Overused Words You Should and Shouldn’t Delete

overused-words

If you spend some time in writer critique circles, I’m sure you’ve heard the well-intended advice to delete words “that” or “was” from your writing. I’m here to clarify when you should, and when you SHOULDN’T, delete these words.

Once you’ve read the lesson, I’ve got a master list of commonly overused words for you to refer to while revising.

Delete “that”

Sometimes a sentence needs the word “that” in order to be read correctly. For example:

He knew from the way I carried myself and the name tag I had been
wearing my father is mayor.

The sentence above reads like a run-on without the word “that.” It reads better like this:

He knew from the way I carried myself and the name tag I had been
wearing that my father is mayor.

Don’t delete “that” from sentences which use a “from” or “by” to describe how a person learns something. The “by” or “from” signifies how, and the “that” signifies what was learned.

If you delete the “that,” use punctuation to allow the reader time to switch from how to what:

You can tell by the way I use my walk,
I’m a woman’s man: no time to talk.

In most cases, I agree that “that” should be removed from sentences. 😉

But before deleting all instances, consider readability and meaning of the sentence with and without the word. “That” can be a symptom of wordiness, but it isn’t the problem. Sometimes clarity requires more words.

Delete “was” or “is”

The being words aren’t the problem. The problems are passive voice and incorrectly using “-ing” words. First, passive voice.

How to find passive voice

Passive voice is a verb with a “to be” helper verb (is/am/are/was/were/have been) in front of it and an -ed or -en ending. Here are some examples:

  • is forbidden
  • am bitten
  • are captured
  • was eaten
  • were smooched
  • have been made

How to fix passive voice

To fix passive voice, you need to find the true subject. Read the sentence and ask “by whom or what?” The answer to that question is the true subject.

  • Peanut butter is forbidden [by the PTA] —> THE PTA forbids peanut butter.
  • I am bitten [by my vampire boyfriend] —> MY VAMPIRE BOYFRIEND bit me.
  • Rebels are captured by the Empire —> THE EMPIRE captured rebels.
  • Spaghetti was eaten [by all] —> WE ALL ate the spaghetti.
  • Our cheeks were smooched by Great Aunt Millie —> GREAT AUNT MILLIE smooched our cheeks.
  • Mistakes have been made [by the administration] —> THE ADMINISTRATION made mistakes.

Should you fix passive voice?

Generally yes. Active verbs are stronger than passive verbs. Passivity is considered negative and weak.

However, sometimes passive voice is necessary. Sometimes the true subject needs to stay hidden (for suspense) or is unknown. Sometimes the object is more important than the true subject. This is especially true when the subject is a victim.

Do search for passive voice, but understand when to make it active and when to keep it positive.

What isn’t passive voice? Tricky -ed Adjectives

Being verbs are used as auxiliary verbs—helpers to other verbs, as in the case of passive or perfect voice—or as linking verbs, when they link the subject to a noun or adjective.

“He is happy” is pretty obviously not passive voice because “happy” isn’t a verb. But what about “He is excited”? Sure, you can ask “by whom or what” here, because you can be excited by something. Excite is a verb. But excited is also an adjective. So are pleased, confused, thrilled, delighted, flattered

Check the dictionary to see if the word is an adjective, and remember the rule about passive voice: Sometimes the object is more important than the true subject. In the case of linking verbs and adjectives, the character whom the adjective describes is usually more important than whatever is causing the effect.

Read more about linking verbs below, and the problems people have with them, too.

Delete “was” (also “-ing” verbs or “gerunds”)

Nearly every time I see someone online advising writers to cut “ing verbs,” that person doesn’t understand what a progressive verb is. And if those bloggers don’t know what a progressive verb is, they certainly don’t know what gerunds or active participial phrases are.

gerund is an “ing” word used as a noun. For example, Singing annoys Kristina—”Singing” there is a noun, because you could replace it with “Steve” or “fish” or “politics” and it would still make grammatical sense.

progressive verb is a verb with an -ing ending and a “to be” helper verb (is/am/are/was/were/has been/have been/will be/would be/will have been/would have been…) in front of it. The girl was singing— “was singing” is a progressive verb.

