011

Over and Over and Overused Words

What I'm reading: Marrying Daisy Bellamy, by Susan Wiggs

First – I've learned that my next Five Star release, WHERE DANGER HIDES, the second in my Blackthorne, Inc. series, is available for pre-order at Amazon. If you haven't already read the first in the series, WHEN DANGER CALLS, you can get it at the discounted price of $1.50 at Smashwords by using the coupon code found in the Contest tab above. (Coupon expires at the end of February--don't wait.) But, even at full price at the Kindle store or All Romance eBooks it's only $2.99.

Second - after much trial and error, I've added the 'tweet meme' to this blog. If you find a post worthy of sharing, I hope you'll use it.

Okay, commercial over.

As a member of the Savvy Authors group, there's a nifty feature you can used, called "autocritter." You plug in a scene, or chapter, or more, from your manuscript and it calculates overused words. Now, we all have our personal crutch words, but this program is based on the specific overused words used in commercial fiction, so it will find not only overused words, but it tells you which ones need to be at the top of your hit list.

I plugged in the first chapter of my WIP, and discovered that although I thought I'd learned enough to cull these words as I edited each day's writing, I was still heavy on some usages. (Click on the image to enlarge--it's still small, but you should get the idea)

And why are these words on the commercial fiction Do Not Use list? Because most of them dilute your writing, especially qualifiers and weak verbs. It's apparent from the above that I use the words really and very far too often. Those need to get onto my hit list—and yes, I'm aware that I shouldn't be using them, but try telling that to my fingers, which often bypass the brain entirely.)

What about the "see/saw/look" and "knew/know/thought"? If you're into your character's head, the reader assumes these things, and you shouldn't have to tell her. If you've put your character in a room, saying "he heard the door open" doesn't have the impact of "the door opened." If you've set your scene properly, the reader will know the character heard (or saw) the door opening without having to stick in on the page. Likewise, "he thought." Self Editing for Fiction Writers (Browne & King) has an excellent section on how to convey thoughts without having to resort to tagging them.

What about verb choices? I refuse to say "make your writing passive" because people don't seem to understand the difference between passive voice and weak verbs. My former agent returned a manuscript to me after circling every time I used the verb "was". Saying "was" is a passive verb just isn't right. Often it's simply showing past tense.

When we're writing, we need to look for the immediacy that will connect the reader to what's going on with the character. Writing, "He was running down the street, and his heart was pounding" isn't passive voice. But isn't it stronger to write, "He raced down the street, his heart pounding." Of course, you can go another step or two, and throw in some nice metaphors or other figures of speech, but the idea is to get the reader into the character's head. And I'm sure you've been pounded with, "Show, don't tell." Using weak verbs tends toward the telling side of things.

Will these 'overused words' kill your chances of publication? Not necessarily. I defy anyone to say Michael Connelly or Lee Child write "passive" because they use the word "was" a lot. On a whim, I went back to my first published book, FINDING SARAH, which was about 85,000 words. Apparently the following usages didn't bother the editor:

Okay – 37
Just – 111
All – 280 (59 in the phrase "all right")
Right – 205 (see above)
Only – 85
Fine – 54
Looked – 135
Look – 119
Heard – 97
Could – 235
Would – 241

(And should I get my rights back and re-release the book myself, will I shore up the writing? You betcha!)

But before you take the chart above as gospel and do exactly what it says, it behooves you to look at your usages IN CONTEXT. Are they in dialogue? Would those words be the natural ones that particular character uses? So, click on that "find" button and work your way through the manuscript, asking yourself if the sentence works as well or better without the word on your hit list.

Tomorrow, my guest is author Carolyn J. Rose, who's going to talk about a dress code for writers. She's giving away a book, so be sure to come back and leave a comment.


Summer said...

I played around with the Autocritter last night. (That name always makes me laugh!) Although I had had the ms proofread by my new superhero BFF, Determined Proofreading Woman (who discovered my blatant overuse of the word 'and') I still found plenty of spots where the writing could be nicely tightened. It's mighty nice of SavvyAuthors to offer that service.

BTW, I'm halfway through WHAT'S IN A NAME and am having great difficulty putting it down. Yum! -delighted shiver-

Terry Odell said...

Summer - sometimes the 'mechanical' eye is better at seeing those things, and then you can decide where to go with the "suggestions."

So glad you're enjoying WHAT'S IN A NAME?

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Terry,

Thanks for the tip! I'll definitely use it.
After STACY'S SONG was accepted by L&L Dreamspell, editor Lisa Smith, did something similar. She calculated I used too many "ly" verbs and too many adjectives. I also had to replace weak verbs with more active ones. It was
a painful process but made the YA novel much stronger. Funny how you really don't see these things yourself! I do notice that two of my favorite romance writers, Jayne Ann Krentz and Nora Roberts, consistently use strong, active verbs.

