Words I Never Want to See in Your Novel. Please.

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.

• Suddenly
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.

• That
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:

• Huff
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.

Tweet: Words I never want to see in your novel. Please.
Tweet: In the spirit of self-improvement, let’s talk about your favorite words.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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110 Comments

  1. Tony Jones says:

    I really enjoyed this post. I’m not much of a coherent writer but I do like to read. One of my pet peeves is ‘so as’. As in He rushed home so as not to be late. One of my faces, Larry McMurtry uses that way too much.

  2. Guilty as charged (as you know). I love lists like this! Excellent post.

  3. Kim says:

    If I ever become a writer (ha!), I’ll be light years ahead of the game by way of reading your posts! I have one of those distinctive-words-that-leap-off-the-page for you: sussurant. Dean Koontz is one of my guilty pleasure favorites, but he uses that word WAY too much! The first time I saw it, I liked it — dramatic; it’s an onomatopoeia and I LOVE those, especially one that’s this unusual; altogether delicious word. But when I saw it in subsequent books, and I’m fairly certain I saw it used more than once in the SAME book, it really started to bug me! Now I’m looking for it from the time I start one of his books, lol. Bad, editor, bad!

    • Jamie says:

      Oh my, yes, that’s not so good. We have so many wonderful words in the English language! And sometimes a thing could just whisper or rustle, swish or wheeze…

  4. Ramona says:

    Oh, yeah. I know an editor who will call you up and scream in your ear if your hero’s mouth “quirks.” Not a verb. Grammatical pet peeves. Gotta love ’em.

  5. Kim says:

    Blogs should come with “like” buttons…

  6. Well, I’m guilty.
    So I may want to work on this.
    I couldn’t help but recognize the error of my ways.
    Then suddenly I realized that I may need an intervention.

    ;)

  7. JP says:

    It’s tough for Canadians (and other “British English” countries) to remove what US folks consider to be extraneous “that’s”. After all, it’s proper grammar for us. It’s NEVER “the house he lived in”; it MUST be which house…”The house that he lives in”!

    44 years of grammar is hard to undo.

    • Jamie says:

      I understand. :) In point of fact, I was taught similarly here in the States. But, like language, grammar evolves and changes. What was considered “good” grammar in my youth is somewhat different now. At any rate, some THATs are fine. But I’ve seen work with an abundance of them. :)

    • Penelope says:

      If you’re talking about grammatical correctness then the phrase would technically be “the house in which he lived”. You’re never supposed to end sentences with prepositions.

  8. Natasha says:

    Excellent list. Will bookmark this for future reference. Many thanks.

  9. […] redundancy is different from Favorite Word Syndrome, although the result is the same. But sometimes, oh sometimes, my friends, word repetition is […]

  10. Thank you! I am a complete “That-er” but I’ve been catching myself since I read this. You would have quite a beachfront if you were editing me.

    I’m going to keep coming back to this post, thanks.

  11. Carrie says:

    I really only disagree with “I thought to myself (he thought to himself).”

    For me, there’s a subtle difference between it and simply “I thought/he thought.” Adding “to myself” makes me feel like the character is intentionally thinking something out or growing bored with another action at hand. Without that ending, I tend to get the impression that the character is either silently talking to (or insulting) someone or only just realized something.

    Of course, there are other ways to demonstrate all of that, but there are a lot of subtleties to writing. There’s always a reason for a certain word. Not everyone acknowledges this truth, but I’m sure active readers and writers do.

  12. Great article!

    Just like public speakers who don’t realize how many times they say “uh,” writers have their own unnecessary words and phrases. Each one is a completely annoying stop in the action.

    If a phrase is so annoying it pulls me out of the story, it’s gotta go. Repeat the same unusual word more than twice or three times in the same novel, and it becomes annoying.

    Thanks for the post!

    • Jamie says:

      And, of course, that’s why we have editors—to find these things. :) Thanks for stopping by!

  13. herocious says:

    I love writing.

  14. Anthemisofantioch says:

    One thing: is it possible that someone meant “Drawl” instead of “Droll?”

  15. Cady says:

    I love this. I thought I’d add the word “gaze.” It is so overused, it’s painful to read.

    • Jamie says:

      Thank you! And I SO agree! That’s one for which I’ve actually spent time creating a substitute word list. :)

  16. So many rules, but one of the greatest writers of the last few decades started sentences “And but so…”

    • Jamie says:

      Not that I have a problem with that! Ha. I like to think I could have edited DFW but I’m probably kidding myself. :)

  17. Rosemarie Benintend says:

    My favorite is:
    Starting a response with, “I mean…”
    you never have to restate what you haven’t yet stated.

  18. wodaji says:

    “and what not”.. ugh! /wrists! I hate hate hate that saying… dunno why though.

