In a first draft, most of us fall back on tip-of-the-tongue words rather than rummage through our brains or the thesaurus for the best ones.
Those overused words attract our attention when we polish a short piece—a poem, an article, a short story. In a long manuscript, one we write and rewrite for months, our favorite crutches may not stand out.
The computer’s Find can help us check an entire manuscript, but we need to tell it what words to search for. These searches not only guide us in improving our word choice but also show us where we need to make other changes.
Here’s a basic strategy to follow in your discovering your own words to avoid.
Start with to be verbs and their surrogates, particularly seem and feel. Don’t contort sentences to eliminate an occasional is or were, but rewrite if to be verbs outnumber active ones on any page.
Check common active verbs. My list includes look, watch, stare, glance, study, walk, run, hurry, turn, smile, grin, glare, and shrug, Any one of these may pop up dozens of time in a first draft. How many glances or shrugs constitute overuse? No one can say. I’d advise against using more than one per fifty pages.
Know thy nouns. If you don’t know what you overuse, skim a couple of chapters focusing on the nouns, particularly common objects, emotions, and actions. My list includes tea, Glock, interrogation, smile, and anger. Frequent use of a noun may indicate problems with plot or setting as well as word choice.
Certain adverbs reveal syntactical problems. If Find turns up numerous whens or wheres or whiles, the manuscript contains excessive complex sentences and, quite possibly, ineffective transitions. Frequent use of then and now also signals poor transitions. If ly adverbs flourish, come up with verbs that don’t need modifying. Strong verbs empower to your sentences.
Repeated use of certain adjectives points to poor descriptions. How many of your men are tall or rugged or muscular? How many of your women are slim or anxious or vivacious? How many of your rooms are elegant or messy or spacious? To make sure unique adjectives distinguish every character or setting, compare your word choices in each introduction.
The more you search for overused words, the less you need to. You come to recognize more and more ineffective words (and their attendant problems) and omit them during your first draft.