Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Eliminate Overused Words by Andy Scheer

In case you couldn't attend this past weekend's Indianapolis Christian Writers Conference, here's an editing tip I picked up from keynoter Angela Hunt. It's a variation on advice I've seen for years. But the spin she puts on the technique gives it application across a broad spectrum of our writing tendencies.

All writers gravitate toward certain pet words and phrases. Really good writers recognize their tendencies—and do something about it in their process of revision.

In Angela's case, she knows that in her drafts she tends to be a “Wasian.” When she looks at a page of her prose, she finds that too often she uses the word “was.” Such as: “The cat was on the table.” The verb indicates placement, but nothing else. To enliven her prose, she wants a more substantial verb: “sat,” “lay”--almost anything but “was.”

The way Angela discovers her wases involves a simple global change command with her word processing software. To make the word stand out, she types in a command to automatically change each “ was ” to “ WAS. ” Appearing in all caps, the word can't stay hidden.

(Notice she changes each instance of “space” + “was” + “space.” Otherwise she'd flag innocuous words such as WAShing.)

With that simple command, every use of “was” jumps out. She can easily scan the page and identify which she should change and which can remain. (Despite her claims to be a staunch Anti-Wasian, I'm sure she leaves a few.)

You say you're not a Wasian—fine. Maybe you're a Thatite. Or the veins of your writing run thick with Very-cosities. If you don't know your tendencies, ask the people in your writers group. They know, even if they have been reluctant to tell you.

Don't try to catch these as you write. While you'll capture a few of your pet words, you'll primarily stifle your creativity and cripple your productivity. Afterward, just do a “save-as” of your draft, then key in your “find and replace” function (On my software, it's Ctrl + F). Then brace yourself for how many time that term appears in ALL CAPS.

What's your tendency? In my case, I need to change ( to PAREN.


Angela said...

Mornin', Andy! Loved your spin on this--and yes, I can be a "thattie," too. I have an entire list of weasel words that I run through search/replace so I can take 'em out. Good seeing you at the conference. Until next time!


Caroline said...

Good advice. I have a list I always run thru before sending them on to Diana. :)

Timothy Fish said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Timothy Fish said...

I agree with the principle. I find that there are words I use too often (find and often and for example, for example), but as I read this I couldn't help but be reminded of the opening of A Tale of Two Cities. I think we don't know when to use 'be' verbs. Perhaps it is out of fear. For all the criticism they receive, they show up as the most powerful verbs in some of the most memorable writing imaginable. "Be" is a powerful word. God used it when he created the world and he used it to close out the Bible.

Patty Wysong said...

LoL--after studying Joshua, Samuel and David, and all those -ites in the land, I laughed at thatite. I have a list posted beside my monitor with my favorite weasels listed--definitely need it! =]

Cheryl Linn Martin said...

Great suggestion about using the find and replace! We all have those overuse tendencies, so this is VERY helpful. Oops--there's that word, very, again! :-)

Katherine Hyde said...

This is a great idea, but there's an easier way to do it: search for your pet word and check that box that says "Highlight all instances." That way you don't have to change the keepers back to lowercase.

My overused words include "really," "just," and "moment," plus others specific to each manuscript.

Rick Barry said...

Thanks for this, Andy. I had to leave the conference before Angela presented that advice, so this post restores a bit of what I missed.

In my own case, my manuscripts used to suffer from cancer of the semicolon. Fortunately, though, a friend pointed this out, and now I perform surgery to remove most of those. Right now, I'm focusing on various unneeded words and prepositional phrases. It's a bit like cutting out literary cellulite. I hope the final product will be a bit slimmer, leaner, and more attractive to readers' eyes.

Millie Samuelson said...

GREAT tip from you, Andy -- actually passed on by you from Angela H. And I LIKE Katherine's easier way suggestion, seems so anyway. Maybe Angela would like it better, too. THANKS! :-)

Andy Scheer said...

Where do you find the "highlight all instances" command? (Perhaps the reason I don't see it is that I use the free Open Office program (which is more like Word 2003) instead of Word 2007 or anything else from Microsoft.

Linda Glaz said...

Awesome idea to catch the wases.