  19. Jamie, ‘Really’ and ‘very’…not necessary outside of dialogue.

  20. Patricia says:

    “Padded” – as in “she padded across the room to get her slippers”.
    What is she, a penguin?
    MAKES ME CRAZY!
    Much better when used as an adjective, such as:
    “Please lead me to my padded cell!”

    Great post.
    Patricia

  21. Kelly Herold says:

    I love lists like these and thought I was alone in hating the verb “to pad” until I read Carol’s most recent comment.

    Characters must no longer pad from bed to kitchen unless they are great cats. Human beings do not “pad,” but most humans in novels written in the last 15 years do.

  22. Kelly Herold says:

    Ack, Patricia, not Carol. Apologies!

  23. R C McKee says:

    I have a comment in my notes from a webinar or something. Paraphrased, it’s that we don’t want dialogue that actually IS the way people talk. We want dialogue that makes us feel the way we feel when people talk. Accurate dialogue does not render well on the page.

    • Jamie says:

      True. Which is one reason why “So” and “Well” at the beginning of a sentence of dialogue are so annoying.

  24. Kimm says:

    Great post! I once co-wrote two radio plays with a friend and it was only when we were reading aloud what we’d written that we realised we’d used the word ‘just’ about 50 million times.

    • Jamie says:

      Thank you. :) I tell writers all the time to have their friends help them read their dialogue aloud. It really helps make the “errors” pop. (I read most of my blog posts aloud to the Irishman too.)

    • Nomad says:

      Just listen to the British in conversation and you’ll hear the word “actually” used about a hundred times. (And they can be absolute fanatics about the language.)

      Another very odd thing that has been creeping up on the other side of the Atlantic is the peculiar used of passive voice instead of present continuous tense.
      Ex. I am sat here speaking with the owner of the cottage.
      True, somebody may have sat you there (Now, don’t you move!) but surely the correct form is “I am sitting here with…”

      Of course there’s the bugaboo of “literally” which presents a very horrifying image when you hear a co-worker say, “She literally bit my head off when I asked what was wrong!”

      • Jamie says:

        I have heard that curious passive construction! I’d say it’s OK in dialogue—it helps lend authenticity—if it’s used in moderation. The origin of it might make an interesting linguistics study! Ha!

  25. You can catch your own “redundancies” before they get to the editor by putting a chunk of your text in Wordle and seeing what looms large in the picture (as well as your prose). Might save your beta readers and editors some large therapy bills. :)

  26. Lisa says:

    I agree with most of this. But “truth be known” is a subjunctive phrase. It doesn’t mean the quite same thing as “if the truth were known.” Consider the difference between, say, “God’s will be done” and “if God’s will were done…” Not the same.

    • Jamie says:

      Actually, it’s a transitional phrase when used as I intended (I’ve also seen it as “truth be told’). Your example doesn’t use the same words and isn’t what I meant. Other substitutions for “truth be known” might be “In fact,” or “to tell you the truth,” and so on. Sorry I didn’t make that more clear.

  27. Mary Miller says:

    I had to join! LOL, this is the best entertainment I’ve had on the net in years! As a possible (or passable) writer, I adored this…thanks!

    • Jamie says:

      Thanks. :) That makes my day. Stick around! I post on Mondays, Thursdays, and Saturdays.

  28. Amanda Halm says:

    May and might is the bane of my existence. (wait – are you sick of “bane of my existence? – I bet you are :).

    Thanks for this post. Will make me a better writer, I am sure. I have trouble using the write dialogue tags as well.

    Definitely will be subscribing to your blog.

  29. Jay says:

    Some excellent tips. Haven’t seen much of the ‘blurt’ but definitely the rest come to mind. Thanks for a great post.

  30. Phil Dwyer says:

    Excellent post. I’ve been guilty of many of these in the past. Who am I kidding? I’ve been guilty of them all. The first draft of my novel was littered with *gingerly* – I squirm inside a little every time I read that word now. It’s pretty easy to eradicate the worst of these ticks, but I notice others breaking out in their place: gestures that get repeated; favourite ways to insert a ‘beat’ in dialogue (he smiled, she hooked her hair behind her ear). The only way to get rid of these, I’ve found, is to sit in a pub or a coffee shop and watch people actually interacting. Take notes. Many of their gestures are familiar, but may not find their way into your tool-bag. You have to search them out and save them.

  31. Alex says:

    TAD BIT…HATE IT SO MUCH.
    A “bit” unless it’s being used as a sarcastic understatement is just annoying.

  32. Heather says:

    Thanks for this helpful post. It reminded me of how hard my daughter and I laughed when we were reading Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern books aloud and realized that her favourite word was “impotent.” After a while, it only took a brief “fill-in-the-blank” pause before we’d shout “IMPOTENT” and collapse in a giggling heap.

