Pesky Words

Hey SE Readers. Joan with you today. I’m going to preface this post by saying I’ve probably made every mistake I mention and then some.

I tend to read with a more critical eye these days. It isn’t intentional, but as a learn more about the craft of writing, I pick up on things in other author’s works. Too bad I’m not good at finding these pesky things in my own writing, but I’m thankful for my critique partners who do.

As writers, we want to draw our readers into the story. Useless words, passive phrases, and what I call crutch words or phrases can distract them.

Before we send anything to beta readers, editors, or critique partners, there are a few simple steps we can take to tighten our writing and eliminate unnecessary words.

Look for “crutch” words or phrases

Crutch words or phrases will differ with every writer. Reading through your finished manuscript will enable you to become familiar with your own. As you review, look for repeated words or phrases. A few of these are well, perhaps, and so.

While there’s nothing wrong with any of them, overuse can slow your story down and jar the reader’s attention. Many authors begin a lot of sentences with the words well or so. (Guilty as charged!)

Example:

Well, we planned to go out for dinner and a movie, but we had to cancel.

Instead, write it this way:

We planned to go out to dinner and a movie, but we had to cancel.

Eliminating the word “well” didn’t change the meaning. The second sentence also sounds better.

Here’s another example:

So, what’s the next step? Do we…

Better:

What’s the next step? Do we…

It’s important to note people often talk this way. They begin sentences with “well” or “so.” It’s perfectly fine to use those words in dialogue but be careful not to overdo it. I recently read a short story where the author used the word “so” numerous times. After a while, it became distracting.

Another thing to avoid is crutch phrases. I seem to have a different one with each new book. After writing my first novel, I swore I would not use the phrase, “in spite of.” With another novel, I became aware I used the term “quick glance” throughout the book. Redundant much? A glance is quick.

Look for “red flag” words or phrases

We’re all familiar with passive vs. active voice. Using active voice is always best. Words such as here, there, of, was, were, will be, to be, thought, felt, heard, saw, smelled are often a key to the use of passive voice. They can also be a sign of telling versus showing.

Here are some examples of passive voice:

Instructions are always given by the teacher.

Yellowstone National Park is visited by thousands of tourists every year.

A special recognition program for the town’s first responders is being hosted by the City Council.

Now let’s look at them in active voice:

The teacher always gives instructions.

Thousands of tourists visit Yellowstone National Park every year.

The City Council is hosting a special recognition program for the town’s first responders.

It’s important to note it takes more words to show than tell, but your prose will sound so much better.

Brian was angry.

Brian stormed from the room, slamming the door behind him.

In the second example, we “see” Brian was angry without being told.

Look for “dead” and overused words

Words such as that, just, and very, are dead words. Most of the time you can eliminate them and not change the meaning of your sentence.

This is the most fun that I’ve had in a long time.

This is the most fun I’ve had in a long time.

The word “that” isn’t needed.

Here’s another example from a book I recently read:

Yet Eliza could not quell the feeling that it was not her clothes that Mrs. Pollard was examining.

Both instances of “that” could be eliminated without changing the meaning of the sentence.

I often have a hard time removing the word “just.” But consider what you’re trying to say.

Michael just left.

How long ago did Michael leave? Five, ten, fifteen minutes, an hour? Instead write:

Michael left ten minutes ago.

Again, people often use the word “just” when speaking. Using it in dialogue is okay, but still don’t overdo it.

Using strong verbs is better than adverbs.

I had a very hard time adjusting to my new schedule.

Better:

I had a difficult time adjusting to my new schedule.

These are only a few examples. What are some words/phrases you often see used too often? Please share in the comments.

86 thoughts on “Pesky Words

  1. Great post, Joan. I know my crutch words (frown and sneer) and now do a search for them when I finish my WIP. The other day, out of curiosity, I checked my 70% completed WIP (around 80,000 words) and found 110 ‘frowns’!! EEK! I got it down to 21 but still need to work on it.
    frowns

    Liked by 2 people

  2. This is a great post, this is good advice, Joan.

    One of your examples is the subject of my blog post for tomorrow. So, I wanted to let you know it’s been brewing for a while.

