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Words to Watch Out For

Updated: Jul 26, 2023

We’ve just finished our third… or is it fourth draft.  During this readthrough, we discovered multiple words we tend to overuse - and, to make it worse, when we toss one, we often replace it with another!

Obviously, as authors we’re going to have word repetition when we’re writing, and that’s okay.  The first draft is only a draft, not the finished product.  First drafts are not publication ready.  One thing we’ve noticed is that while our dialogue is strong, our linking actions are not.  All authors have their crutches, but sometimes those writing tics are repetitive and unnecessary. 

On top of that, we ourselves have certain verbal/physical tics.  Our characters may or may not have the same ones as we do - and we definitely don’t want every character to have exactly the same tics!  So those are also things we’re looking out for.

So we thought we’d share the list of words we’re trying to watch out for and why we’re looking for them. The list entered life with of only a few words on it and has grown to be about a page long.

Words to watch out for (assume we’re looking for multiple tenses of all words):

  • Very/Really/Pretty - These are weak.  Most of these you can just cut or replace with a stronger verb.

  • See/Hear - In the context of our POV character seeing or hearing someone doing something - we’re trying to just show the actions instead of filtering them.

  • Feel/Think - Filtering words.  Just have the character do the action.

  • Seem - Filtering word, especially in the context of our POV character watching others.  (Yes, we’re not getting other people’s POVs, but we need to watch out for our main character thinking that someone seems to notice or seems to understand or seems to feel.)

  • Look/Glance - Fallback phrase/words.  (When we can’t figure out an action for someone, we tend to have them look at or glance at someone.)  Also, look can be filtering - it looks like someone else understands, for example.

  • Just - Unnecessary word, especially in exposition.  People use it in dialogue all the time.  Unfortunately it can slip out of dialogue with ease.  The trick is to read out loud both with and without the word.  Also be aware of characterization.  Some people will use the word as a verbal pause while others avoid it.

  • Realize/Note/Notice - Filtering words.  Just show the action.

  • Well - Verbal tic from both of us.  In Real Life, we tend to start our sentences with “well,” - it’s fine for some characters, not all.

  • Actually - Weak word.  Most can be cut.

  • Towards/downwards/forwards/upwards/backwards - the proper spelling of these (in American English) is without the ‘S’.  Most can be changed to to/down/up/back and remove the “ward” entirely.

  • Fuck/Shit/Damn - Swearing has its place.  It’s important to not alienate readers with an overabundance.  Leave it to dialogue if possible.

  • Start/Begin - Weak verbs.  “Starts to” and "begins to" are common crutches.  Just show the action.

  • Fact - Verbal tic, especially “the fact that” - cut.

  • Back - Not always necessary, cut where possible.

  • Take - Weak verb, find stronger ones and cut others.

  • Sigh/Shrug/Breath - Fallback action.  Find something else.  Watch out for an overuse of sighing, deep breaths.

  • Nod/Shake - Bobblehead syndrome.  A few instances are fine but there are other ways to show agreement/disagreement.  Especially unnecessary if a character shakes her head and then immediately says “no”.  As a note, if you use nod you do not need to have the words “my head”, “her head”, “his head”, etc.  It’s unnecessary.  It’s assumed when nodding it’s the head unless otherwise specified. 

  • Clearly - Filler word - omit.

  • Make - Weak verb - try to find stronger.

  • Lean - Overused action.

  • Roll (rolling eyes) - I read a story where a character rolled their eyes every other piece of dialogue; not only was it repetitive, but I started getting concerned about eyestrain.  It’s an overused action used to show annoyance, disbelief, or disrespect.

  • Grin/Smile - Overused actions.  People smile all the time in real life to put others at ease, however in writing it gets repetitive.  Find other action tags. 

  • That - Unnecessary word, omit where possible.  Read the sentence aloud both with and without the word.  Many times it can be cut.  Also “that” can often be switched out with “which” and “it”.

As we’re sure you can tell, these are not words/actions we can toss wholesale.  Sometimes your character needs to take a deep breath or glance up at someone.  People nod all the time.  Very can be a useful descriptive word, especially in dialogue.  There’s no way in hell anyone can ever toss the word ‘that’ completely.

However as authors, we must be aware of our overused words and phrases and take steps to make sure they haven’t taken over our writing. 

What words are problematic for you?  Do you have words/actions you tend to overuse?  

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