One of the last things I do when I’m finishing a short story is read for overused words. Most of these are easy to recognize—awesome, literally, really, and the like. They have migrated into the written word from casual conversation, trendy TV comedians, and the younger generation. I hear these the minute they come out of my mouth, or fingers on the keyboard. But these are not the words I’m most concerned about.
Each of us has our own distinctive verbal tics and habits, and those are the easiest to miss. We think they sound right, so we don’t hear the repetition, or echoes as I call them. To ferret out these habits of writing, I search on Find/Replace, and consider each sentence or phrase that pops up. Most of them I rewrite, tightening the passage and excising unnecessary words.
In a recent short story, I found I had used -thing words almost 40 times in 6,000 words. These are so common as to be almost invisible—nothing, something, anything, as well as thing. Removing these forced me to be specific, editing flabby phrasing into a more muscular passage. (I almost used the word “robust,” but that’s one of the overused words I’m trying to avoid.)
One immediate benefit of highlighting a poor verbal habit, such as overusing looked, is that it forces me to examine the character more closely and think hard about what she or he is doing. Is she admiring the view, sneaking a peek at a stranger, or staring at an old friend now so changed she almost didn’t recognize him? Why does it matter that he is “looking” at a person or scene? Is he calculating the next move, or is he trying to identify the person? Making these changes doesn’t necessarily mean more detail, but it does mean greater precision.
I’m fortunate to have three beta readers who together spot my verbal tics and bring them to my attention. As I go about revising those passages, I usually identify other infelicitous expressions. By the time I’m finished, the manuscript is tight and clean, and reads smoothly, without echoes or awkwardness or repetitions.
“Overused” words is a popular topic on various sites for writers, and I visited several. To read a list of words considered overused in writing today, go to:
To read my fiction, go here: