Naughty Words

Wednesday, May 17, 2017
Did you know you might be using "naughty" words in your writing?  I'm not talking about the four letter words I hear throughout the hallways of my high school. I'm talking about the words that will make your editor cringe.

When my editor sent me a list of words to reduce and their counts, my jaw hit the floor. Never in my wildest dreams would I have believed these little words could be such a huge problem. Below are my biggest offenders.

1. Look

This pesky little word showed up over 300 times in my original manuscript. Phrases like “he looked surprised” or “she looked away” ran rampant. Though it hadn’t occurred to me at the time, this word is indicative to telling, not showing. Instead of using it, try to describe the character’s reaction using facial expressions or verbal reactions. Description makes for a more engaging scene.

2. Very

Luckily, I didn’t use this word quite as often as I used the word “look,” but I still had to wittle it down. The only way my editor let me keep it is if I couldn’t find any other alternative. When you think about it, it’s not needed, anyway.

3. Just

I used this word – a lot. It popped up everywhere. I used it the most in my character’s dialogue, however, so I discarded it as often as possible and only kept it in when my character needed to use it to make sense.

4. Adverbs

Not the word "adverbs" - I'm talking about all adverbs. Why say “she quickly ran” when you can use a more effective adjective like “sprinted?” Let the verbs speak for themselves. She didn’t “thoughtfully pause.” She paused. Try using terrified instead of “horribly scared.” Out of ideas? A thesaurus is a writer’s best friend.

5. Began

“Amy began to sweat.” Eh. “Sweat beads glistened on her skin.” Better.

6. Felt

Unless I used the word for something the character could literally feel, I had to get rid of it. So my main character couldn’t feel sad, but she could feel the soft fur of her cat. Get it? We often use the word feel to describe emotions but, again, it’s a showing vs telling issue. Instead of writing “she felt sad,” have your main character throw herself on the bed and sob into her purple pillow.

7. Was

The word “was” was (ha ha) my biggest transgression. I used it over 800 times. I’m not joking. For days, I poured over my manuscript, eradicating the word. Each time I took out a “was” I had to re-work the sentence to make it more effective. Trust me, once you’ve been through the trauma of eliminating the same word over 800 times, you’ll never overuse it again.

Word elimination is torture. It is also eye-opening. I keep a list handy, now, so that I can eliminate the majority of my “naughty words” ahead of time - before I submit my work to agents or publishers. Everyone is prone to using certain words. If you’re aware of your favorites, try to keep their numbers down.

Feeling brave? Try searching for some of the words above. You might be surprised how often they appear.

Bethany Masone Harar is an author, teacher, and blogger, who does her best to turn reluctant readers into voracious, book-reading nerds. Check out her blog here.


Sioux Roslawski said...

Beth--Some of those "naughty" words I knew about, but some hadn't even occurred to me.

Thanks for the reminder.

Sioux Roslawski said...

Oh, and I forgot to mention how lucky we are these days that we don't have to pore over manuscripts. Being able to get the computer to "search" for whatever no-no word we want to hone in on is so much easier than it used to be. (I began in the days of the typewriter ;)

Beth said...

Sioux - YES! Whenever I type a word into the "find" box I cross my fingers and pray the count will be low. I can't imagine having to do it by hand.

There are many words I didn't even include. These were just my frequent-flyers.

Karen Wojcik Berner said...

Hi, I'm Karen, and I'm a "just" addict.
*Hi, Karen.*

This is a great list. You're right, getting rid of these will punch up everyone's writing. Thanks!

Marcia Peterson said...

I love how you also included examples of what to write instead. Great post!

Angela Mackintosh said...

I'm guilty of these. I always look for adverbs, but I'll have to check out WAS and see how many I rack up. =/ Great list, Beth!

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