Word Overuse and How You Find It


I finished the book. It’s had several rereads and rewrites to polish it up. Two lovely beta readers have had their eyes on it, beat it with a comma stick, and found some typos. The query is written and polished. You’d think my little book was ready to fly out into the world, wouldn’t you?

It is now, but it wasn’t yesterday. I always leave my most despised task for last. Overused words. We all have words and phrases that we rely on a little too much. There are websites and articles that point out common and lazy words to avoid. However, every writer has words that they overuse that are specific to them.

For example, from a website of weak words to be avoided: stuff. Not a word I use much. My book is 63k. In all of that, I’ve used the word “stuff” 7 times, with one use being “stuffy.” They occur in dialog. 7 out of 63,000. Not a problem. Many of the words I find on these advice websites no longer apply to my writing.

In fact, I don’t worry much about anything that appears less than 100 times in a novel this length, unless it is a truly unimaginative word such as “very.” How many “verys” do I have? 21, not bad at all.

So, how does a writer find those problem words that are specific to their particular work? I like the word cloud method. There are programs online that make a picture out of common words in writing. There are many free programs online to choose from. I’m fond of Word It Out. Not only will it accept a novel worth of words, but it has options to change colors and size gradients so that it’s easier to see the problem areas. Words that are used most often appear bigger in a word cloud. You are likely to see main character names and the word “said” in giant letters, and other words common to the document in smaller letters, depending on frequency of use. Words used sparingly won’t show up in the picture at all.

I'll help you find them, Momma!

I’ll help you find them, Momma!

I plug my shiny new novel into Word It Out, use the search feature on my Word document to look up words that appear in large letters, and what do I find?

120 uses of the word “still.” Mostly when what I wanted was “continued” or “remained.” I went through the book document by navigating with Word’s find feature (such a godsend!), and knocked that down to 46.

229 uses of the word “like.” WTF? Hedge pigs on a pogo stick, what was I thinking? Yes, it’s a contemporary piece with lots-o-dialogue, but honestly! “Like” was most often misused when what I wanted was “as if,” “such as,” or “as.” Yes, it’s a common word, and it will show up in dialog and analogies, but it’s often a vague and boring choice. I trimmed usage down to 96.

Speaking of vague words, “Things” wasn’t much of a problem at 56 times used, but it is a wishy-washy word, so I trimmed it to 25 times.

The setting sun painted a palette of things in the sky.

The setting sun painted a palette of things in the sky.

It’s an ongoing battle. An old overused word of mine reared its ugly head. I used to have this one licked, but the characters in my current novel wanted to keep saying it. “Just.” “Just” reared its boring head 148 times, so I lobbed it off to 37. I often used it when what I wanted was “only,” “barely,” and “scarcely,” and times when it wasn’t needed at all. Kill “just” with fire.

A new problem word arose, and I blame it on writing reports for a job I had working with at-risk kids. In these reports, we were not allowed to say anything like “Bob was sad,” because we didn’t know it, we were only observers. So we had to write things such as “Bob seemed sad.”  Seemed. Unless one is a lawyer or an eye witness in a court of law, seemed is a very boring word choice. My usage was under 100 times, but I axed quite a bit of them for being too uninteresting to live. If it wasn’t for my word cloud, I wouldn’t have known “seemed” was a problem.

“But won’t my beta readers notice this and alert me?” you seem to ask. No, not likely. Not if your writing is smooth and you haven’t used the same word too many times in the same segment. Even an editor or agent might not catch it. However, if you find these uninspiring word choices and substitute words that are more engaging, that agent or editor might go from thinking your book is all right to thinking it is something worth backing. It’s these small choices that make a book more interesting to read. “Scarcely” is a far more specific choice than “just,” which is a catch-all word with a variety of meanings. Stronger word choices make your writing interesting and your meaning clear.

That last sentence was almost “more interesting and your meaning more clear.”

“More.” Used 134 times in my book. Cut down to 63. Often used in place of “again,” “most,” or using a specific amount or an amount word such as “few” or “brighter.” So many times not needed at all.

I learn. I use my word cloud, I search my document, and I learn. I automatically cut the “mores” from that sentence above.

Was it worth the entire day I spent doing this yesterday? Was it worth the mind-numbingly repetitive task, and all the times I yelled at my screen “what was I thinking?”

We're going to pretend that "What was I thinking?" is what I shouted.

We’re going to pretend that “What was I thinking?” is what I shouted.

Oh, yes. It absolutely was. My book is better for it, and I myself know what problem words I need to watch out for in my next project. It was worth every second and every single shout.

There’s two “everys” there, but I’ll let them stand for emphasis. Deciding when repetition of a word is useful or not is all part of the job.

About JulianneQJohnson

I am a writer in Indiana who lives with two cats, two ferrets, and one fiance. I enjoy cheap coffee and expensive chocolate.
This entry was posted in Habits in writing, Word Clouds, writing, Writing Advice and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Word Overuse and How You Find It

  1. Pingback: Revision: Overused Words | Maria Berg's Writing Life

  2. Pingback: Wordle of the Day, What It Says About My Blog | 365 Days of Thank You

  3. vera ersilia says:

    Thank you for this post ! very interesting and useful information.

      • vera ersilia says:

        Well… I went to the site and put in a text but it gave me a disorganized clouds which appeared not to have understood the subject and suggested options that did not fit. Either I write in an idiosyncratic manner or I did not use the tool correctly. I may try again later.

      • I had best luck when using the tools to change the parameters. I changed the background to white, changed the colors to be very different, and then chose “rainbow” instead of “direct.” Then I change how many different sizes the words can be too make more sizes. I like Word It Out because it lets the user adjust it like that, but you can play with different generators to find one that works best for you.

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