Sunday, August 2, 2015

Self-Editing (Just: Another Four-letter Word)

I am at an exciting point in my current WIP, Doubtful Relations. I have finished the final (?) rewrite, and am doing the last bit of polishing before shipping it off to a few beta readers to find out if it really is the final rewrite.

I have a whole lesson (#12) in my class on self-editing devoted to nits: those final things I need to check before I am willing to send a manuscript off to see the sights. One aspect of that nit-checking process is considering my overused words.

I have a list of words that cause me issues. I overuse them or I have discovered they are frequent indicators of sloppy or flabby writing. My list has grown over time. Some of the words on this list rarely still appear in my manuscripts—that’s self-editing at its best—I no longer need to fix that mistake because I don’t make it any more.

Here is my current list of problem words and why they are a problem:

      About (Which I added to this list after I tested the word frequency of Ant Farm and found 372 in a 100,000-word manuscript)
      After (Am I telling again? Best way to indicate sequence of events?)
      All of (Is all sufficient? And is it really all?)
      Almost (A flabby modifier)
      Always (100% of the time always? If so, state the fact; if not, don’t use!)
      Appear (It appears I overuse this when I mean seem; a rewrite can often eliminate both appear and seem.)
      As (Make sure the simile adds to the story.)
      As you know (Then why am I telling you?)
      Entirely (Often unnecessary. She considered it entirely possible George could edit this sentence to advantage.)
      Finally (See Start/Began. If needed, make sure it is the last thing in the sequence and appears at the end of the sentence/paragraph when you want the tension to drop.)
      However (I often generate overly complicated sentences when this word is present.)
      In the meantime (I’ll search for a better way to reference the passage of time.)
      Just (Another four-letter word I just overuse entirely too much by including it as a filler.)
      Middle of (I tend to place action in the middle of the room or road or country or century or…)
      Nod (My conversational beats are littered with characters nodding at each other; left unchanged a reader might nod off.)
      Of course (leading filler?)
      Off of (Is off sufficient?)
      Perhaps (Overused. Make sure this sentence justifies its use.)
      Poor (Unless this refers to a monetary solution or used in dialog, change to a better adjective.)
      Quite (Wishy-washy flab. See Very.)
      Respective (Author intrusion may have occurred.)
      Started/Began (Because I am thinking of the action sequence I can fall into the trap of STARTING the action, AND THEN continuing the action and FINALLY concluding the action. Time to remember the Nike commercial and JUST DO IT (which I will modify to DO IT <grin>).
      Stood (I discovered this one time while looking at “too.” I often use it as an unnecessary stage direction.)
      Successive (Better to lay out the sequence rather than talk about it?)
      Suddenly (Make it so by action or reaction; this is often a tell.)
      That (Is that that filler or is that necessary for understanding?)
      Then/and Then (see Started/Began)
      Too (When used as a too frequent tag I overuse at the end of sentences.)
      Took (I also discovered this one while looking for “too.” I use it as a catchall and some should be changed to more descriptive words.)
      There is/There are (Weak opening to a sentence)
      Turn (Unnecessary stage direction?)
      Very (Undistinguished flab. See Quite.)
      When (Is this the best way to reflect synchronous events?)

It takes me eight to ten hours to go through an entire manuscript to consider each use and then eliminate or modifier the language as necessary.

Do you have “favorite” words you overuse?

~ Jim


  1. then, just, and characters nodding like bobble-heads. Great list, I'm going to add it to my "last read-through" list.

  2. That list is a great starting point!

    I find myself overusing entire phrases. They seem appropriate to the character/situation, and then I keep repeating them.

    I do run a few words & phrases the way that you do, when I think a manuscript is almost done, but it doesn't catch some of my overly used words (an editor told me I had to find some alternatives to "swirl." It was outdoors in the winter in a city. I had snow swirling and mist swirling and trash swirling and dropped papers swirling.

    One way I try to catch such repeats is to have a computer read me the manuscript while I go over it. I find it works much better than reading it out loud myself.

  3. I go through to eliminate just and that. I have characters nodding, too, and smiling a lot. I wonder if it's because I tend to smile a lot when I'm writing my characters dialogue, or it just that my main characters are happy friendly people most of the time. I guess I could have changed just that to because, couldn't I. Anyway I like your list Jim, and I'm going to print it out to refer to because soon I'll be doing the final edit on my latest book.

  4. KM -- I think I'll try your technique of having the computer read the novel to me rather than reading it to myself and see the difference (other than on my not losing my voice!)

    Gloria & Margaret -- I'm glad the list is helpful.

    ~ Jim

  5. I use my Kindle to read to me, which helps me catch some problems. I also use an editing software to find repeated words. Then I rely on other sets of eyes.... they catch things I missed. Am I ever completely satisfied? NOPE!!

  6. Carla -- My son had a high school English teacher who told him and I have taken it to heart that no creative work is finished (as in polished until nothing can be improved), the author finally decides to abandon it.

    Some of us take a lot of time and steps before reaching the abandon it stage. Some prolific writers don't have the same issues of trying to make things perfect.

    ~ Jim