An active participial phrase is an “ing” word used as an adjective, often as part of a larger adjectival phrase. Singing loudly, the girl was annoying Kristina—”singing loudly” is an adjectival phrase talking about the girl, and “was annoying” is the verb, the action she is performing.

Getting -ing Verbs Right

Progressive verbs are sometimes used incorrectly. The key word is “progressive.” A progressive verb shows an action happening continually or at the same time as something else:

I was washing my face when Harold burst into the bathroom.

This sentence shows a progressive action. Changing that to this…

I washed my face when Harold burst into the bathroom.

…changes the meaning of the sentence. (Why did his bursting into the room cause me to wash my face?)

Progressive verbs often are used correctly.

However, if you’re throwing in progressive verbs for no reason, you can cut the “is/am/are/was/were” and “-ing” to create a simpler, less wordy verb. Chances are, that verb could be stronger, and in some works, that word count could be better spent elsewhere.

Barbara is eating a sandwich when Doug takes the dog for a walk.

Rather than put the focus on the act of Barbara’s continual eating, focus on something more important, like what about the sandwich was so remarkable it had to be included in the story.

Barbara savors her cheesesteak as if it were her last meal. Nauseated by the stench of her onions, Doug takes the dog for a walk.

Getting -ing Adjectives and Adjective Phrases Right

First, make sure the adjective is attached to the right noun.

Considering Nigel’s allergies, the cat needed to find another home.

That’s a misplaced modifier. The cat isn’t considering Nigel’s allergies; the narrator is. This is correct:

Considering Nigel’s allergies, I needed to find the cat another home.

So what’s wrong with -ing words? Not knowing how and when to use them.

Now you know.

Bonus: Linking Verbs = Telling

You’ll see below that linking verbs (e.g. am, are, be, is, was, were, will) are included on the overused words list.

Again, linking verbs are fine in moderation.

A linking verb creates an equation, telling you more about a subject. This = This.

Ronald is mad.

Eliza is a gravedigger.

These sentences aren’t bad. Sometimes less is more, and sometimes summary is necessary. Showing isn’t always better than telling—you should only show that which is remarkable enough to be remarked upon. If Eliza’s a background character, and her occupation doesn’t affect the plot of your story, then I don’t want a scene of her digging up graves. Actually, I could see that being thrown in for comedic effect or foreshadowing, but that’s beside the point. Showing too much can be just as much of a problem as telling too much. Use linking verbs sparingly and intentionally.

Bonus: Expletive sentences are passive.

Grammatically, “expletives” are filler words. Expletive sentences are ones that start with “it” or “there” and a linking verb. In expletive sentences, the “it” and “there” are abstract and veil the true subject. The second sentence here is not an expletive: “The tiger’s ears twitched. It was listening.” We know what “it” is—it’s the tiger.

This is an expletive:

It was scary to think about his mother dying.

Compare that with this:

His mother dying was scary to think about.

Both use linking verbs to tell us something. The latter is stronger because it has a concrete subject. You can get rid of the linking verb entirely if you’re willing to change subjects:

Thinking about his mother dying scared him.
(telling)

Whenever Yuri thought about his mother, his eye twitched involuntarily.
(showing)

Janet reached for Yuri’s hand. “That was Mercy Hospital. Your mother is ill.”
Yuri tensed. How did she get this number?
“I have some P.T.O. saved up. We could—”
“Save it for the funeral.” Yuri pulled his cuffs down to his wrist. “Let’s go catch a movie.”
(showing through internal dialogue and subtext. The reader has to interpret this scene. Is Yuri scared here? Maybe not. Maybe apprehensive, nervous… the reader will provide a complex emotion based on their own experiences.)

Expletive sentences are fine in moderation. We use them all the time in natural conversation. You’ll find plenty reading my blog. You’ll find them in literary and commercial fiction.

But do be aware of what they are and how to revise them. Ask “What was/is?” at the end of each expletive to find a clearer subject. Consider how you can show rather than tell. Remember, showing in fiction isn’t just visual, it’s experiential. How can you show by movement, touch, taste, smell, texture, sound, temperature, body language, weather, or appearance?