  33. Elizabeth says:

    Great post! I’m trying to improve my own writing and these are some excellent things to make sure I am NOT doing.

  34. Sarah says:

    This was a very amusing post it made me laugh!

  35. MoronBrother says:

    If I had a denomination of current for every paternal quote. I’d be trite and boring. I did appreciate the post though. Not that I write enough to deem myself worthy of the eponymous title of “writer”, I’m sure it’ll be of use. Thank you.

  36. Chelsey says:

    I LOVE this list! Always nice to find people who share my pet peeves. =)

  37. Mony says:

    This is an interesting post, after all, I’ve read (and had realized) about how you shouldn’t over use a word, but I didn’t have a very good idea of which words were those.

    Another word I’ve noticed is “shrugged”.

    Thanks for the post :)

  38. Corrie says:

    Lol.

    I started to make tea. Suddenly I put a spoon of sugar in the cup. Suddenly I put a teabag in the cup. Suddenly I boiled the kettle. Suddenly I poured water into the cup.

    Everything doesn’t happen suddenly.

    Suddenly, you understand?

  39. The Octopus says:

    Some things I hate to see in writing (or heard spoken aloud) are “think about it”. No set of words could be more insulting. What do you think I do when I read? And “trust me”. Really? Why should I? Convince me.

  40. Abby says:

    Great list! I always get a kick out editing really great writers who don’t notice they use some words repeatedly. Suddenly is one of favorites to edit out! Also “perfect,” “you” and “eponymous.”

  41. Allan says:

    How can you criticise somebody using clichés in dialogue?

    • Jamie says:

      Actually, I’m on record throughout this blog as saying clichés are fine in dialogue — because that’s how real people talk. Most of the things mentioned above, though, tend to come up in narrative. Sorry I didn’t make that more clear in this post. :)

  42. Harry Potty says:

    This is all around bad advice. In dialogue you aren’t seeking originality. You are trying to mimic how people speak. People say “so” and “well” a lot, so that’s why it’s in there.

    • Jamie says:

      Of course. But when every other sentence of dialogue begins with one word or the other (and again, this is something I see a lot of), it draws attention to itself on the written page. When it does that, it pulls the reader out of the story; he becomes aware he’s reading and starts looking at every sentence and realizing the author wasn’t a very good writer.

    • Jamie says:

      Thank you. :) And the plagiarist has removed his copy of it now.
      I will be visiting your blog again too.

  43. Amber says:

    For the most part it seems I’m innocent of the crimes listed above! Phew!

    A pet peeve of mine is when authors repeatedly use “all of the sudden”. Ugh.

  44. […] Words I Never Want To See In Your Novel […]

  45. Rowan says:

    I’m guilty of using the word “smile” way too often. I just don’t know how to explain that my character smiled without saying it, and in most cases I hate the way the synonyms sound. Any advice? There are 41 uses of the word “smile” in my current draft.

    • Jamie says:

      Maybe it’s not a substitute for the word you need, but some other sort of body language. Twinkling eyes (trite but…) or nodding a head or whatever.

  46. […] recently read an article written by an editor, which you can read here. (I’ve reused some of her pet peeve words mixed in with mine below) And I agree with her […]

  47. […] http://www.jamiechavez.com/blog/permalink/2012/05/words-i-never-want-to-see-in-your-novel-please/  Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this. This entry was posted on Sunday, September 16th, 2012 at 2:05 pm and posted in Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. « Holly’s First Night (4-21-2011) […]

  48. J.K. Smirk says:

    If you don’t like the word smirk, don’t read Harry Potter :P

  49. kristin says:

    Hello! I stumbled across this no no list. I am ashamed of being guilty of all these things. *hey i’m only 17, give me a break.* I have to make sure I don’t use these words so often, but hey I’m learning! :D
    I’m an aspiring writer. *I know, go ahead and make fun of me.* and i have to correct myself without making a total fool out of myself.

    I’ll have to quote one of my favorite sayings

    “Write drunk, edit sober.”

