Criminal overuse


A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about my scary alter ego, the Queen of Hearts, who helps me to cut the length of my manuscript. The carnage of Sophie’s Run is complete, and I dropped below the target word limit. Mission accomplished!

However, there’s more to editing than the structural stuff. There is the fine-tuning, too. Today, I share three of my personal red flags: exclamation marks, the humble word, ‘just’, and the humbler still word, ‘then’. (I’m going to bore you with serial commas and other fine points of grammar some other time).

JUST THEN! I’m a liberal sprinkler in a first draft…

Just! Then! !!
Exactly. These three things feature heavily in any of my first drafts. There is a very simple reason for this, which is that I write as I would tell  the story out loud, with flourish and panache and a lot of excited gesturing. Alas, the written word is a little less forgiving. Or perhaps it is more forgiving as it doesn’t need as many of these filler words and marks. The reader is generally with the story, paying attention, reading eagerly. And she will notice if I use the word ‘then’ five times in a row.

Thankfully, writing is not like cooking. It is perfectly ok to overegg the pudding, lean heavily on the salt and make free with the pepper because you can take it all out at the end. And that’s what I have been doing.

Get this. I had 750 (give or take) exclamation marks in the first draft of Sophie’s Run. I’m surprised none of the characters had shouted themselves hoarse.

I found 450 occurrences of the word ‘then’ and 500 occurrences of ‘just.’ Shocking, I know.

…but I carry out a vendetta on my liberalism when I polish the manuscript.

The exclamation points were easy. I clicked through them (yes, all of them) and took most of them out, except where shouting or emphasis was indicated. There are less than 150 exclamation marks left which, in a word count of 119,281, is a lot more acceptable. We’ll see what my fabulous editor over at Sapphire Star Publishing makes of that number. I’m fully expecting to cut some more.

Eliminating ‘just’ was an electrifying experience. I discovered a whole array of alternatives, and got some amazing insights into the many varied meanings of this humble little word. Of course, I knew all of that instinctively, having previously learned it formally at school, but I hadn’t given it much conscious thought for a while. Viable alternatives include, but are not limited to:

at that point

Interestingly, there was many an instance when ‘just’ just wasn’t needed. It could go. Completely. It was a filler. An empty word. A naughty word cluttering up my word count! Be off with you, just!

So I thought I’d seen the worst of my criminal overuse, but no. I hadn’t even started until I touched then. See, then was everywhere. And I mean everywhere. I found one sentence with three lots of then in it. Obviously it wasn’t as clumsy as ‘then, and then, and then.’ No, my writing, even in its unpolished stage, is a little more refined than that. But still, a lot of then‘s were being had. Too many.

Most of them went. Yup, eliminating then was a killer experience. And the then‘s that stayed? They had a legitimate reason for staying.

However, something even more riveting happened while I was on my then extermination spree. As Word displays searched-for terms in their context, I found some highly amusing typing mistakes. Gone now, kapow! I found and seized opportunities for linguistic variety: kerr-ching, done! I cut out a couple of sentences altogether. Eureka.

Even though I focused on three red flags, I ended up polishing the entire manuscript and I am delighted with the result. The changes are subtle but they make me happy. I sent the manuscript off to Sapphire Star this lunchtime… and here’s to hoping that my editor feels the same about it as I do! Because that, of course, is the real test. I promise to keep you posted on how that goes, too.

Until then, I’d love to hear about your red flags. Which words or phrases do you criminally overuse?

23 responses to “Criminal overuse

  1. One of my major problems I have is that I tend to ramble on and on and on, why I do it, heaven knows, but I do. Perhaps it’s just the way I think. Painting a picture with words, without letting my potential readers create their own image of the scene I’m writing about. Luckily my name isn’t Rose, because if I did I would be forever hearing this song in the back of my mind.

    [BTW – this video is from a BBC TV special in the summer of 1963]
    I know it’s not Monday, but this song’s words does fit [in part]

    So far I’ve written over 50 pages for my second romance novel, while still going over the changes made by my editor for my first novel. And I’ve already deleted about 10% of my creation.

    I have to endeavor not to be so overly descriptive.

    I don’t tend to use exclamation marks…its use I’ve been told is a no-no.

    I occasionally use too many “tags” in writing dialogue.

    One word I tend to overuse is the word “THAT”. THAT is a nice word; however, nine times out of ten it’s not needed. What this word does is creates a mental pause as you read. [Read the first sentence I wrote above, then eliminate “THAT” and read it again…didn’t you find the meaning hasn’t changed one iota.

    I wish, as I continue to write, [THAT] these ramblin’ days would just go away so I wouldn’t have to spend so much time in chopping away from what I’m attempting to give birth to.

    Can’t wait for the “BIG REVEAL” tomorrow morning, hopefully I’ll be already up on this side of the pond when it happens [5:00 AM – New York]

    BTW – how many here tend to overuse the word “THAT” as I do – just curious.

