Thursday, June 18, 2020

Word of Honor: Revising Your Book for Word Choice

By Rochelle Melander, @WriteNowCoach

Part of The How They Do It Series

JH: The right word at the right time can turn a bland sentence into a memorable one. Rochelle Melander discusses ways word choice impacts your writing.

Rochelle Melander is an author, speaker, and certified professional coach. Melander is the author of 11 books including Level Up: Quests to Master Mindset, Overcome Procrastination and Increase Productivity. As the owner of Write Now! Coach, Rochelle teaches writers, professionals, and business owners how to turn their ideas into books, navigate the publishing world, and connect with readers through social media.

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Take it away Rochelle…

productivity, writing a novel, how to write faster, the 12 week year
Rochelle Melander
I found my first critique group through work. When I arrived at the meeting, I learned that everyone wrote novels. Long ones. I wrote children’s picture books. It took time, but we discovered how to help each other. They taught me about plot. And we all learned that word choice matters.

Picture book writers must tell their stories in just a few hundred words. There’s no room to waste precious space with filler words like “well,” unless they’re part of the story. Every word counts.

But that’s true about everything we write. Readers don’t like lazy writing no matter where it appears, in an early reader or an epic historical novel. To research this article, I polled my Facebook community. Readers commented over 200 times on the post, complaining about everything from verbal and written ticks (Right?) to misplaced apostrophes. Here are some of the ways word choice impacts your writing.


When Murasaki Shikibu wrote The Tale of Genji, she used the phrase “sadness of things” over 1000 times. Of course, Shikibu wrote long before the invention of the thesaurus (1805). Plus, she was creating a whole new genre—the novel. We can hardly blame her for repeating a phrase. We all have words and phrases that we rely on when we write. For me, it’s “began to.” As in, “She began to worry.” But the verdict is in: stop it. Readers tire of seeing the same phrase repeatedly.

Trigger Words

The protests of the past weeks have highlighted for me how the history of words can convey unintended meanings. Minnesota teaching artist Ashawnti Sakina Ford wrote an article about phrases to eliminate from the rehearsal room, including offensive to Native Americans like, “Let’s have a pow-wow.” Many words and phrases are loaded with bigotry and prejudice—and we need to think before we use them. This can be tough, because we may not know that a phrase is offensive. This is why it’s helpful to get as many eyes on your work before you publish. In addition to your editor, hire a sensitivity reader. Ask friends to serve as beta readers. And keep reading about the history of words.


Do you have a tried and true phrases that you love to use? Clichés can quickly establish character, setting, and time period. They can also make your reader groan, even faster than a pun. Romance author Jennifer Rupp cautions against overused phrases like this:
  • They sat in companionable silence.
  • (Fill in emotion) washed over her.
  • Her eyes filled with unshed tears.
  • She felt (fill in emotion) she didn't know she had.
You may feel like avoiding clichés is harder than teaching an old dog new tricks, but…try.

Does anyone actually say that?

In searching for the perfect phrase, we may land on words and phrases that don’t resonate with our readers. Readers get frustrated with books that read like the authors had both a dictionary and a thesaurus. I mean, really—do I have to look up every other word to get the gist of your message? One of my librarian friends also commented about those phrases that no one really uses: “Weird body phrases like "arms akimbo," "sucking his teeth," "screwing up her face" annoy me because I feel like I never hear anyone say them, but they're way overused in writing.”


Moviegoers love spotting modern objects and other anachronisms in historical movies. Like the Starbucks coffee cup in Game of Thrones or the water bottle in Little Women. Don’t forget the 18th century kilts that William Wallace wore in Braveheart, a story set in the 13th century. If we’re writing a historical novel, we certainly need to avoid using props and settings that didn’t exist in our story’s time period. But we also need to check our vocabulary. Are we using modern words and phrases? Do we have our Regency characters say, “Okay”? (By the way, there’s plenty of debate about the purposeful use of anachronism. Some readers are okay with writers who create characters that think and act in ways that are eons ahead of their time.)

Location, location, location!

When a writer knows an area well, they write about it like an insider. When they don’t—mistakes happen. Author and avid reader Jeanette Hurt caught a regional mistake in a favorite novel: “I love Jim Butcher's Harry Dresden series, but he once referred to the Kennedy Expressway as the JFK. No one in Chicago would ever do that, and it totally took me out if the story. The JFK is an airport in New York, not an expressway in Chicago.”


I once threw a book across the room because it used a word incorrectly. But I’m more mature now. I just sigh and read on. In my informal Facebook poll, many readers cited this as a main pet peeve. A few of the mistakes that annoyed them include:
  • Fewer, Less
  • Further, Farther
  • Bring, Take
  • Over, More than
  • Lay, Lie
  • It, Its, It’s
  • Their, There, They’re
  • Your, You’re

That’s what she said 

When I first started writing picture books, my characters never said a word. Nope. They chirped, grumbled, and bellowed. My critique partners tried to tell me that real writers don’t replace every “said” with a snazzy verb. I didn’t listen. But your readers will notice when your characters protest too much. Unless you really need that fancy verb, use said.

Overwhelmed yet?

Revising for word choice sounds overwhelming. But it doesn’t need to be. When you draft, don’t worry about any of this. Give the book your all—and that includes your worst clichés, best adverbs, and favorite grammatical errors.

Before you revise, make lists of your quirks and common mistakes (e.g., I misplace “only”). It can be helpful to ask development editors and beta readers to point out problematic areas. Take a look at the items on this list. Then, decide what matters to you—and make a style list.

Take a pass at your manuscript for word choice. This often happens after you’ve revised the manuscript for pacing and plot holes. Because why putter with word choice when the whole scene might end up on the cutting room floor? But once you have a pretty complete draft, take another look at it: can word choice help you tell a better story?

Because that’s the goal: to write something that engages your readers. And it’s hard to do that when they’re annoyed by our word choices.

About Level Up: Quests to Master Mindset, Overcome Procrastination and Increase Productivity

Do you struggle to:
+Find time to write and create
+Ditch distractions
+Overcome self-doubt and fear
+Believe in your strengths
+Silence the inner critic
+Stop procrastinating and write
+Focus on your work

What if you could find a simple solution to every one of these challenges?

In this book, you’ll discover YOUR perfect solutions. In our guru-obsessed culture, it’s tempting to think that if we follow the routines of successful creatives, we’ll be just as prolific as they are. But when it comes to creative productivity, a pre-packaged, one-size-fits-all guide can’t help everyone. Each person has distinct needs and deserves a unique solution.

In Level Up: Quests to Master Mindset, Overcome Procrastination, and Increase Productivity, you’ll tackle quests to help you discover your ideal work rhythms, design a life that supports your productivity, and overcome any obstacle you face. Instead of playing someone else’s game, you get to design the game, create your own playbook, define the rewards, and reap them all! You’ll also adopt a secret identity, recruit allies, identify villains, and celebrate your epic wins. Because you’ll be using a gameful approach to shaping your creative life, taking on these quests won’t be a chore. You’ll relish investigating your life and playing with possibilities.

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