43 Words and Phrases to Search for While Polishing Your Novel, A Craft of Writing Post by Tracy Gold
I am working on editing my novel for Pitch Wars, and I've noticed some words and phrases that creep up recurrently and weaken my prose—and I'm not alone in this! I see these in unpublished writing (and the occasional published work) all the time.
During your polishing round of editing, do a control F (find) for all of these, in whatever tense you find them in your work. Cut or replace them as necessary, and you will be on your way to a stronger manuscript.
Of course, there are exceptions. Your characters may use these words in dialogue, or they may play a role in your voice. Make these words earn their place in your writing, and your readers will thank you.
Note: In my opinion, you shouldn't worry about this while you're writing your first draft or working on big picture revisions. Why bother to shine up scenes you might completely rewrite later?
- "Now" is obvious and rarely needed.
- "Then" is often not needed. You can say what happens and the sequence will be obvious.
- "Soon" can often be taken out.
- "Deep breath" is okay, but sometimes I find myself using this every other page. How often does a person really take a deep breath? There are better ways to show a character calming down.
- "Hair stands up" should probably go, especially if the character is talking about being scared, not about being cold. I’ve never had my hair stand up in real life because I was scared.
- "Goosebumps" has the same problem as "hair stood up.” Find a better way to show the character is freaked out.
- "Mouth" often comes before "mouth dropped open," which, really, how often does that happen?
- "Jaw" has the same problem as "mouth."
- "Cheeks" often relates to "cheeks turn red," which is a boring way to describe embarrassment.
- "Stomach" can be okay, but I like to use it in "my heart falls into my stomach," which is cliché.
- "Thinks" is extraneous. For me, this word normally pops up more when I write in past tense narration, as “thought.” Instead of "She thought the chocolate cake was wonderful," write "the chocolate cake was wonderful."
- "Wonder" has the same problem as thought. Say what they wondered. Often, this may came as a question. For example: “I wonder why she picked her nose in public” could be “why did she pick her nose in public?” Watch out, though—it’s also possible to use way too many rhetorical questions. Thanks to my Pitch Wars mentor, Rachel Lynn Solomon, for calling me on that! Everything in moderation.
- "Felt" in my fiction often comes in a phrase like "She felt sure she could climb the fence.” Try it without “felt”: “She could climb that wimpy fence.”
- "Know" we know your character knows something, if it’s said in the narration. For example: “I know he’s ridiculous, but I still like him” could be “he’s ridiculous, but I still like him.”
- "Head out" can be replaced with "leave."
- Gerunds should be struck down by a find and replace of "ing." For example, "was washing" should be "washed." Gerunds are also commonly misused to combine two actions that are not simultaneous. For example, take the sentence: "Placing the book on the shelf, she looked at her watch.” She most likely did not look at her watch as she placed the book on the shelf. She probably placed the book on the shelf, and then looked at her watch.
- "Had" is often extra, and is a sign that you’re using passive forms of verbs. For example: “I had watered the plans yesterday” could be “I watered the plants yesterday.”
- "Started" is often used with a gerund and can be taken out. For example, "started carrying" can be "carried."
- "Suddenly" can be implied in the action, for example, "Suddenly, the dog shot across the grass." Use a strong verb like "Shot," and "sudden" will come through.
- "Noises" should be more specific.
- "Discovered" is often not needed. You can show what is discovered and your reader will know it's new.
- "Look" is often found in such useless phrases as "didn't look like" or "she looked at the fence." Show what's being looked at, and you may discover stronger prose: “The fence called to her.”
- "Hear" can be struck out because you can describe the sound: “I hear the train rumbling down the tracks” can be “the train rumbles down the tracks.”
- "See" has the same problem as heard; describe the sight instead. “I see Mom running toward me, waving her arms,” could be “Mom runs toward me, waving her arms.” Notable exception: “I see dead people.”
- "Could" often comes in phrases like "could see," in which case, skip it.
- "Face" can be struck out because it's often used in a sentence like "She looked at his face." Unless you specify another body part, if one character looks at another, "face" is implied.
- "Loud" is often extra. For example, "loud blast" is redundant.
- "Easy to see" should be struck out, or replaced. For example: “it was easy to see that she liked him” could be “she stared at him every time he looked away.”
- "In answer" as a dialogue tag is obvious and not needed.
- "Asked" as a dialogue tag is implied by the big ol’ question mark in the dialogue. Use "said" and stay out of the story's way.
- "Very" is a sign that your adjective or adverb isn't strong enough.
- Adverbs should be struck down with a find and replace for "ly" because they're a sign your verbs aren't strong enough.
- "That" should earn its place in every instance.
- "Perhaps" weakens sentences.
- "So" is a particular crutch of mine. It's not (so) bad in moderation, but overwhelms in excess, so I seek it out and strike it out.
- "Still" is another word I overuse when it's not needed.
- "Albeit" is stodgy. While it may work in some writing, it's a no-go for my novel, which is YA.
- "In addition to" has the same problem as "albeit." Can be struck out or substituted with "also."
- "But" can often be struck out. I have a particular penchant for starting sentences with “but” unnecessarily.
- "Though" is another “but,” for me.
- "Too" is (too) often extraneous, for example, "We've got another problem, too."
- "Even" is extraneous, as in "even better," which could simply be "better."
- Just is a particular crutch of mine. Oh, how I love it! Just take out just, because you just don’t need it.
This is by no means an exhaustive list; it’s simply the words that pop up the most for me. What are your words to remove? Leave them in the comments, and let’s all help each other get shiny prose!
About the Author:
YARN, The Stoneslide Corrective, two feminist anthologies, and several other magazines. Tracy cofounded Sounding Sea Writers’ Workshop and is a composition instructor and M.F.A. candidate in Fiction at The University of Baltimore. Tracy is currently working on her YA novel, THE ACCIDENTS, as a Pitch Wars mentee. After the agent round on November 2nd, she will be seeking literary representation. When Tracy’s not working or writing, she’s hanging out with her rescue dog and horse.
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-- posted by Susan Sipal, @HP4Writers