    • Robin, you are a star! Thanks so much for your comment, as always. I’d call it… detailed, rather than rambling! You got me all paranoid on ‘that’ now. Hm. We’ll see if my editor picks any up. You put a smile on my face… and see you tomorrow! x

      • THAT is not a bad word just use it sparingly. Do what I do i n the above. Every now and then I go into WORD and use the FIND MODE for the word. Each time I do find it, I read the sentence a few times, using the word and not using the word. If I can hear a pause more then once I delete it. Would love to hear if you find THAT to be the pause creator as I do, Editors might not be looking at this word in this way, so check with her/him to see the opinion is on this.

  2. Scary isn’t it? When I first started writing I overdid it with the exclamation marks but have now become quite restrained. I don’t think there’s any one word that I tend to overuse. Like you Nicky, ‘that’ is a favourite. What I do have, however, is an absolute hate for the word ‘retort’ and I have never used it in any of my four books. It’s a wierd Jo Lambert thing but even saying the word out loud totally irritates me!

    • D’you know, Jo, I don’t think I’ve ever used the word ‘retort.’ Or maybe I have, as a verb. I could see that Rachel might have retorted something sharply. Certainly not a common word for me, but am intrigued that it inspires such a strong dislike in you!

      Thanks for visiting and commenting, as always. Mwah!

  3. Hi Nicky, A blogger friend of mine is doing a series on this sort of thing. It’s helpful and very comical. Check it out if you get the chance.
    Honestly, I don’t think there’s enough space in this comment field to list my overused words.

    • Ha, Dana, haven’t found any overused words in Dangerous Embrace yet–in fact, am absolutely loving it! Have hopped over to Robin’s blog, what a find: thank you! Am subscribing and shall have a good mooch round. Brilliant. Thanks for visiting and see you tomorrow maybe; hope your own launch is continuing with every success. XX

  4. Nicky – you are an example to us all – can’t remember my not-so-bons-mots but I know I’m always deleting them, especially stuff like ‘she thought’ when we just have to say what she or he is thinking. Keep up that good work!
    Ali B

    • Ali, you flatter me! 🙂 Thank you so much. I’m sure I’ve committed many a faux pas but hopefully that’ll all come out in the next 90 degree wash, LOL. Thanks for visiting. 🙂 x

  5. Great reminders, Nicky. Even things I’ve been guilty of in the past, but we do grow out of them as we mature as writers. Pet hates of mine are: “nodded his/her head”, and “shrugged his/her shoulders”. I mean, what else could they nod or shrug (apart from shrugged into a coat)? But the worst being “she thought silently”, or “thought to herself” Doh, sorry, how else does one think if not silently and to oneself but you would be surprised how often I come across these.

    • **shrinks away silently** “Guilty as charged, Kit, guilty as charged,” Nicky thought to herself, shrugging and nodding all at the same time. LOL! My characters do shrug their shoulders quite a bit. I don’t know, I kind of like the expression but I will certainly take direction and promise to be better and less verbose in the future.

      All this raises an interesting question in my mind though. In fiction writing–to what extent is an author allowed to use ‘colourful’ or flowery phrases that perhaps involve more words than strictly speaking necessary? Where is the line between stylistic etiquette and an author’s own style? Hm…. maybe there’s a blogpost coming on here! Thanks for visiting and commenting! xx

  6. “Just” and “maybe” are two of my worst ones! “So” is another.
    Thank goodness for Find and Replace.

    • AMEN! Yes, ‘so’ features on my list too, although not as badly as the others. I think I may have learned that lesson. Thanks for visiting and commenting, I really appreciate it! x

  7. Great post, Nicky! You manage to be helpful and make me laugh too!
    ‘Well’ was my problem one for Kismetology – one sentence after another began with ‘well’ – three of them on the first page for all to see! I spent last weekend brutally cutting all but a few out! I’ve just had the edits back on the Christmas book today – couldn’t believe the amount of ‘and’s and ‘but’s my editor had found! I hadn’t even noticed they were breeding in front of me!

    • Hi Jaimie, I love your idea of how these words just ‘breed’ right in front of our eyes. Amazing. I wouldn’t be surprised if ‘and’ turned out to be another red word for me…. Thank you for visiting and commenting today, awesome!

  8. OH EM GEE. I can see why you liked my overused/weak word series! We are of like mind! I’m your new follower. Any friend of Dana’s is a friend of mine . . .

    • Hi Robin, thank you so much for visiting. Glad you enjoyed my post and thank you very much for following back. The power of blogging ~ thank you to Dana for introducing us. See you both soon! 🙂

  9. Yes, I have a pet peeve about using “and then”. It’s redundant. Yet everyone seems to use it. I used to have a problem with exclamation points, but not anymore.

    • Hi Nancy, thanks for visiting and commenting. You’re giving me hope–I can be cured, it seems, LOL. Note how there isn’t a single exclamation mark in my comment, either. 🙂

  10. It’s really funny you highlighted ‘then’ as one of the things I twigged in Gunshot Glitter was that I mixed up then/than and brought/bought an awful lot. One of my proofreaders found it hilarious and ended up putting smiley faces next to them. It cracked me up but I was so embarrassed!

    • No need to be embarrassed. When you write, you write, and the editing comes later. IMHO. Thank you for checking out this post, Yasmin! x

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