    Avoiding crutch words was drummed into our heads when I was attending Toastmasters. The first club I was a member of used to have a guy (the Ah Counter) who would drop a marble into a glass jug if you used ‘ah’ or ‘um’ or began a sentence with ‘so’ or ‘well.’ Sometimes, when I’m with someone who uses those words too often, I can still hear the marble.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Excellent examples, Joan. I especially like how you made the point that sometimes speakers use words like “just” in dialogue, which is more permissible. It may seem like a no-brainer, but the dialogue has to sound natural.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I do ALL of those things and then hope I catch them before I pass my pages to my critique partners. I’m getting better at catching them when I first use them, but enough get past me that it always surprises me how they sneak in.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Excellent post, Joan. I always have to be on the look out for “so” and “just” in my writing. Fortunately, what I don’t catch during my edits, my critique partners do. I’m sure I’m guilty of others as well, but I do edits upon edits upon edits in the hope of eliminating crutch words and tightening my writing. I’ve found that’s the best way for me to ferret them out and eliminate!

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Reblogged this on The Write Stuff and commented:

    Joan Hall has an excellent post today on Story Empire about how to avoid using crutch words and phrases, and other pesky things when we write. Check it out. Her examples are clear, concise, and easy to understand. After you finish reading, I hope you’ll remember to share far and wide, thanks! And thanks to Joan for such a super post! 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Excellent post, Joan, filled with great examples. A good reminder to be more careful when we write. I admit that I use some of these things in dialogue fairly often, but not all in one scene or chapter. It’s just that I know how my characters speak because I live amidst others just like them, and if I over correct them, they end up sounding like English teachers instead of country boys. But I’m working hard on learning to avoid most of these pesky words and phrases when I’m not writing dialogue. Or if I’m writing a character less likely to use them. Thanks for such clear explanations. Sharing! 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • I totally get what you’re saying. Dialogue has sound natural for the character. Even if they use the word “ain’t.” LOL. One time I got in the habit of saying “whom” in a character’s dialogue. While it was grammatically correct, it seemed too formal. Fortunately, my editor pointed me in the right direction.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Yeah, I agree some words, correct or not, just don’t reflect how most people speak in everyday conversation. Unless, of course, we’re writing about that English teach again. 😀

        I’ll be referring back to your examples, I’m sure. (Assuming I ever find time to write again. Workin’ on it!) 🙂

        Liked by 2 people

  8. An excellent post, Joan! I’ve been guilty of all of these for sure. I have learned to search through my WIP for the crutch words I know I use, but then I find new ones. I tend to use ‘that’ a lot and every time I see it now, I immediately delete it. 99% of the time I don’t need it. Thank you for sharing! It helps makes us all more aware of our pesky word use!

    Liked by 3 people

  9. Well done, Joan. I had to blush several times with guilt. I tend to use crutch words too often. I’m totally working on passive sentences, but they are like a rash THAT keeps coming back—a pox on them and me. You made me laugh at myself, too, which is always a good thing. So, thank you. . . Wait a minute. Okay, Just thank you. 😁

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Guilty as charged. I like to start dialog with “so” or “well.” I’m sure I over do it, but I also think a few are warranted in dialog. I try to eliminate most usage of “that.” I probably eliminate “had” too much. I also find myself using “though” quite a bit. I also kind of like a bit of dialog where people argue by yelling “so” or “well” back and forth. It starts out like a question, then ends with exclamation marks. (And usually a slamming door.) I admit that I’m doing that part on purpose.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. Great post, Joan. You hit one of my pet peeves, not only in writing, but in everyday interaction. The use of the word “so” at the beginning of a sentence drives me nuts. In the business world, when I here someone respond with a sentence starting with “so”, my brain defines “so” as, “I’ve made myself listen to what you said, but I’m going to refute it with whatever I say after so”. It drives me crazy. I’m going to share this post over on my blog.

    Liked by 3 people

  12. Excellent, Joan. Your examples are ‘right on’ and I could add more from my writing. Thank you for putting the spotlight on these common words and phrases that we too often include in our writing. Great post! 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  13. I delete “that” a lot when I edit. Many of my clients have started eliminating it as they write. I’ve got crutch words and phrases, too. And they seem to change with each book, just like yours do. I guess we fix one problem and develop another. I still consider it progress.

    Great post, Joan.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yesterday I found my latest new crutch phrase – “Not only would…” I need to go back through my manuscript and reword several instances. 🙂 No matter how hard I try, I always come up with different things.

      Liked by 3 people

  14. Pingback: Pesky Words | Welcome to Harmony Kent Online

  15. Pingback: Pesky Words — Story Empire – Strider's Table

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