When I get to the end of an edit, I generally make a list of the author’s “favorite” words and phrases—words he or she used over and over without realizing it. It’s quite instructive.
Usually they are words like so and well used at the beginning of sentences of dialogue. Often it’s amazing (and you know how I feel about that!). Smirk shows up a lot too. Recently a manuscript I worked on had dialogue littered with you and I both know and listen as a way to begin a sentence (Listen, Sam, you and I both know the president will never approve that death squad).
You can’t hide much from your editor, my friends. We’re like hairdressers. :)
But in the spirit of self-improvement, let’s talk about some words and phrases I really wish you wouldn’t use, because I am, frankly, tired of reading them. It’s good for you to know these things now. Honest.
• I couldn’t help but … (notice, think, wonder)
This phrase shows up in many variations, and all of them are unoriginal and empty. Stop it. Just say, “I noticed …”
• Truth be known
Aside from the fact it’s way overused, it’s awkward. If you really must use it, it should properly be If the truth were known. Don’t tell me it’s your voice. Please.
The hallmark of an inexperienced writer. Think about it: everything in fiction (in life!) happens suddenly. One second it wasn’t happening … and then it was. Suddenly.
• Blurt out
You remember my post on dialogue tags, right? I’m already not crazy about blurt for that reason, but when you write he blurted out, I cringe at the redundancy.
• I thought to myself (or he thought to himself)
Of course you think to yourself! Who else is in there with you? Now, you can say things to yourself. That means you’re speaking out loud, but are not engaged in a dialogue with another character. And that’s fine. Although it is, they say, one of the first signs of insanity.
• Then, then, and then
It’s not necessary to keep reminding me that one action came after another.
• May, when you mean might
When you are telling a story in the past tense, might is the word you should use. Trust me.
• Memories that flash or crash
Why is it so difficult to write about memories? Phrases like Memories of that day came crashing down on him or He flashed back to a happier time are just overdone. Corollary: memories that stab, as in Waves of guilt stabbed at him. Ick.
He used to think that he couldn’t live without her. Then he realized that he could. If I had a nickel (as my father used to say) for every superfluous that I’ve removed from manuscripts, I could retire to that little beach house on Tybee Island I’ve had my eye on.
There are other words/phrases that are fine to use, but because they are so very distinctive, you should only use them once. For example:
I’ve seen characters who huff (1: to emit puffs of breath or steam; 2: to proceed with labored breathing, as he huffed up the stairs; 3: to make empty threats, to bluster; 4: to react or behave indignantly; 5: to utter with indignation or scorn), but when I see it repeatedly, I start to think there are pulmonary issues. Recently I read He huffed to himself, and I’m not even sure how that would work.
• Droll as a verb
Droll can be an adjective or a noun, too, but when a character drolls a line of dialogue, he should only do it once in any given novel. And I sincerely hope the line he is drolling is reeking of irony.
• Quirk as a verb
I love the word quirk used as a noun. But I only want to see your character quirk an eyebrow once.
• Smirk as a verb
I’ve written a whole blog post on this word; my biggest objection to it is it gets used incorrectly. But even when you do actually mean smirk, I’d prefer you only use it once.
I could make a long list of these distinctive words. I know you like them—they’re fun and different. But they call attention to themselves. For that matter, so do your favorite words. But the minute your reader starts noticing the repetition, she’s no longer lost in the story. When she starts rolling her eyes after the tenth you and I both know, you’ve lost a reader. Full stop.
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