Monday, April 01, 2019

That Sounds Familiar: Eliminating Often-Used Words in Our Writing

repeated words, editing
By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

It takes a lot of work to write well, and sometimes we go for what's easiest instead of what's original. Here's a heavily revised look at word packages.

During the drafting stage of a manuscript, some phrases and combinations of words tend to roll off our fingers and into our stories. Theses phrases aren’t clichés, per se, but they’ve been used so often by enough writers that they carry the same feeling as a cliché when readers read them.

They also tend to sound “right” to us, and that's the problem. We automatically use them without thinking about it, and that robs us of the chance to write something unique to our voice and style.

For example, I don’t know where the term “sodium lights” came from, I just know that I’d never heard of them, and then "The orange glow from the sodium lights” was in about half the novel I read for a while (published and critiqued). Even to this day, that phrase jumps out at me when I see it.

Despite the familiar feeling, "The orange glow from the sodium lights” isn't a cliché, but a word package--words used together so often they sound "wrong" to use them alone. A good example here is abject poverty. When was the last time you saw abject anything that wasn't poverty? Here are a few more you've no doubt read or even written:
  • Beamed a smile
  • Hair flowed down her back
  • Cacophony of sound
  • Shrugged a shoulder
  • Any kind of glow from any kind of light
  • Releasing a breath you didn't realize you were holding
These phrases feel so natural we can’t help but put them together, but when enough of them sneak into a novel, it loses its sense of originality. And that's the problem, because they also sound like "good writing" since we've seen them in novels we admire. By trying to write well, we're actually hurting our writing.

You don’t have to cut a word package if it works and says what you want to say. But they are phrases you might be using as crutches, like adverbs, weakening your writing because you’re not finding the right word for the job, just the easiest.

(Here's more on Overcoming Adversity Through Adverbs)

Common Places to Find Word Packages

editing, word packagesIn the descriptions: This is particularly true if you're not sure what things look like or you flat out don't like writing descriptions. It's much easier to let the familiar word package do the work for you, and since it already conjures specific images in your mind, it feels as though it's doing its job.

Look for anything that feels “written” or overly familiar. Word packages often read like a canned sentence, even if it's a good sentence (there's a reason these words keep getting put together). Trust your instincts on this, since everyone reads different novels and what's common to your genre might be different fro another. Only you know what’s familiar to you.

(Here's more on Is Your Description Helping Your Story or Holding it Back?)

In the stage direction: This is the area that always gets me. How many times has one of your characters "crept cautiously across whatever" or "pressed an ear against something" or heard "a noise rang out?" What your character is doing might be different, but it’s phrased in a way readers have read a hundred times before.

Some of these are so natural and common there's not much we can do about it to change it, but maybe instead of creeping cautiously the protagonist might sneak, or slink, or dart to the far corner of the room and duck behind the credenza.

(Here's more on Finding the Right Balance With Your Stage Directions)

In the dialogue and internalization: Snappy comebacks, dry wit, wry observations--these are phrases we hear all the time, so it’s natural that they’d make their way into our writing. How often has one of your characters said or thought one of these gems:
  • Yeah, right
  • Great. Whatever
  • Or so he thought
  • That’s what you think
  • Wouldn’t you like to know
People do use these phrases every day, so they do lend a sense of realism to the dialogue, but consider how much they're really adding to the story. In many cases, there are more original options that will work far better.

(Here's more on Something Worth Saying: Writing Effective Dialogue)

Fixing Word Packages in Your Writing 

While not every familiar phrase has to go, it’s worth looking at each one and deciding if there’s a better way to write it. Can it better reflect your protagonist’s voice? Can you write it in a way that’s more original? Can you shift some worlds around so it’s not exactly the same as what’s often used? Can it be cut entirely?

If a line or phrase feels familiar, or feels like those words just belong together, (and practically type themselves) there’s a good chance you’ve written a word package. Take a moment and consider other ways to convey the same idea, or if that phrase really is the best one for that sentence. It could be the difference between ho-hum prose that doesn’t surprise and prose that keeps a reader guessing.

Do you have any favorite (or despised) word packages? 

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Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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*Originally published in 2011


  1. I feel myself writing these in drafts, but I rarely stop to fix them if I'm 'flowing'. I hope I catch them all in revision! And overused words too. Gah! I wonder if one of those software programs that finds repeated words would be useful? Anyone tried one?

  2. I just finished a line edit on my latest WiP and I caught a bunch of these. I am a cliche maniac, and use the same ones over and over again. Hate that. Sometimes, I can turn them around, but mostly I just take them out.

