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 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 onions, Doug takes the dog for a walk.

Getting -ing Adjectives 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.

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. This 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 her mother.

Compare that with this:

Her mother 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 her mother scared me. (telling)

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

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—use these ones 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?

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 excessive words

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

Repeated Descriptions / Actions—use in moderation

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—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

pg70pit writing contest logo

#pg70pit—how to submit

Are you here in 2017? Some rules have changed, but the content below has been updated for 2017.

If you have any additional questions, comment below or tweet me!

What you need to enter:

  • Your e-mail address (this is private and used only to verify entries or notify winners)
  • Your code name from poetry—THIS IS NEW FOR 2017; before it was from song lyrics. 5-7 words. (This contest is anonymous—choose something unique and difficult to trace back to you. “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood” is probably going to be too common—we want to avoid repeats!)
  • Your novel’s intended audience—Middle Grade, Teen, or Adult (Adult is 18+)
  • Your novel’s word count, rounded to the nearest thousand (71,469 becomes 71K)
  • Your novel’s genre (I have a guide to major genres here and the sub-genres of science fiction and fantasy here)
  • Seven words describing your MC—(DO NOT include character’s name. Can be a list of words or a phrase. See tips on your seven-word description below.)
  • Your 70th page with extra spaces between paragraphs (choose up to 257 consecutive words from your 69th or 70th page, or a section spanning both. It will appear single-spaced.)

When and where to enter:

On June 7, 7:00 am Eastern Standard Time, I’ll post the submission form on my blog for all age categories.—THIS IS NEW FOR 2017

I will remove the submission form on June 8th.

Tips for getting your entry ready

The seven words describing your MC should do one of the following:

  • help ground the reader,
  • show that your main character is interesting or sympathetic, or
  • show your ability as a writer who effectively and efficiently crafts words and punctuation.

You can structure it however you like. For example, you might give setting or genre details:

Baffles regency norms, her mother, gentlemen suitors.

You might make it like a pitch:

Witty girl overcomes first impressions, falls hard.

Or you could list adjectives and get creative with punctuation:

Clever, judgmental, poor. Loved anyway (by snob…)

THIS IS NEW FOR 2017: Participating in the Twitter contest is optional, but the seven-word phrase is still a required part of your entry.

Your 69th/70th page is going to be what matters most in the contest.

Choose up to 257 consecutive words from your novel’s 69th-70th page. You may complete cut-off sentences that fall on the 68th or 80th pages, but do not exceed 257 words. We may email finalists and request their full manuscript to verify that their excerpt falls on one of those pages.

For example, if saw that a chapter ended on my 70th page, I’d take from both the 69th and 70th pages.

Editing your Excerpt

You can ask friends to help you edit your excerpt or 7-word pitch, but please do so privately, not using public tweets or including the hashtag in a blog post asking for feedback. Because this is a blind contest, don’t risk a judge seeing your entry—or your code name—before the results are posted, or you’ll be disqualified.

You can edit an excerpt down to make it 257 words or fewer.

See examples of how I’d edit someone’s page in the 7th on 7th series.

In my Revision Checklist for Writing Contests, you’ll see my top-secret tips for hard-core revising.

You can also search winning entries from 2015 and 2016 by searching my blog 🙂

If you have any more questions, comment below. Now an excerpt from one of my trunked novels as an example on how you might edit your entry.

pg70pit-a new kind of writing contest

I had 193 words on page 70 and 221 words on the page before it. If I’d started with “Where did they go?” and stopped at the end of the chapter, I’d have 259 words. But I really like the context of some dialogue before, so to include that, I needed to make some cuts from the middle.

Here’s the original excerpt, showing what I cut to make room for that line of dialogue:

“Where did they go?” asked Gareth.

“To his quarters, I’d imagine. I’m sure she’ll be back tomorrow.”

Warmth radiated on the back of Gareth’s neck. “Where does this guy live?” He hadn’t meant to shout.

Faye put her hand on his arm and spoke to him gingerly. “In the keep. The castle keep.”

Someone waved Mary over, and she left.

“Why would he take her there?”

Faye’s silence, her look of pity, confirmed it.

“Get Robin. We’re gonna get in there, and I’m gonna smash some heads. If he so much as touches my sister I—” He was already out of town and back on the road by the time he’d finished talking. Faye caught up with him about a quarter mile later.

She was riding her pack horse. Gareth stopped, wondering what she did with the cart. What’d she do with the cart? She pushed off the horse, landing in the dirt, reached out to Gareth, but then dropped her hand at her side. “Gareth, if you even got past the front threshold, trying to remove your sister will get you—or the pair of you—killed. If you challenge the king’s man, you challenge the king.”

