Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Hidden Killers of Your Writing

by John B. Rosenman

We all do it. We’re all guilty. To a greater or lesser extent, we’re all infected by the same disease, and the same sneaky little devils slip right past our guard and into our writing.

What are these sneaky little devils? Why, they’re bad habits, subliminal stuttering. Or to put it more plainly, they’re overused words and phrases, patterns of language and expression. To be a bit dramatic, they are hidden killers of our writing.

Am I going too far? I don’t think so. At their best, overused words, phrases, italics, ellipses, exclamation points and their like are invisible irritants and defects that deplete our prose and diminish the reader’s pleasure in what we’ve written. There is a repetitive annoying sameness to our style. Yes, some repetition is good and can enhance our writing, but often we need to experiment with different ways of expression rather than fall back on old habits which are all the more insidious because we are usually unaware of them.

One of my wicked but excellent editors has a habit of highlighting in different colors the words I overuse. Some of them are THAT, BUT, THEN, AND THEN, SUDDENLY, JUST, ABOUT, LIKE, HAD. I don’t think phrases plague me too much, though I’m not free from their contagion, but I know I do tend to overuse the ellipsis. I dot dot dot too much!

Fortunately, today we have computers and other devices, and we can troubleshoot and repair many of these faults with the FIND and the FIND and REPLACE feature. Try it out yourself if you haven’t done so already. Type in certain words and phrases and see how many times they are highlighted. If your manuscript is two hundred pages long and your software says you use “suddenly” seventeen times, you may not have a problem. However, if you use “suddenly” a hundred and seventeen times, you probably do. If you notice you use a certain phrase twice or three times on the same page, such as “Rising to his feet,” or “Turning his [or her] head,” then check it out. If you have your characters rising to their feet or turning their heads too often, you may need to revise their actions.

On the screen, colored highlights are pretty; however, whatever their hue, they might be red flags. We need to consider them closely and objectively and ask ourselves if a lot of work is needed to revise and replace repetitive words. As a writer, I’ve found I’ve had to seek synonyms and new ways of expression.

Often, however, the best remedy is simple deletion. Just ask yourself, in this particular situation, do I really need to use that word or phrase again? It can be challenging and enlightening, even fun and rewarding to eliminate and avoid words you overuse, to make your writing tighter, cleaner, and more effective. Go on an adverb hunt. Stalk the dangerous adverb which sucks verbs dry. (“Suddenly,” mentioned before, is an adverb.) Excuse the repetition here, but these overused words are often invisible to the writer but not to the reader, and they do weaken and drain our writing in various ways. The writer should rigorously seek them out and prune them.

Here’s one embarrassing personal stat: in examining the first draft of a novel I recently wrote, I found I had used the word “that” (perhaps my most overused word) 966 times in 86,400 words. I believe “that that” use of “that” is too much.

* * * * * * * * * *

Okay, let’s try to make this a little interesting. Next Wednesday we’ll have a contest featuring a small unedited section from the first draft of my SF romantic action-adventure novel Inspector of the Cross, published by MuseItUp Publishing. (It is available here )

I’ll be offering THREE prizes to three different individuals. The person who wins third place gets their choice of one of my eBooks at MuseItUp’s site. Just go there, peruse the eight books I’ve published, and decide which books you want to win. Second place gets his or her choice of two, and first place (if she’s a female), gets a date with the author. No, just joking. First place gets his or her choice of three of my eBooks.

I’ll post all the rules right here next Wednesday. Be ready!


John B Rosenman has published nearly twenty books, including SF action-adventure novels such as Beyond Those Distant Stars and Speaker of the Shakk (Mundania Press), A Senseless Act of Beauty (Crossroad Press), and Alien Dreams (Drollerie Press and Crossroad Press). Shorter books include A Mingling of Souls and Music Man (XoXo Publishing), Here Be Dragons (Eternal Press), The Voice of Many Waters (Blue Leaf Publications), Green in Our Souls (Damnation Books), and Bagonoun’s Wonderful Songbird and Childhood’s Day (Gypsy Shadow Publishing). Visit his website or blog to learn more.

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At 9:18 PM, Blogger J Q Rose said...

I overuse just and so. One editor told me I used as 96 times in a 15,000 word ms. I didn't check if she was accurate, but you can bet I deleted a bunch of as's....Good info here. Thanks.

At 4:48 PM, Blogger Victoria Roder said...

What a great post. I am guilty!

At 8:15 PM, Blogger John Rosenman said...

Thanks, folks. One thing I've been wondering about is if readers notice these overused words, etc. as much as editors. I doubt it.

Some small words such as "had" can be difficult to avoid.


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