5 Overused Words in Fiction
by Kelsie Engen (originally posted on ryanlanz.com) I’m deep in the throes of editing my current WIP right now, Broken Time, which is why my poor blog has been taking a backseat. And what this really means is that I’m deep into the nitty-gritty of grammar, word usage, syntax, and pretty much the non-glamorous aspects of writing. It’s the season of writing where you go cross-eyed trying to focus on too many filter, weasel, and crutch words that you use. It’s where the story might be solid, but you suddenly realize that your grasp of writing skills are seriously lacking. (And I mean, seriously. How many times can I use the word “eyes”? Probably too many to count. I’m actually embarrassed.) And since I embarked on this madness called self-editing, it occurred to me that others might benefit from a discussion of overused words in fiction. We all do it, it’s not something to be ashamed of, but removing and replacing these words with something else will dramatically improve your writing (and that means it improves your reader’s reading, too). My plan is to break these top 20 down into 4 posts of 5, as I’ll be throwing in examples and discussing why removing or replacing the word is the wiser choice. Of course, the “20 top overused words” is a bit subjective, as we each have our own list of “crutch words” which we overuse. So my tip to you, before we even get into the words I chose, is to read through your own writing, paying attention to your words. Or even better, do a search and find for each word to see how many times you use it. Scrivener will do this for you, and ProWritingAid is a great resource for this as well. There are other things out there that will perform this task for you. If you know of another one I didn’t mention, comment below where you go for this! 1. felt Alternative forms: feel, feels, feeling. Why should you avoid it? This is a “telling” signal. Ultimately, it is an indicator that you are about to tell us something you should show us instead. E.g. “Tom felt so sad.” That’s great. (Said sarcastically, in case you missed that.) How does Tom react when he’s “so sad”? E.g. “Tom’s eyes brimmed with tears, his chest jerking up and down as he fought to control his sob.” Wow, now that’s one poor, sad little soul, isn’t it? Once in awhile, or in certain instances (like classic fairy tales, or a character relating another person’s plight, etc.), “felt” is okay to use. But as a general “rule” of fiction, it’s best avoided. Something that might be okay once in a great while would look something like: “Tom felt as though the floor had dropped out from underneath him, swallowed him up and closed above him, depositing him a black hole of despair.” Now, do you absolutely need “Tom felt” above? Let’s try it without: “The floor had dropped out from underneath Tom, swallowed him up and closed above him, depositing him in a black hole of despair.” Okay, I like that, too–the straight metaphor instead of Tom introducing the metaphor to the reader (a technique calling filtering, which can add distance between the reader and main character). So use what works best for your voice, your story, your style. Don’t let the rules get you down. 2. look Alternative forms: looking, looked, looks, appear(ed). Ah, you weren’t expecting me to slip in “appear,” were you? Well, it’s similar enough and functions in the same way as “look.” One of the problems with “look” is the tendency to keep the sentence around it nice and simple. E.g. “Tom looked sick.” Or “Tom appeared sick.” Or even, “Tom looked at his friend.” Again, that doesn’t really give me much to go on, kind of telling, like “felt” was above. Let’s change it up. E.g. “Tom’s face was ghastly green.” All right, well it uses “was,” which, as you’ll see later, is not a great word to use, but it’s certainly better in some instances. After all, is it better for Tom to have “looked sick” or for his face to be “ghastly green”? Which one paints the better picture? But what about the other sentence, “Tom looked at his friend”? Let’s try messing around with that one. “Tom shot his friend a glare that could have shattered ice.” Aside from the questionable POV issues here, this is much more descriptive, and you probably have had this glare shot at you at least once in your lifetime. It puts an immediate image into your head. But what if we were to just say “Tom looked at his friend with a glare that could have shattered ice”? The verb replacement here is really key. Shooting a glare at someone suggests quick and fluid movement. Looking implies a longer sort of stare, but can also just be a lackadaisical, half-hearted glance. So in reading the sentence the first time: “Tom looked at his friend with a glare that could have shattered ice,” we don’t let the reader know that Tom is angry enough to shatter ice until we get to the word “glare,” and then we begin to sense his anger. However, when we use the word “shot,” we only have to read two words out of the sentence to know that something quick and full of emotion is happening. “Look” is what I call a throwaway verb, as it never tells a reader as much as the writer thinks. Again, sometimes using “looked” is okay. Sometimes you’re going for brevity and looked is perfect. Sometimes a simple, “he looked at her with incredulity” is perfect for your story in that moment. So, once in awhile, ignore the rule and allow yourself to use look. But don’t let litter your page. Search for those l-double-o-ks and remove as many of them as you can. And don’t fool yourself into thinking that you can’t rephrase a sentence to cut it. 3. see Alternative forms: saw, seen, seeing. This is another one of those filtering words. What that means is that instead of staying close in the character’s head, we’re forcing the reader to jump back and be reminded that they are not the character. Essentially it creates a wall between the reader and the story being told. Take for example: “Tom saw the children playing croquet in the grass. He saw the smallest one lugging a mallet that stretched over his head. And there, he saw upon the ground a smattering