Note from Lara—I’ve invited Lana Wood Johnson to share her list of “watch words” with my readers. These are commonly overused words she looks for while revising. If you’d like to propose a guest post, please fill out my submission form. I’m going to jump in and make a couple of comments within Lana’s article. Anything coming from me will be in italics and be bracketed, [like this].
Lana’s Watch Words
When I finished my first manuscript and started my first round of revisions, I was genuinely lost for how to proceed. I read the MS through, made the fixes I could see, then sent it off to all my well-meaning friends for a Beta round.
I assumed my Betas would cover my story structure feedback, so I plunged into Google to research how one copyedits. I went to school on the thousands of ways other people have said I should revise. I also joined Twitter around that time.
As someone who develops processes and fixes problems for a dayjob, I started noticing trends. The advice for copyedits fell into two very basic camps: words the author overuses and words editors just hate to see.
So I sat down and created what I call my Watch Word list.
1 – My Specific Words
Every author has them, the specific words that they fall back on. Turns of phrase they don’t realize they’re throwing in everywhere or a body part they’re overly fond of referencing. [I call these “pet words” or “pet phrases”]
Mine is eyes. I had one CP ask if I was obsessed.
I also found myself using the word “instead” a lot more than I needed to.
Thus, when I went through my second heavy round of revision, I had the brilliant idea of trying to put my whole MS into a word cloud.
Wordle fit all my needs. It’s cloud based. It’s free. It does a fabulous job of removing the “standard” English words like I, the, and, etc. It doesn’t store anything on their servers.
Running the MS through their Java leaves me with the words that appear more in my writing than in standard English. They’re bright, clear, and right in front of me in a way that cannot be denied.
Figure 1 – Word Cloud for my First MS NECESSITY
Figure 2 – Word Cloud for my Latest WIP CLANDESTINE MENAGERIE
The first thing I notice are the names of my primary characters. They should be large—I use them a ton. But there are other words that probably don’t need to be quite that large. In my case, it’s the word ‘know’. Because, my characters just know things, I guess.
But, if you compare my two clouds, you’ll see that the different MSs have different watchwords. The first is Contemporary Fantasy, the second is High Fantasy. NECESSITY was the first book I ever finished. CLANDESTINE MENAGERIE started after I’d figured out that I overused “look” and “eyes”.
The words placed on the list for NECESSITY were: know, look, eyes, like, think, and one.
The words added from CLANDESTINE MENAGERIE were: back and head.
2 – Editor’s Peeves
I know going in that I can’t write the way every editor wants me to write; I won’t even try. But there are some words they hate that make sense:
- Mark Twain’s quote about “very” comes to mind.
- The memory of my 10th Grade English Teacher’s ranting about “like.”
- Every author’s personal war against the word “that.”
- The constant exhortations we hear to eliminate all adverbs. [everything is fine in moderation!]
- An amazing panel at CONvergence where a group of authors taught me that the less you use “and,” the stronger your writing will be. [I’ve never heard this one—I wonder if they were referring to parataxis, one of my favorite literary devices.]
I decided to add some of their words: the ones I noticed in my own writing, the ones that resonated with me, the ones that reflected the kind of writing I wanted to do.
Some I use more than others.
Some I use less but want to watch for anyway.
How I Use the List
Ok, so, great, it’s a list. Obviously I’m not going to improve all my writing just by knowing it’s there and these are the words on it. It’s a long list—I can’t keep them all in my head. So when I do a major revision, this is my process.
First, I load the manuscript onto my Kindle which allows me to treat it exactly like a regular book. I forbid myself from editing at all as I re-read the entire story. The most I let myself do is highlight a particularly bad section. As I read, I find myself getting lost in the story, and that’s great! I end up falling back in love with my characters and my story. I learn to trust myself and my writing. But I also start seeing whatever my CPs were trying to tell me in their feedback.
When I’m done with my re-read, I do my heavy lifting revision: swap out scenes, revise dialogue, eliminate characters. It’s basically drafting all over again, which introduces new errors.
Here’s where the watch words come in. After drafting, I do what I call a Language Pass. This is where I search each word individually and revise only their sentences.
Here’s the key of the whole Watch Words list! I ONLY revise these words in the Narrative. Dialogue is a separate. My modern high school teens get to say “really” and “just” as much as they feel like in their conversations.
I also don’t take out every single instance of these words. I evaluate each sentence. I’m looking for how many times I’ve used the same word in the same page, scene, chapter, and/or story. This list doesn’t work for find and replace. It’s meant to help me evaluate the strength of my prose.
My final step is another read-through, but this is more for grammar and language. I read the whole thing aloud. Doing this helps me evaluate the dialogue. This is where I confirm the grammar as I understand it and re-fix the sentences I totally messed up by removing one of my watch words.
In the end, the list is not a be-all, end-all. You will not read my stories and find I’ve eliminated all the words from my list. My hope is that you barely notice them. Because the entire purpose of this list, of writing, of language in general, is that the individual words become invisible and the story is what remains the focus.
[Note: look for different forms of the words below. Tense (past, present, perfect, progressive) and person (first, second, third) will affect the word endings. The most common variations are -ing, -s, and -ed suffixes.]
Began/Begin [“Begin to” and “start to” tend to be unnecessarily wordy—cut]
Just [See also “even” and “so” for overused adverbs many authors miss]
Sit down/Sat down
Stood up/Stand up
[To see my (Lara’s) additions to this list, see Overused Words You Should and Shouldn’t Delete]
Lana Wood Johnson lives in Minnesota with her too-perfect husband and their two less-than-perfect English Bulldogs. She writes young adult fantasy novels, watches an excessive amount of Korean dramas, and consults on business processes to keep out of trouble. Find her on Twitter @muliebris