The sun was throwing threw yellow light on the lime-washed walls of the city on the coast. Gareth didn’t stir.

“Gareth.”

He clasped his hands over the top of his head, and behind his neck, his forehead creased in worry, in hopelessness. “Let’s get Robin. He’ll know what to do.”

They had just turned back, leading the horse behind, with the horse when the ground below them opened up, dropping them into darkness.

Here’s what the new excerpt looks like:

“She is in the company of the king’s steward. He’s harmless enough. If they’d stayed here, she would have only been gone a few minutes. But she left with him.”

“Where did they go?” asked Gareth.

“To his quarters, I’d imagine. I’m sure she’ll be back tomorrow.”

Warmth radiated on the back of Gareth’s neck. “Where does this guy live?” He hadn’t meant to shout.

Faye put her hand on his arm and spoke to him gingerly. “In the keep. The castle keep.”

“Why would he take her there?”

Faye’s silence, her look of pity, confirmed it.

“Get Robin. We’re gonna get in there, and I’m gonna smash some heads. If he so much as touches my sister I—” He was already out of town and back on the road by the time he’d finished talking. Faye caught up with him about a quarter mile later.

She was riding her pack horse. Gareth stopped. *What’d she do with the cart?* She pushed off the horse, landing in the dirt. “Gareth, if you even got past the front threshold, trying to remove your sister will get you—or the pair of you—killed. If you challenge the king’s man, you challenge the king.”

The sun threw yellow light on the lime-washed walls of the city. Gareth didn’t stir.

“Gareth.”

He clasped his hands behind his neck, his forehead creased in worry, in hopelessness. “Let’s get Robin. He’ll know what to do.”

They had just turned back with the horse when the ground below them opened up, dropping them into darkness.

I hope this was helpful!

Now Accepting Summer Clients!

I’ve been on a short sabbatical from manuscript editing to get my household ready for the big move, but I’ll be open for business again in June, with the possibility of some openings in May! I’ve been missing all my clients and am very happy to get off the bench.

Seven Reasons to Make Me Your Editor

I’m taking reservations for the following services:

Manuscript Critiques

What you need to know:

  • This type of editing fills up the fastest, so don’t delay in reserving your spot!
  • I read the entire MS or short story and give overall comments and suggestions
  • I do not make in-text comments, but may highlight sections
  • Average cost is $8 per 1,000 words (a 75K manuscript = 75 x $8 = $600)

For more information, see my services page.

Substantive Line Edits or Copyedits

What you need to know:

  • Depending on the level of editing you need, I edit on the sentence level and give thorough feedback which has been praised by established literary agents, authors, and colleagues.
  • I use track changes for objective copyediting and leave comments for anything subjective.
  • Average cost for line edits is $27 per 1,000 words (I have a $40 special for the first 2,500 words and $160 special for the first 10,000 words)
  • Average cost for copyedits is $11 per 1,000 words ($7 for experienced authors)

For more information, see my services page.

Query Letter and Synopsis Edits

What you need to know:

  • I’m nearly always available for these edits, but they are done on a first-come, first-served basis. As soon as you pay, you get put on the waiting list, and I get to you as soon as I can. (I’ll let you know if the wait times exceed 3 business days in our first email.)
  • You get unlimited passes on these, but priority for full edits goes to new clients, who will need more attention. If you have a quick question, though, I often reply the same day!
  • For examples of my editing style, see my query workshops.
  • Cost is $35 for either, $60 for both.

For more information, see my query workshops.


I list my exceptions (the genres and content I will not edit) here and mention my favorite genres and subjects here.

If you think we’d be a good fit, send me your 1,000-word sample. I’ll read your sample, give you feedback, and quote you a price. To reserve a spot, you’ll need to pay a 20% deposit or $40—whichever is greater.

The deposit is refundable if you cancel before our scheduled date. If you cancel after that, I’ll keep the deposit.

For example, say that you want the first 10,000 words of your work-in-progress professionally edited. You pay $40 and we schedule you for the first two weeks of July. If you cancel before July 1, I’ll refund your $40. If you cancel after July 1, and I haven’t begun editing, I keep the $40 for loss of business. If I edited 5,000 words before you cancelled, I’ll keep your $40 but give you feedback on the first 2,500 words. You’d then have the option of paying for any feedback beyond that, using the price-per-word quote we agreed on.

Does that make sense? If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to ask.

I look forward to reading your stories and pushing you toward publication!