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Word overuse

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The write word paints a thousand pictures.
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When my critique partners and I are sharing line edits we sometimes notice that a word crops up several times. I find that I've become sensitized and even notice them when I'm reading for enjoyment. Generally we suggest swapping out one of the words. But sometimes there just is no other word that feels quite as good.

With the vast number of words available to us we shouldn't have to fall back on the same comfortable word too often. But certain words fill a niche so well that no other seems good enough. We certainly don't want to pull out some obscure or fancy word just to have variety.

If you're reading, do you mind if an author reuses a word? Obviously a word might turn up more than once within a book, maybe even within a chapter. What is the red flag that says "too much." What makes you notice recurring words?


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#1 - July 04, 2015, 06:57 PM

I notice a word being used often if the word is an "odd" recurring word (something not often used in daily speech). I also notice if a word is used as a modifier in the same placement throughout a book. I know there are some published authors who I smile and shake my head about because they have some particular patterns or words that they favor. But I also can't say that I've thought "Whoa! Too much!" when I run into that; it mostly just amuses me. But maybe that's because their copy editors have made them kill everything where the word or phrasing wasn't right...
#2 - July 04, 2015, 07:37 PM

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I think that using certain words is probably part of a writer's voice. A certain word feels comfortable to use because it is the one the writer would normally use whereas another author would choose a different word. People do the same thing when speaking. They phrase things the same way or use a word frequently. It's hard to know when to change up your natural voice to avoid redundancy.

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#3 - July 04, 2015, 09:01 PM

Personally, when someone points out my redundancies, I do my best to change most of them. But I don't change the ones that fit best or that I can't think of any other way to express what I'm trying to say. I guess I think it's okay to repeat a few things, if you're not being lazy in your word choice throughout the book. Right? :)
#4 - July 04, 2015, 09:12 PM

As long as it flows with purpose instead of feeling like the writer was being lazy, I usually don't mind. That said, I read the two opening paragraphs of an acclaimed YA novel that used one word no less than ten times (can't remember the count). It read like they were trying to make a point, it had purpose. To be fair, it was a peek on Amazon, so the example is either a good one that proves my point, or a bad one since I didn't buy the book and don't know if the author's choice proved useful or lazy.

How many times did I use lazy, purpose, point and prove/d?
#5 - July 05, 2015, 05:26 AM
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There's redundancy, and there's repetition. Redundancy is the unintentional or sloppy reuse of a word or phrase; repetition is the intentional poetic reuse of a word or phrase. If you notice yourself repeating certain words, one option is to play with repetition. Most of the time it's not the right choice for the manuscript, but it's always a good exercise.

Redundancy bothers me most when a word pops up in the same part of the sentence--particularly the end--more than once in a paragraph. If this sounds clunky and unplanned, it pops me out of the story. It can also annoy me when an unusual word appears several times on a page or on every page, but that's sometimes a voice thing. If I'm convinced the character or narrator would actually use the same word over and over, I go with it and even like it.
#6 - July 05, 2015, 05:49 AM
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I have an ever-growing list of tics that I do a search of the ms for, including well, but, really, and just. I don't eliminate them all, but (<-- oops) I do think whether each one is necessary.
#7 - July 05, 2015, 06:06 AM

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I have an ever-growing list of tics that I do a search of the ms for, including well, but, really, and just. I don't eliminate them all, but (<-- oops) I do think whether each one is necessary.

Yes. This.

I recently read an adult non-fiction book in which the author reused the same descriptors over and over and over again; it was annoying, and served to remove the pathos from the true events she was describing. I couldn't help wondering whether the book had been copy-edited for style as well as for fact-checking.

I know there are some published authors who I smile and shake my head about because they have some particular patterns or words that they favor. But I also can't say that I've thought "Whoa! Too much!" when I run into that; it mostly just amuses me.

David Eddings? :)

It's funny how in poetry, you can get away with it (my favorite case being The Aeneid, where Aeneas' faithful side-kick Achates is always "fides Achates"). There, it's a device. But in prose, it can be jarring.
#8 - July 05, 2015, 06:37 AM
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It's funny how in poetry, you can get away with it (my favorite case being The Aeneid, where Aeneas' faithful side-kick Achates is always "fides Achates"). There, it's a device. But in prose, it can be jarring.

Exactly. I just finished a book where the author uses an unusual descriptive phrase about smiling over and over again. I thought it was great the first time I read it. But after the second, third, and fourth usage, it felt jarring and pulled me out of the story.

I read an agent's (editor's?) post on Twitter recently that "yeah" is way overused. *raises hand* I looked through my WIP and removed about half of them.
#9 - July 05, 2015, 07:36 AM
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My second editor called these "tick-words." Everyone has them.
The only place for such is in dialogue, as part of a character's distinctive way of saying things. Characters are more than entitled to tick-words; this is part of how we recognize them. The narration should be free of such echoes.
The thorny part is in the (now ubiquitous in MG and YA) first person narration, . If you write in first person, the narrative can have certain distinctive tick-words also. Discernment is key.
#10 - July 05, 2015, 11:15 AM
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I agree that in dialogue a character can have a particular phrase or word that they use. It's part of that characters voice. That doesn't jar me.

I find verbs are a downfall of mine. I select a particular verb for an action and to me it's the 'correct' verb. It does just what I want it to do. But then if I need the same action a page later I need to hunt down a new verb.

I like that description of 'tick' words. I'll have to start a list of my 'ticks' so I can search my manuscript.

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#11 - July 05, 2015, 01:03 PM

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My second editor called these "tick-words." Everyone has them...

 :exactly So true!

 :badidea Sometimes, these tick words catch my attention more after I've set my manuscript aside, then returned to it a few days later...

I have an ever-growing list of tics that I do a search of the ms for, including well, but, really, and just. I don't eliminate them all, but (<-- oops) I do think whether each one is necessary.

Good advice, Anne! I do that, too, in the later stages of preparing the ms.  :revising

#12 - July 06, 2015, 11:11 AM
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Thank you all for the excellent advice!
I've personally used the word "sweet" 3 or 4 times in a 200 word story. My first reaction was to search for synonyms... My second reaction was to stop using it! Now I struggle to avoid adjectives in general (especially those that can cause cavities!).  :cupcake :donut2
#13 - August 14, 2015, 07:07 AM

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It's funny how in poetry, you can get away with it (my favorite case being The Aeneid, where Aeneas' faithful side-kick Achates is always "fides Achates"). There, it's a device. But in prose, it can be jarring.

How did I miss this? I :hearts Marissa.
#14 - August 14, 2015, 07:58 AM
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