Today is Part 2 in a 3 part series on overused words. Read Part 1 here.

Overused words


By Jeanne Marie Leach


I’ve been talking about words and phrases that beginning writers use that give them away as newbies. Here are some more to look out for.

  •  This section I call “Dick and Jane Syndrome.” Remember your first grade readers? See Dick. See Jane. See Dick run. See Jane run. This is okay for grade school children, but adults deserve more vivid writing, so I encourage you to make it a rule not to begin consecutive sentences with the same word or phrase, unless for effect or to heighten intensity of a scene.

Example for effect: Mary ran down the dark hallway and bumped into something—no—someone. A scream caught in her throat. She inhaled sharply. She would be dead soon.

Obviously, this could be written in so many other ways, but should the author choose to use this technique, it’s okay because it heightens the suspense.

However, watch out for repeating phrases and words for effect. These can become annoying.

Example of repeating words and phrases: Mary ran down the dark hallway and bumped into something—something human. A scream caught in her throat—a scream that would have called Jacob back into the house. She wanted to run—run far far away.

This technique only works for Rod Serling in The Twilight Zone, so watch out for it. Make sentences definitive; Mary ran down the dark hallway and bumped into something with a human shape. It tightens up the scene and makes the writing more alive.

  • Also, did you notice in the last sentence of the previous example the phrase, far far away? People often do this to try to accentuate the severity of something. They figure if it is far far away, somehow this is actually farther away than merely saying “far away.” This is not true.

The same thing goes for very very tired. Does the second “very” make the person more tired than if they are very tired? No. Leave these types of repetitive adjectives to the movie makers: a long time ago in a galaxy far far away. . . Star Wars made this sentence iconic in the movie world, and this is what I always think of the moment I read something with “far far” in it.

  • Lastly, one of the most notable mistakes used by beginning writers is overusing the word was and its tenses. This culprit is the king of passive writing. I’ve read books in which these were used many times. What ends up happening is the book sounds like a first grade reader.

In order to demonstrate to my editing clients this concept, I will often show them in a balloon by removing everything except the basics of each sentence in a paragraph that contains was multiple times. When they see something like the sequence of sentences below, they get the point.

She was tired.

He was angry.

Then she was sorry.

He was glad.

Now don’t go out and delete every instance of was. There are times in which this is the best way to say something. A book without the word was becomes tedious to read. In order to delete the word was from your manuscript, you will most likely have to completely rewrite the sentence. In doing so, you will spice up the scene, bringing it out of the ordinary and passive and into descriptive and active.

Using the examples I gave above, getting rid of was will cause the sentences to sing.

She was tired. = Her body ached as she climbed the stairs to the house.

He was angry.  = His eyes shot fire at her and his face contorted into a sneer.

Then she was sorry. = She knew she’d done wrong and her heart convicted her of it.

He was glad.  = His huge grin and the sparkle in his eyes spoke of his happiness.

I’ll bring you the last of the list of overused words next week.