Jacqueline Seewald

Carol Kilgore said...

Thanks for this info, Terry. Searching for overused words is my least favorite part of the editing process. This looks like an easier way to accomplish the task. Can you tell me more about Savvy Authors? I'd really like access to the Autocritter program.

Vonnie Davis said...

Great post. I also used autocritter and discovered some weak areas. Yikes! But writing is rewriting, as Hemingway so succinctly said.

Ciara said...

I love autocritter on Savvy. Okay, nothing is an absolute, so you need to look through your work and decide for yourself what to change. Autocrit just gives me a guide. Yes, I'm an 'as' junkie. :)

Terry Odell said...

Jacqueline - I've been culling those 'ly' adverbs from my early days when I read Self Editing by Browne & King. It's the other ones that sneak in when I'm not looking.

Carol - go to and you can join.

Vonnie - yep - and I'll be hitting the rewrite phase on my next WIP soon.

Ciara - definitely. YOU are the author, not the crit program. But it does help jump start the process.

Anonymous said...

I love autocritter as well. It's very helpful. Savvy is a great group! Thanks for this post.

Anonymous said...

Terry, I'm so glad you posted this. I used the Savvy autocritter for the first time last week and wondered just how black and white the results should be. As I went about "cleaning" up my WIP, there were a few places where I couldn't force myself to change the wording. I knew dialogue could be exempt if it reflects the way the character speaks, but for the other places, I found that sometimes a certain word gives the sentence the intended impact and it's hard to pull the word out. I'm happy to know it's okay to leave something if it seems right.

Kelly Borgen
Writing as Kelli Ramsey

Terry Odell said...

Lynn - always happy to share, even when I'm showing my shortcomings!

Kelly - you're right. You're ultimately in charge, and sometimes the right word is the right word no matter what.

Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

Great point about overused words. Sometimes it's hard to even see them in our writing. I know I use 'just' a lot--I actually will search for it after my first draft is done and am always amazed at the number of times it pops up!

Terry Odell said...

Elizabeth - ah, Just. Yep. Another one I've discovered I over use is "moment." And "back" seems to show up far more often than needed.

Katrina said...

I've used the autocritter several times and 'just' was a huge crutch for me. I was shocked by how often I used it.

And you're so right about 'was' not necessarily being passive. I had to explain this to my editor at work, who was not overly thrilled to discover he'd been wrongly identifying passive voice all these years. So he changed his rule to: Avoid 'was' because it's weak.

Good rule.

Kim Bowman Author said...

I LOVE that feature. It made my membership with it. My word - SHE. I use it over and over again. Don't ask me why.

I use was a lot in my first draft. Detail slows down my train of thought so I just use was and then go back and replace with a stronger, more active voice verb. But you'd still be surprised how many of them I leave:)


Wynter Daniels said...

I have to search and destroy several words in every manuscript, but the Savvy Author tool sounds like it would help so much. Great cover for your upcoming book. Congrats.

Terry Odell said...

Katrina - glad you got your boss to change the rule.

Kim - It's easy to overuse those pronouns, isn't it?

Wynter - thanks. Not only do you get the chart shown in the post, but there's another shot of the sample you submitted with all those words done in bold red. An eye-opener.

Sarah said...

So cool! And I like that you reminded us to go back and look in context.

Maryann Miller said...

What a terrific service. Thanks for pointing it out, Terry. I start out looking for words I've overused or words that are weak and end up getting caught up in other editing issues. Then I forget what I started out to do. Having this service available will really help.

S.A. Garcia said...

Terry, thank you so much for the Savvy Author tip. I went, I viewed, I joined, I Auto Critted.

What a great experiment. I tossed in an older story I recently revised and felt appalled at the results. Happily a new story I finished this week looked much cleaner. It told me I am lazy when editing older material.

Ah, see? It! The results, not "It"! Arrgh.

Lynne Marshall said...

I enjoyed this post. I'm always appalled by how I get into word ruts. No matter how many times I edit my books, my editors find more.

No one said this job was easy, right?

Terry Odell said...

Sarah - I'm looking at "could" right now (had 280 in the ms), and yes, I'm going to be looking at each one.

Maryann - and it's fun, too.

SA. Glad you found it useful. There's a lot of good meet over at Savvy Authors.

Lynne - if it was easy, everyone could do it!

Linda Banche said...

Terry, I do what autocrit does by hand. I use the WORD "find" function to look up instances of certain words and I make a list. Then I go back and get rid of some of the instances. But I can try autocrit.

Terry Odell said...

Linda - I do that for some of the words I know I overuse that the autocrit program might not flag. What I like about autocrit is that it points out words I never think to look for--the ones that might be weakening my writing.