  50. Amethyst says:

    I find your personal manuscript pet peeves interesting. Mind you,I know they are personal. Not all copywriters are going to dislike the same things. Such as using smirk. I mean, what if that is a part of his personality? I mean, I know someone who smirks a lot. He’s a condescending arse whose arse I want to thoroughly beat, but he smirks often. It’s something real people do more than once in life. So why would you tell a writer their character should only do it once in their novel? Isn’t the point to make the characters realistic? I was always under the impression that was what writers were supposed to be doing. Make the characters real to the reader for the span of the novel. Taking out natural actions wouldn’t be realistic. You can’t force someone to not smirk or not say their sentences with a droll. Sometimes that’s the way people speak or act. And people say “I couldn’t help noticing” all the time. It’s just natural dialogue. Sometimes it’s simply the way a person speaks. In fact, I say that phrase in normal speech. I bet you’ve met people who do and it MAY bug you, but hey, it happens. Oh, did my use of may instead of might rub wrong there? Well, it’s a way a person speaks, yet again. Now, outside of dialogue I can see “I couldn’t help…” and “may/might” being a no-no. But you obviously didn’t mention using them in dialogue. I think it’s nice that you share your personal copywriter pet peeves so that, should someone’s manuscript ever cross your desk, they know how to write to not annoy you. Though, when I did an interview with an author for a newspaper and asked if she had any advice for aspiring writers, she said to write for yourself, no one else, because ultimately, you’re the audience. You’re telling yourself a story, not the world, but sometimes you just decide to share the story with the world. I just hope aspiring writers don’t decide that this is what all copywriters will think and that they don’t start thinking they have to avoid everything you mention.

    • Jamie says:

      I’m a developmental editor, btw. :) This post was written from the perspective of someone who sees these things used over and over and over again *in narrative.* If you’ve been a reader here you’ll have seen that I’m on record as noting that even clichés are acceptable in dialogue. If you followed the link about smirk, you’ll have noted my objection is that many people misuse it. However, even when used correctly, it becomes tiresome when used over and over; characters should be consistent but the author should not limit herself to the same descriptive phrases.

      At any rate, thanks for your comments.

  51. Graham says:

    “At any rate” is one of those phrases which calls attention to itself. ;p

  52. Dorsey Thompson says:

    Wow, what a bitch.

  53. Fee Berry says:

    Sorry for the necroposting, but I disagree with you utterly about “that”. NOT putting in “that” when required is an Americanism… maybe it is permissible if you are, in fact, an American, but as an English editor I would tsk over sentences missing them. You may consider them disposable; I do not. Many sentences become inelegant and can become difficult to understand without them. I do not say I would retain them in every case, but I find Americans more likely to leave them out when required than shoe-horning them in when redundant.

    • Jamie says:

      Obviously I don’t advocating removing “that” when the sentence becomes unclear. Again, this post is about things I see over and over, and misuse of “that”—sentences packed full of thats—is one of those things.

  54. rodya says:

    Lovely!

    These words and phrases are definitely overused and usually look terrible in any work of literature.

  55. Monica says:

    I’m guessing you don’t hate comic sans as much as others do.

  56. I couldn’t help but smirk when I read the droll humor in your blog. I thought to myself that I could never write as witty a blog. Then suddenly it dawned on me that with practice, I, too could one day be as clever. Truth be known, I have to close now because I can’t think of any more words from your list to squeeze into my comment.

  57. Kerry Fisher says:

    When I go back and look at my manuscripts, I use ‘just’ all the time, my characters can never do anything without ‘just’ doing it. This post made me think about all the words I like to use over and over again – very perceptive!

  58. Adam says:

    Jamie,
    I think I owe you about $27.50 in nickels.

  59. YUU says:

    ok, but you dont help much because youre not telling what we should use instead of those words

  60. Elana says:

    I love this and I love you. I served as an editor for a military spokesperson’s news website and had to edit so many superfluous words. Although I will say that I always love when someone walks away in a huff.

  61. Lori Draper says:

    Many years ago, I taught high school English. My first lesson was a list of things I NEVER wanted to see in my students’ writing: alot, would of, should of, could of!
    Lori

    • Jamie says:

      If I see those things I know the writer isn’t ready for an editor yet; instead he or she needs to work on writing skills.

  62. […] it, too, though I try to do it from the position of what I see as an editor. (Someone who’d seen my most-read post found his way to my website and—rather than post a comment—sent me a message that was shocking […]

  63. […] kids, we’ve talked about the word that before. It’s way overused (whiny protestations notwithstanding). The Christian Science Monitor’s […]

  64. […] my mind around that if something similar (though not on so grand a scale) hadn’t happened to me: my most-noticed blog post was copied word-for-word by a “journalist” (already we have a contradiction in terms, but work […]

  65. […] how I agree with him here. You’ll recall how I’ve moaned about memories, in […]

  66. […] This one about word use gets a lot of attention, as does this one. I’ve also had little rants about […]

  67. […] wrong when I’m perfectly capable of being wrong all on my own. Read down the list of comments in my most popular post and you’ll see what I mean (and if you view the comment stream about it on Reddit you may need to […]

  68. […] call this Favorite Word Syndrome. Carol Saller, the Chicago Manual of Style’s Subversive Copy Editor, says she tries to refrain […]

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