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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?