of balls painted as bright as Easter eggs.” That’s a lot of saws. And not the wood-cutting kind. Let’s try it without. “Before Tom, children played croquet in the grass. The smallest one lugged a mallet that stretched over his head. Scattered upon the ground were a smattering of balls painted as bright as Easter eggs.” I don’t know about you, but I definitely enjoy reading the second one better. When is “saw” appropriate? This is a rather tricky one. There are some instances where “saw” can be effective to let us know there is a disconnect between the character and what they are seeing. For example, perhaps Tom is seeing a vision. He might then say something like, “In his mind, Tom saw children played croquet in the grass. The smallest one lugged a mallet that stretched over his head. Scattered upon the ground were a smattering of balls painted as bright as the Easter eggs Tom had decorated growing up.” Note that the difference is subtle here, a mixture of the two techniques above, where the emphasis of Tom seeing is up front, then dropping the “saws” to show us the scene, unfiltered, then returning not to “saw” but to what it means to Tom. It’s much better to show us what the scene means to Tom than to tell us that Tom saw something. 4. noticed Alternative forms: notice, observe(d) I don’t know about you, but “notice” in fiction sure makes my eyes cross. If we’re in limited point of view, I already know the character noticed something–everything that’s told to me should be from the character’s direct knowledge! (If we’re using omniscient POV, that’s a different story.) E.g. “Tom noticed the flag waving above the store.” Ugh. Of course he did, if he’s telling the story. He can only tell me what he notices and knows. But more than that, what a boring way to tell me. Instead, show me! E.g. “The wind whipped the American flag above the store, threatening to tatter it.” What a better picture! Now, when is it “acceptable”? Rarely, in my opinion. Perhaps when you’re writing a mystery and the main character, probably the detective, notices something significant, it could be like this: “With a jolt, Tom noticed the American flag above the store. Had that always been there? Or had it only been raised after the owner’s death?” In this case, the flag would be a clue and important to both reader and character to “notice.” So the act of using “notice” draws the reader’s attention to it. However, if you’re attempting to be subtle with the clue, this is not the way to do it. 5. was Alternative forms: is, being, to be, am, were Ah, dearly beloved, we are gathered here to celebrate our gross overuse of the word “was.” Or are we? After all, the “to be” verb is highly useful, and we use it all time. I am, you are, he/she/it is, we were, you are, they are. Those are all conjugations of the same verb. So why has it gotten such a bad rap? Unfortunately, “was” can be connected to passive sentence structure. Passive sentences are considered weak sentences by many in the writing industry because it takes the focus of the sentence off of the subject and places it onto the object. Therefore, it’s become a common suggestion to cut all the “wases” from your writing. Not only is this almost impossible, I venture that it’s not advisable. However, as with most things, there is a caveat. Whoever began picking on “was” is sometimes correct. It’s ignorance which has led to an assumption that all wases are bad. Sometimes, was needs to be used. Here’s an example pulled from my short story Bernadette & the Stranger. “Cancer. Cancer was a thief, she decided on that day under the cottonwoods. A thief that stole from humanity, that stole from children. But cancer was only one tool the thief death used. That, she had discovered another day, many years later.” A couple of wases. You might not even have noticed them. “Cancer was a thief,” and “But cancer was only one tool the thief death used.” I could have changed the language here. I could have said something like, “Cancer revealed itself as a thief that day.” But then I wouldn’t have been able to continue with “she (Bernadette) decided…” for the revelation is apparently unattached to Bernadette’s thinking. Or I could have said something like, “Cancer had to be a thief, she decided…” but I find that even wordier and less clear than the somewhat invisible “was.” Now, there are times that “was” should be cut. Quite often, starting a sentence with “there was” indicates a weak sentence to come, and often is just lazy writing. E.g. “There was a fountain pen sitting on the table.” Revised: “A fountain pen sat on the table.” Or “A fountain pen crouched on the table.” Or “A fountain pen rolled on the table.” Or “A marbled blue fountain pen crouched in the middle of the table, abandoned by the fingers that had once so lovingly caressed it.” What the first example shows is a weak sentence with little description. Even just cutting “there was” immediately makes the reader’s job easier, because all “there was” is doing is serving to distract from the subject of the sentence. “There was” is often a way for a writer to start a sentence they don’t know how to start. It’s almost like writing through writer’s block. Just keep the fingers on the keyboard, type “there was” and something else will come. Rather like, “It was a dark and stormy night.” A bland sentence that doesn’t tell us too much when you actually get down to it. Part 1 Conclusion Although I challenge you to write a full-length novel without the use of was, notice, see, look, and felt, chances are they and their alternatives are going to appear in your writing at some point. Just in this sentence I used “are” twice and “appear,” a variant of the ubiquitous “look.” It’s best to keep with the spirit of the “rules” and avoid them unless you know why you’re using them and can validate those uses. Don’t invade your reader with weak word choices and verbs, instead treat them to your eloquence. Guest post contributed by Kelsie Engen. Kelsie loves to read and started her blog to share that passion with others of like mind. Check out her website for more of her work.