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If you’re now thinking you need to open your very rough draft and cull like crazy, stop. Rough drafts are messy. It’s a fact of life, and they are not the place to weed out overused words. Odds are good you’ll just reintroduce those words in revisions, and then you’ve spent all that time just to do it all over again.
Rather, eliminating your overused words should be the last thing you do. When the manuscript is otherwise as tight as you can make it, then look for the words you’ve overused. If you’re brain works this way, try to keep track of words you notice a lot while revising. The same goes for phrases. If you have a character who takes the same action a lot (described with the same exact words every time), figure out where that action means something and where it’s just there because you didn’t want to use a dialogue tag. “Said” is much more transparent than your character straightening her shirt 400 times in a 70,000-word manuscript.
“But I don’t know how or where to get rid of some words.”
Here are a couple of examples with two of the most overused words I’ve noticed: “that” and “as.”
Original: I’m pleased to announce that I’m expanding. In addition to the cover design that I’ve been doing for the last three years, I will now also offer formatting services.
Revised: I’m pleased to announce I’m expanding. In addition to the cover design I’ve been doing for the last three years, I will now also offer formatting services.
I took out the two “thats.” Doing so tightened up the writing and didn’t change the meaning. “That” is often a filler word. If in doubt, read the sentence in question aloud. If it sounds fine and makes sense without the “that,” take it out. However, if “that” seems vital to sentence clarity, leave it in. The idea isn’t to completely eliminate any given word—just cut back.
Original: I went to the window and peered out as the sun crested the horizon, splashing orange and gold hues across the eastern sky.
Revised: I went to the window and peered out. The sun crested the horizon, splashing orange and gold hues across the eastern sky.
If you’re thinking there was nothing wrong with the original version, you’d be right. The sentence was grammatically correct, and the revision didn’t change anything but the word “as.” If “as” isn’t a word you’ve overused and you want to keep the original, by all means do. If “as” crops up a lot, this is a perfect place to remove one. “As” often signifies where a sentence can be broken into two, but it doesn’t always. Make sure splitting up a sentence results in two complete thoughts (or one complete thought and a fantastic narrative fragment).
Here’s a list of commonly overused words you can check for in your writing. The best way I know to do this is the “find” feature. Type in the word, look at each individual place it’s used, see if you can reword to eliminate the word (or if you don’t need to). Tedious? Perhaps, but it works. This list is not exhaustive.
- *Eyes Look
*Remember that these words change their spellings. If you search for “glance,” you won’t find “glancing.” Similarly, “eyes” won’t bring up “eye.”
**“As” naturally appears in many words (“was,” for example). You can get around this either by setting to search for exact matches only or by including a space to either side of “As.”
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Sometimes while writing, a writer deals with a specific time period. Now, I learned this resource from a professional editor's webinar, but it's also useful for writers. Google Ngram tracks how common a word is from the year 1500 to 2008. You can do one word or as many words as you want at a time. You can also set it to check between specific years, within a certain language, etc. So, if you're unsure which word to use, you can hop on over to Google Ngram and check real quick.
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