Margie Lawson

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Top 5 Ways to Banish Overused Words

Hi y’all, Laura Drake here.

I often say that Margie Lawson took me from good to sold, and it’s the truth. Her classes opened my eyes to another way to look at my work, and my ‘trip to the mountain’ for Immersion cemented it. I promised her as I left that I wasn’t giving up until I had a New York publishing contract, and I kept that promise. My first book, The Sweet Spot, double-finaled in the RITA Contest, and won Best First Book that year! I attribute the win to stubbornness and Margie’s teaching. I now have 12 books out, but I always thought the hard-learned lessons were wasted if only I benefited from them, so I now teach several classes at Lawson Writer's Academy.

In January, I’m teaching Advanced Craft, for journeymen writers who have mastered the basics, but want to take their writing to the next level. We cover everything from big things, like beginnings and backstory, to small things like adverbs, writing tight, and the subject of this blog: overused words.

We all have them. Mine may be different than yours, but they're like whack-a-moles—you banish one, and two others pop up.

You may think they don't matter but they do. They irritate the reader on a subconscious level. Use them enough, and readers will remember they have to put the laundry in the dryer—and probably won't return to the book for days or (gasp) forever. The reader couldn't tell you why, just that the book didn't engage them.

These are ones I see all the time in published books as well as manuscripts.

Up/down/back

I stood up.  If you go from sitting to standing, we know it's up.

I sat back down. As above, with the added unneeded word 'back.' You most likely said earlier that the character stood.

I turned back to her. Turning is back. I'll bet if you look at the description, we'd know without the extra word.

Was

It was less than five minutes later when.... It's not only telling, it's passive structure, and very distant POV. Think about it. Do you ever think this phrase? And it's so easy to get rid of! Do a find in Word. You'll be shocked how many you have. Analyze the sentence. I guarantee you can do better with very little thought.

Start

He started across the room

He started cooking.

She started to move.

My critique group dubbed this a 'Yoda.' 'In writing, there is do or do not; there is no start.' Margie always asks, 'What's the visual?'

After all, what does starting to cook look like? See what I mean? You can't picture starting to cook, or starting anything for that matter.

Exclamation points 

Okay, sue me. It's a punctuation mark, not a word. But it's overused all the time. And it's lazy. Think about it, isn't it 'telling' the reader that the character is excited? Why not get closer POV, and show us instead?

'We're going to Disneyland!'

becomes

'We're going to Disneyland.' Sparkles zinged down her nerves and her stomach took a Big-Thunder-Mountain drop.

As

Margie wrote a great blog about it, HERE.

There are two types:

  1. The good 'as' compares things.

We’re about as alike as a Princess and a stable boy.

2. The bad 'as' shows things happening at the same time. We read one word after another, so there's no way to show things happening at the same time.

She realized that as she knelt, the rain had run an unobstructed path down the neck of her leather jacket.

Her mouth tightened into a thin, disapproving line, as she glared imperiously down at Tim.

Easy fix - most often, it's that the sentence is out of order:

She glared imperiously down at Tim, her mouth tightening to a thin, disapproving line.

Before you say it—I know—adverb, and she can't see her own mouth. This was from my first attempt at writing. Bad. Bad. Bad. You'll see fresh writing examples in class.

Your personal play list

I'm sure my overused words are different than yours. I love jerked. Yeah, I write cowboys, and I’m weird. I use it five to six times a book before I edit four out.

A friend of mine keeps a list of his, and his last editing step is to do a find and edit them out. SMART!

Confession time: What are your overused favorites?

Let's chat. Post them in the comments below.

Laura's Bio:

Laura Drake Headshot

Laura Drake is a New York and self-published published author of Women's Fiction and Romance.

Her romance series, Sweet on a Cowboy, is set in the world of professional bull riding.  Her debut, The Sweet Spot, was a double-finalist, then won the 2014 Romance Writers of America® RITA® award. She’s since published 11 more books and is under contract for two more. She is a founding member of Women’s Fiction Writers Assn, Writers in the Storm blog, as well as a member of Western Writers of America and Women Writing the West.

Laura is a city girl who never grew out of her tomboy ways, or a serious cowboy crush. She gave up the corporate CFO gig to write full time. She realized a lifelong dream of becoming a Texan and is currently working on her accent. She's a wife, grandmother, and motorcycle chick in the remaining waking hours.

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9 comments on “Top 5 Ways to Banish Overused Words”

  1. Fun and helpful, Laura! Thank you!
    I overuse the words, just and but. Found 58 'just's in my latest ms. Yikes! Thanks for the reminder.

  2. Great topic! While copyediting for a close family member recently, I noted how often she used a particular word, and she was floored. I responded that we all have them—our frequent faves. I have learned now to do word searches at the end for "just" and "so" and a few other personal favorites that make too many appearances.

    Love the ones you highlighted. Thanks for the reminder, Laura! (And yes, your books and teaching are awesome.)

  3. Great post, Laura! And right to the point on those common faux pas we all make. Ever since you pointed out the Yoda, I've gotten better at that, but my big one is an over-focus on eyes. I shudder when I do the lookups for "eye" and "look." UGH.

    Also, thanks for mentioning WITS - with one of my favorite Margie posts!

    p.s. The link is out of date. Here is the new one if you get time to update it:https://writersinthestormblog.com/2012/01/kiss-your-as-goodbye/.

  4. I am guilty of 'just' and 'so' too, Julie, and I'd add 'well'. Those are really easy to edit out, because they're almost never needed. They're What Margie calls, 'the author clearing their throat'.

  5. Your article is very helpful. My overused words include that, as, turned, and look. I need to make my thesaurus my next best friend.

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