Wednesday, March 30

That Sounds Familiar: Eliminating Often-Used Words

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

We all have our favorite phrases and words. They aren’t clichés, but they’re things that are heard so often they have the same feeling as a cliché. They’re words and phrases that get used all the time, either by your or other writers. They sound “right” because we see them in works we admire. But they’re “used” words, and we might be better off trying for something a little fresher.

I don’t know where the term “sodium lights” came from, I just know that I’d never heard of them until they started popping up in stories. I suspect someone wrote about them somewhere and writers all over jumped on the bandwagon. But “the orange glow from the sodium lights” was in about half the stories I read for a while (published and critiqued). Even to this day, that phrase jumps out at me every time I read it. It’s not a cliché, but a word package. Words used so often together they feel familiar.

You know the type. Beamed a smile, hair flowed down her back, cacophony of sound, any kind of glow from any kind of light. Phrases that feel so right we can’t help putting those combination of words together. These are great things to keep an eye out when you’re polishing your manuscript. Now, many of these phrases you probably use (I do too) and you don’t have to cut them if they work and say 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 making adverbs work for you)

Descriptions 


You’ll find most of these familiar phrases in your descriptions. Look for anything that feels “written.” I’ve discovered when I use these types of phrases, they feel like a canned sentence. It’s something I know I’ve seen other people write so it feels like that’s how it’s supposed to be used. It’s one of those things you’ll have to trust your instinct on, because everyone reads different things. Only you know what’s familiar to you.

(Here's more on determining if description is holding your story back)

Actions 


Stage direction is another common place for word packages. Crept cautiously across whatever. Pressed an ear against something. A noise rang out. What your character is doing might be different, but it’s phrased in a way we’ve read a hundred times before.

(Here's more on finding the right balance with your stage directions)

Dialogue and Internalization 


Snappy comebacks, dry wit. These are things that we hear all the time, so it’s natural that they’d make their way into our writing. How many times have you written: yeah, right. Great. Whatever. Or so he thought. That’s what you think. Wouldn’t you like to know. (Let’s go is one of my weaknesses)

(Here's more on writing effective dialogue)

What to Do 


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 be more like 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 it feels familiar, or feels like those words just belong together, (and practically type themselves) there’s a good chance you’ve read it a bunch of times before. Take a moment and see if you can be different or if that says exactly what you want it to say. It could be the difference between ho-hum prose that doesn’t surprise and prose that keeps a reader guessing.

Looking for tips on revising your novel? Check out my book Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, a series of self-guided workshops that help you revise your manuscript into a finished novel. Still working on your idea? Then try my just-released Planning Your Novel Workbook

A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include 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. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, and the upcoming Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).  

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17 comments:

  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?

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  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.

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  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.

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  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.

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  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.

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

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

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

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  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.

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  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. http://www.sandiego.gov/street-div/strlight.shtml

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

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

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sodium-vapor_lamp

    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.

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  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.

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  13. @Roberta, the only software that really does help me is Wordle.net. 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.

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

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  15. 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. :)

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  16. 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.

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