    And it's funny, I beta'd for a guy last year who used "sodium lights" and I just thought that was the coolest thing I'd ever heard. Had no idea (now) it was so overused.

  3. @Roberta Walker, I use that feature in both Word and (Windows version) Scrivener. I love it! Who knew that I used the word "just" 247 times in one book? I examined them, took them all out in rewrites leaving just (there's that word) a few. Re ran the report, I was down to 102!

    Sigh. I'm working on getting it down to five. I think five would be ok.

    1. Suzi McGowen, what feature do you use in MS Word? Are you referring to "find" [Ctrl + F] or is there another feature within Word?

  4. Oooooh these are my bane. While I am writing the story, I am trying to get it down on paper as quickly as possible, and a lot of time the description winds up sounding...uninspired. Not cliche, but overused phrases rum amok.

    I kill these in revision with a pointy stick. What helps it making a list of each phrase and keeping tabs on how often I use a certain phrase.

  5. These slip in easily and are very difficult to weed out. When we've read something enough times, that's how the thought comes to us, in those overused phrases. they're tough even to see in your own work, and it's tough to come up with a fresher way that doesn't sound forced.

  6. This is excellent advice. It needn't be a distraction on the first run, but is well worth paying attention to later.

  7. Very good post. Thanks for pointing all these out!

  8. Good reminders, Janice. I have phrases I know I use too often, but it's so hard to let go. ;)

  9. I also ignore the cliches and over-used phrases during the first draft. I think it's important to get the story down first, (oops had to delete a just in that sentence!)
    Over the years I've made a list of words I use too often and when I'm editing I use Find and Replace to find them, and then manually delete or rewrite another way.
    I also find all occurances of things such as eyes, lips, mouth etc and look at how I've decribed them aiming for character specific mannerisms.
    I keep dreaming that one day I'll be able to get out a first draft with none of the above.

  10. Re: Sodium lights

    I'd never heard about them either until I moved to San Diego. They are in place throughout the city to limit the light pollution for Palomar Observatory.

    It is a really evocative detail, but totally inaccurate for other cities.

  11. Re: Sodium Lights: The sodium light comes from how some street lights work.

    They're common in the UK. But it's arguable that since most people writing the phrase "sodium light" as description don't know the origin and meaning they should avoid using the phrase.

  12. Roberta: I never used to worry about them until revisions, but I find myself noticing them more in the first drafts and stopping to change them. Probably because now I see them, like when you buy a new car and start seeing it everywhere.

    Anne: I'm not sure if sodium lights are still overused, my "discovery" of it was years ago, but it still sticks with me. It's a neat phrase so it stands out I guess.

    Suzi: Just is one of my words for sure. (along with only). They were such a part of Nya's voice they slipped in everywhere. :)

    Elizabeth: A list is a great idea. I have a bunch of different types of those to look out for later. I should probably update that now!

    Penny: Totally. They're so ingrained it actually sounds weird not to say it that way.

    Porky: Indeed.

    Faith: Most welcome!

    Amanda: I know! Especially really great discretion snippets. There were tons of things I used in Shifter than I caught myself trying to use in the other books.

    Shauna: I agree. My first drafts have notes all through them with things I need to go back to as well. Like (need detail) or (need better name). That's a great tip about body parts. "eyes widened" was a major offended for me in the first draft of Darkfall.

    Grumpymartian: I never thought about that, but you're right. I bet they aren't everywhere.

    Will: Thanks for the clarification on sodium lights :) I first read about them years ago. I wonder if a new type came out around then.

  13. @Roberta, the only software that really does help me is I plug in my sample, reduce to fifty most common words and then see if they're justified. I rely on "eyes" waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay too much. Consistently.

    Also, I so do that. I used to just write, but I don't catch it later. So now, if I write something that sounds familiar, I either pause and evaluate or just mark it with a TK so I'll remember to look at it later.

  14. Very helpful post. Both in the advice and in the comments! Thanks.

  15. Thanks! The commenters rock :)

  16. Excellent post! I think we all fall victim to these "word packages," as you can them, and I agree they show up most often in first drafts when we're in the throes of writing and don't want to upset the flow. Hopefully, through revision, I manage to whittle them down, although I'm not entirely sure. Have to say, "the orange glow from the sodium lights" is a new one to me. :)

  17. I have a feeling those lights were very popular years ago when I first saw them, and probably faded away because they were so popular :) But it's the example that sticks in my mind most.

  18. It was just a few days ago that I was poring over the thesaurus online trying to find a word other than 'glow' to descript what the light from a limp was projecting on to a desk. My best friend these days is the thesaurus.

  19. This was a good reminder to beware of often-used words and phrases. Thanks, Janice!