Note that expletives might use the following instead of a “to be” verb:

  • does
  • did
  • feel
  • seem

For example: “There seems to have been a misunderstanding.” or “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand.”

The point of an expletive is that “it” or “there” is hiding, rather than referring to, the subject of the sentence.


 Commonly Overused Words

These are words I see repeated in manuscripts pretty frequently, combined with Lana’s Watch Word list. Check out her guest post to see how she uses her list to revise her own works.

You are free to use and share this list for educational, non-profit purposes! You must, however, give credit and the link to this post. You may not use this list for commercial gain.

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.

Adverbs / Prepositions—Adverbs are FINE. But these adverbs and prepositions are frequent pet words in manuscripts. Use in moderation.

-ly, A lot, Again, Almost, At least, Back, Even, Instead, Just, Like, Of Course, Over, Really, So, Then, Toward, Very, Which

Signs of Weak Verbs—can you make the verb stronger or more specific? Do you want to?

Be, Is, Had, Has, Make, Was, Were, Would,
It does/is/was/will/would/had,
There are/do/does/is/was/were/will/would/had

Signs of Wordiness—cut if you can, or split up the sentence. 

And, As, Began/Begin, Going, Start, That, Try/Tried

Repeated Descriptions / Actions—use in moderation. Authors tend to overuse one of these and ignore other possible descriptions or actions.

Breath, Brow/Eyebrow, Eye, Gasp, Hair, Head, Laugh, Shake/Shook, Shrug, Sit/Sat down, Smile, Smirk, Sneer, Stand/Stood, Stomach, Turn

Repeated Pronouns—make sure the antecedent (the word these refer to) is clear

It, One, of Them, of Us, There, They

Filtering Language—Removing will allow the reader to experience firsthand rather than secondhand (Read more)

Feel/Felt, Glance, Hear, Know, Look, Realize, Recognize, Remember, Saw, See, Seem, Think/Thought

Overused by Characters / Narrator—Again, fine in moderation but distracting when used frequently. Watch sentence beginnings, especially

And, But, Like, OK/Okay, So, Well, [Other Characters’ Names]

Full List

-ly
A lot
Again
Almost
And
As
At least
Back
Be
Began/Begin
Breath(e)
Brow/eyebrow
. But
Even

Eye
Feel/Felt
Gasp
Glance

Going
Had
Hair
Has
Head

Hear
Instead
Is

It
It is (does/was/will/would/had)

Just
Know
Laugh
Like
Look
Of Course
Of them
OK/okay
One
Over
Really
Realize
Recognize
Remember

Saw/See
Seem
Shake/Shook
Shrug
Sit down/Sat down

Smile
Smirk
Sneer

So

Stand/Stood up
Start

Stomach
That
Then
There is (are/do/does/was/were/will be/would/had)

Think/Thought
Toward
Try/Tried
Turn
Very
Was
Well
Were

Which
Would

 

Guest Post: Watch Word List

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.

watch 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

wc1

Figure 2 – Word Cloud for my Latest WIP CLANDESTINE MENAGERIEwc2

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.

BUT!

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.

The List

[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.]

-ly
A lot
Again
Almost
And
Back
Be/Is/Had/Has/Was/Were/Would
Began/Begin [“Begin to” and “start to” tend to be unnecessarily wordy—cut]
Eyes
Feel/Felt
Glance
Going
Head
Hear
Instead
Just [See also “even” and “so” for overused adverbs many authors miss]
Know
Like
Look
Of Course
Of them
One
Over
Really
Saw/See
Seem
Sit down/Sat down
Smile
Start
Stood up/Stand up
That
Then
Think/Thought
Toward
Try/Tried
Turn
Very
Which

[To see my (Lara’s) additions to this list, see Overused Words You Should and Shouldn’t Delete]

About Lana

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

lanawoodjohnson

Query #9 February 2015

querylara

Below is the ninth public query critique I’m offering up on the blog. This will happen once a month (as long as I get a response). I choose one query per month. If your query is not selected one month, it will be in the drawing for the next month. Please do not resubmit unless you’ve made significant edits. To enter, see the rules here. If you want a guaranteed critique (plus line edit) of your query or synopsis, private ones cost $35 each.

My comments are in blue below. To read the original query first, simply read only the black text.

