A couple years ago I wrote pretty extensively about overwriting, which is what happens when authors use unnecessary words or redundant phrases. Quite often overwriting is a symptom of passive voice. You can fix most instances of overwriting with a stronger verb that eliminates the need for an adverb or sometimes an entire system.
I think most writers are aware of some of the most common words people overuse: just, very, that, then. But every writer is different and we all overuse different words. As individuals we have individual weaknesses as well as strengths, and learning those weaknesses is the only way we can actively work to change them.
One great exercise is creating a list of watch words. Watch words are words you know you tend to overuse, especially adverbs and weak verbs. These words don’t add anything to the story and in fact they often take away from the strength of your story. Every writer has these words, but creating a list allows you to consciously cut down on these words not only when you’re editing but the next time you write a book as well.
To create a list of watch words simply go through your last 2-3 manuscripts and circle any words you notice being used frequently. Once you’ve got a list of words use the find & replace function to figure out how many of each word is actually in each manuscript. You could also count while you’re reading the manuscript, but if you’re anything like me the computer’s count is probably more trustworthy anyway.
There isn’t a magical formula for how often you should use a specific word but if it’s not a really common word it probably shouldn’t show up more than a couple times every thousand words or so.
Once you have a list of watch words put it somewhere that it can easily be seen or accessed in your workspace and try to keep it in your mind when you’re actually writing. Actively trying to reduce your reliance on these words and increasing your vocabulary will help you grow until eventually you won’t need the list–although you might need a new one. Remember, there is always more room for growth.
Here are my current watch words:
- Pulled: I started using this one a lot in the last couple things I’ve written and while it worked in all of those instances there are many stronger verbs that convey the real emotions going on in these scenes much better.
- Smiled: I have a couple characters in my most recent manuscript that are by nature smiley, and that is part of their character, but I definitely went overboard–and there are a lot of stronger verbs that convey exactly what kind of smile a character has.
- Walked: This is probably a pretty commonly overused word since it’s something people spend a lot of time doing, especially on journeys through fantasyland. Yet there are so many other words for this action that convey much stronger emotions.
- Strode: I tend to sort of alternate between this and walked in early drafts and I’m working hard to change that in the draft I’m writing right now. I have a lot of powerful females in situations where actually running would make them appear overly emotional/weak, but striding across the hall always seems powerful. So they do it. A lot.
- Watched: Amusingly enough, this word has ended up on my watch list too. As a fantasy writer rituals and public celebrations are some of the most important ways in which I build my worlds for the reader, and my main characters are rarely the sort who would be involved in the ritual themselves. This word really is unnecessary and usually a symptom of passive voice, at least when I’ve noticed it. There are so many stronger ways to say this that convey different emotions.
What are your watch words? Is your list bigger than mine? Smaller? Let me know in the comments below!