By Barbara Linn Probst
The characters are fresh, the scenes are full of tension, and the story has come to a satisfying resolution. One step remains before you declare: Done. It’s that final check. You click on the little magnifying glass in the top right-hand corner of the page and search for over-used words.
Your mission: to find and eliminate.
You’re on the hunt for those unnecessary qualifiers (started to, seemed to, began to), attempts to create urgency (all of a sudden, just then), clichés, and personal pets.
“Personal pets” vary and thus can’t be found on a website. (That’s what makes them personal.) For me, they’re all those shrugs and nods and sighs—the lifting of shoulders and eyebrows, tightening of lips, dipping of chins, narrowing and widening of eyes—and any phrase that includes the word breath or pulse.
Your list may be different, but you have one. We all do.
“Search and destroy” will make your writing cleaner and more professional. However, that may not always be the right strategy.
When “Often-Used” Might Be Okay
There are times when an often-used word might not be an over-used word— its frequency signaling, instead, a recurring motif with hidden possibilities.
For example: When I was putting my novel Queen of the Owls through the search-and-destroy process, I discovered that I’d used the word hair much more often than I’d thought. Instead of assuming that this was something to be fixed (meaning: get rid of it). I took another look at when and where the word appeared.
To my surprise, it was rarely just a description of someone’s appearance. Rather, hair always signified something, revealed something about a character. Hair pulled back or allowed to tumble freely. A lopsided haircut or a perfect French twist. Brand-new glittering highlights, indicating a change (and a risk) for my bookworm protagonist.
I realized that hair played an evocative, symbolic role in my protagonist’s journey.
Instead of eliminating or reducing references to hair, I decided to make them more intentional. Precisely because it was a highly-used word, hair could serve as a shorthand for important story elements of constriction and freedom that had more power through a proxy like hair than they would have had if they were explicitly named. The references to hair allowed the reader to feel what I was trying to convey. A classic show, don’t tell.
Search-and-Destroy vs Search-and-Employ
I wondered which of my other pets might offer a similar possibility. Could there be an untapped role for nod, shrug, gaze, stare, lift? Was there a way to view them as allies rather than weeds?
It struck me that shrug and nod—prime candidates for many search-and-destroy missions—are gestures that tend to occur during conversation, nonverbal indicators of a character’s response. They mean something.
Jane nodded. Again. “Why are you always agreeing with me?” Ellen snapped. “Instead of saying how you actually feel.”
Jane’s nod and Ellen’s response show us their relationship. The next time Jane nods, we’ll feel the frustration that Ellen feels and be ready for something new to happen.
Dan shrugged. “No,” Carolyn said. “Don’t brush me off like that. Not this time.”
Dan’s shrug shows his indifference, revealing the power dynamic in the relationship. Carolyn’s response shows that she’s about to challenge that.
The scene requires Dan’s shrug; eliminating it would change or weaken the impact. But perhaps Dan can examine the edge of his cuff or mutter “whatever.” Or Carolyn can react to his shrug, even though it’s not on the page. “Stop doing that thing with your shoulder.” The gesture can— and should—remain, even if it’s not named. Destroy would be the wrong response. Embody, maybe. Or indicate.
So far so good, but what about those classic “search and destroy” words like totally, just, only, really, suddenly, started to, seemed to—words that are serve no real purpose?
Clearly, not every often-used word or phrase is a hidden gem. Some really do need to be used sparingly or eliminated altogether. A ban on suddenly, all at once, just then, seemed to, started to, and began to seldom has a down-side. The phrases nearly always make writing weaker rather than stronger. A good “test” is to take the words out and see if the sentence still works.
In other cases, the problem is simply excessive use. Unlike the dead-weight of started to, these are perfectly good words (like shrug) whose “problem” is that they’re used too often, thus diluting their effect.
If that’s the case, the solution is to find equivalents or near-equivalents; this creates not only variety, but nuance and precision. The test is to try synonyms or related words and see how they affect the meaning of the passage.
Some words and phrases can go either way—best eliminated or best enhanced— depending on the context.
Okay. So how can you decide?
One guideline is the presence of a specific referent. My personal demons— raised eyebrows, tightened lips, tilted heads—have proven useful when assigned specific roles, rather than used indiscriminately.
If a tilted head is the signature trait of one particular character, or occurs only when a specific emotion is being conveyed (such as skepticism or doubt), then it becomes intentional rather than generic. The author is in control of the phrase, instead of the other way around.
Another guideline is the phrase’s capacity for evocative economy. Tightened lips can be a concise way to remind the reader of things she already knows about the character or the relationship among the characters. By using a phrase the reader is familiar with an entire history is quickly evoked, without interrupting the story movement. The fact that the phrase has been used several times before is an asset, not a liability.
Let’s make this post actionable!
Identify some high-frequency words and phrases in your manuscript and ask yourself if you need to destroy or employ:
- Which are dead weight and ought to go?
- Which would deliver more punch and precision if variations were used?
- Which have untapped evocative potential precisely because they recur?
We can't wait to read your answers in the comments!
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Barbara Linn Probst is a writer of both fiction and non-fiction, living on a historic dirt road in New York’s Hudson Valley. Her debut novel, Queen of the Owls (April 2020), is the powerful story of a woman’s search for wholeness, framed around the art and life of iconic American painter Georgia O’Keeffe.
Endorsed by best-selling authors such as Christina Baker Kline and Caroline Leavitt, Queen of the Owls was selected as one of the 20 most anticipated books of 2020 by Working Mother, one of the best Spring fiction books by Parade Magazine, and a debut novel “too good to ignore” by Bustle. It was also featured in lists compiled by Pop Sugar and Entertainment Weekly, among others. It won the bronze medal for popular fiction from the Independent Publishers Association, placed first runner-up in general fiction for the Eric Hoffer Award, and was short-listed for both the First Horizon and the $2500 Grand Prize. Barbara’s book-related article, “Naked: Being Seen is Terrifying but Liberating,” appeared in Ms. Magazine on May 27.
Barbara is also the author of the groundbreaking book on nurturing out-of-the-box children, When The Labels Don't Fit. She has a PhD in clinical social work, blogs for several award-winning sites for writers, and is a serious amateur pianist. Her second book releases in April 2021. To learn more about Barbara and her work, please see http://www.barbaralinnprobst.com/