Overused words


 By Jeanne Marie Leach

Beginning writers often make the mistake of overusing certain words or phrases. We’ll explore the majority of them over the next two weeks.

Some of the most common overused words in fiction are: that, however, because, of course, and after all. Suggest to your client to eliminate them whenever possible. How do you know when the word can be deleted? Try reading the sentence without it. If the meaning doesn’t change, then the word isn’t necessary.

Discard worn-out clichés and trite phrases. Think of fresh ways of phrasing old sayings. Take the following clichés and see if you can think of an innovative approach to word each of them.

Easy come, easy go.

Bittersweet memories.

Cut to the chase.

There’s no place like home.

More than a little.

Like comparing apples to oranges.

  • Don’t allow the same pet descriptive phrases toovoften. I read a book once where virtually everything was described as  ‘spectacular.’ This became annoying; I almost put the book down before finishing it. Sometimes a writer will come across a new word that instantly becomes their favorite. Unfortunately, they pass this word on to the reader, and it soon loses its appeal. Be careful to allow new, exciting words only once or twice in a book. For awhile, every Christian fiction book had a “niggling” thought in it. This took away from the fun of using an unusual word. Lately, I’ve seen numerous characters with a stone in their stomach. Even though you really like the way someone said something in their book, try to always write something different and new.
  • Most recently I have found fiction authors trying to avoid “look,” and what happens is all their characters can do is “gaze.” It’s not an unusual word, but overusing it becomes annoying. It’s okay to say she looked over her shoulder or he saw her from across the room. Instead, we get things like: her gaze flew toward the window. Huh? Did it float on its own, or did she throw it over there? Sorry, I couldn’t resist. Actually, a gaze is to look steadily and intently at something. So      in the above example, her look wouldn’t actually become a gaze until after she focused on the window.
  • It can become confusing as to when to use he or she and when the character’s name is appropriate. When telling a story, the characters must be referred to often. If the proper name is used too frequently, the book will sound like a first grade reader. Mary said this. Mary went here. Mary wants that. So the right pronouns must be interspersed throughout the manuscript. But these pronouns shouldn’t be overused either. A good rule to remember is to make sure the author has used the character’s proper name at least twice per page, but no more than four times.
  • Regarding proper names, another mistake common to beginning writers is the failure to be specific in naming people and places. It’s not enough to simply say “the old man, the old woman, the child, the city, the river, and the like for several pages after introducing a new character. It is important to give the character’s proper name the first time they are introduced. Obviously, there are times when not using the full name the first time will add intrigue to a story. Just be aware of how each character is introduced into the story.

I recently edited a book of short stories about the author’s life experiences. Several times she wrote an entire story using only “he.” I knew she was talking about her husband, but readers want to know the character’s names and settings, even minor ones, so encourage the writer to be more specific in descriptions.

Watch for more overused words next week!