Greetings…,
Her life is a lie but Fiona doesn’t know it, until a chance encounter and a brush with death blows the lid off her neatly packaged world. These are all cliches. “Blows the lid off” is a cliche, too, but you’ve made it fresh with “neatly packaged world.” Still, this hook doesn’t tell me what makes your book unique.
Fiona’s in the spotlight cliche again, and this time it’s a little more serious than a step from the closet. Is this a reference to her coming out of the closet? Because that’s not clear. A mysterious girl, created in a lab as an eternal sixteen-year-old, plops beside her on a park bench, and instantly ensnares her mind. Now, she’s smack in the middle of a deadly pursuit.
Cut the cliches and the set up of these two paragraphs and get to what’s important: “When a lab-created girl plops beside her on a park bench and ensnares her mind, __teen-year-old Fiona is about to get even more unwanted attention than when she came out of the closet.”
A black ops team is on the hunt; their project’s running loose, and if she becomes active, the entire world will suffer. I’m not sure what’s going on here. Is the girl who sat next to Fiona and ensnared her mind this “project”? What is that girl’s name? I want to know more about her, even if it’s just a sentence, so that I’m really concerned when I read that a black ops team is looking for her. And how will the world suffer? Give us a precise idea of what could happen. The squad of government-trained assassins will stop at nothing cliche, especially in queries. to keep their secrets from surfacing, but Fiona’s determined to safeguard this long desired sense of belonging, which stems from her new friend’s presenceThis is a bit awkward and needs to be its own sentence. Flip it to make it less awkward: But Fiona has long desired the sense of belonging which stems from her new friend’s presence, and she’s determined not to lose either.
On the run, confused, and desperate, Fiona turns to the strongest person she knows, her girlfriend/martial arts instructor, Isoko. With the help of the woman she loves, Fiona fights to uncover the truth behind Project Snowfall. However, the more she digs, the more her own existence begins to unravelI don’t know what this means. I know what the words mean, but I don’t know what it means in the context of the story. It’s too vague. What kind of things come into question? How can someone’s existence unravel? When I hear that, I picture the melting Nazis in Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Your title is stellar. If you want to share it in the comments, feel free, but I need to keep the workshops anonymous. [GREAT TITLE], a YA techno-thriller, is complete at 53,000 words. Told in an omniscient third, this LGBT themed novel is geared toward general suspense lovers, literary action seekers, and those with a flair for the romantic. This is pretty much akin to saying “everyone will like my book.” Again, be specific. Marketers can’t sell books to everyone—they need a direct audience to target. That’s why agents and readers like comp titles. Try “my book will appeal to fans of ___ and ____.” While [TITLE] works as a stand-alone, it has series potential; comma, not a semicolon. and would appeal to mature teen readers through adults.
Thank-You Just “Thank you,” no hyphen. for the time you took in considering my query.
This is a great start, and your concept alone should garner some requests, but I’d like to see fewer-to-no cliches and some more specifics. Feel free to revise and resubmit to continue the workshop.

Word Wednesday: Diction Holy Grail

Today I discovered the Holy Grail for Diction assessment. (Diction, you remember, is word choice.)

The Pro Writing Aid finds common diction faux pas such as:

  • Overused words
  • Sentences that are all the same length
  • “Sticky Sentences”—I’d never heard that title before, but it’s a way of determining wordiness, specifically when sentences use too many short, common words. I love it.
  • Clichés and Redundancies
  • Repeated words and phrases
  • Deadwood and Jargon (they call it simply “Diction”)
  • Vague or Abstract words
  • Complex words
  • Alliteration
  • Poor Pacing
  • Dialogue tags

Wowzers.

Just for fun, I analyzed the blog that will be posted on Friday. Blogs are more conversational, so they will include more clichés, and a blog about plotting is going to repeat a lot of words (like Confrontation, Elation, Collapse, and Gloom—the subjects I’ll be covering on Friday). Still, this little program is SUPER DUPER NIFTY.

And it’s free.

Try it out here with some of your own text, and comment below with your results. What do you need to work on? What do you want more information about? Future blog posts may be devoted to your topic, but I won’t know what you want unless you tell me!