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Novel Editing And Over-Used Words, by Helene Young

How vast is your vocabulary? I’ve always prided myself on having an excellent grasp of the English language, but editing is always a humbling process.

I’m currently working on my next novel, Safe Harbour. I’ve navigated my way through the structural edits so the shape of the story is set. Now it’s time for the copy edits, where every word is questioned and every phrase is examined. I always revisit the mistakes I’ve made in the past before I start to ensure I’m not repeating history.

With my first manuscript my wonderful editor provided me with a list of over-used words and phrases that I needed to seek out and destroy. Things like ‘she flicked her hair’, which I’d used in excess of ten times on one manuscript, mistakenly believing I was showing my character’s mannerism. My editor had a note for me: ‘If Morgan flicks her hair one more time I’ll cut it off.’ Point taken. Morgan flicked her hair only once by the time I finished editing.

Another character seemed to be constantly rolling his eyes – not a particularly attractive attribute for a hero. Words like succinctly, passionately, cradled, burned, rose and suddenly have all had their turn being over-used through my manuscripts.

In an effort to edit more effectively I now find the words I over-use – and reading aloud will always bring them to the forefront – then list all the alternatives I can think of to replace them.

The first word I found today was ‘tiny’. It appeared fifteen times in the manuscript, referring to everything from smiles to rooms to compartments. So here are some alternatives I’ve come up with – small, compact, miniscule, minute, diminutive, hint, faint, flicker, cramped, cosy, glimmer, glance, momentary, brief, barest and infinitesimal. A thesaurus is a good place to start the hunt, but as you can see from my example you may need to dig deeper to find more appropriate words whose meaning is subtly different. Some of those words won’t work either. Simple is best. Your reader is unlikely to want to consult a dictionary so they can enjoy your story.

Once I’ve made the list I then use the ‘Find’ function in Word to seek ‘tiny’ out and replace it with something more evocative. Several times I deleted ‘tiny’ altogether. Other times the phrase was reworked to show rather than tell the dimensions of the space.

It seems like an obvious thing to do but it took me four books before I came up with a system that works for me. How do you find the repetition in your work and what’s your solution? I’m always open to suggestions.


Helene Young’s author website:

Helene Young’s bio page


Wings of FearShattered SkyBurning LiesHalf Moon Bay     House for all Seasons by Jenn J McLeodRotten Gods by Greg Barron - Australian novelist

Writing Novels in Australia

11 Comments Post a comment
  1. The pair!!!!! I had lots!!!!! Like my exclamation marks, obviously!!!! Can I add to your ‘find’ idea. I use the find functiontoo but i choose to highlight each instance, then i reduce my page siaze so i can see about 15 pages at a time. That helps you see how spaced out the words are.

    October 22, 2013
  2. I love this! I was given a guide to forbidden words and I did a global highlight. Boy! Does it ever give a vivid representation of word use. I’ve found that it’s making me a better writer.

    October 22, 2013
  3. Jenn and Elizabeth that sounds like a great idea! (Nothing wrong with exclamation marks, Jenn 🙂 )

    October 22, 2013
  4. kerriepaterson #

    I seem to come up with a new pet phrase every book I work on! I sent my last one off to my CP for a structural read with the warning to ignore every time the hero winked. I think he has undiagnosed tourettes 🙂

    October 22, 2013
    • Oh Kerrie, that’s priceless. Our poor characters must end up tired of us misrepresenting them:) It’s so very easy to do and I don’t worry about it during the writing process any more as I know it’s so easy to clean up during editing.

      October 23, 2013
  5. I think I actually blushed reading this – I’m SO guilty of using pet phrases for each writing project (and yes, thank goodness for editors!). Mine were “grimaced” and “winced” and … oh pants … I’m still doing it with the latest draft – where did I put that red pen?

    Great advice Helene – thanks for sharing.

    October 23, 2013
    • Rachel, it’s already comforting to know we’re not alone. Common mistakes are called common for a reason.
      It’s a blessing to have an editor who can make me smile even while I’m cleaning up the manuscript.

      October 23, 2013
      • So true! The edits for my last novel came back with a running commentary on how much red wine my editor was getting through as she came across repeated mistakes! But, as you say in your original article (and echoed by other writers here), it’s so important to keep those edits and refer to them after the actual writing process is complete so we can learn from them.

        October 23, 2013
      • Your editor sounds like a gem, Rachel 🙂

        October 23, 2013
  6. I always do a search on my weasel words thinking, no way would I use ‘just’ to many times, and then it comes back at half a billion. Humbling!

    I was told my second book had too many people standing in doorways and/or rubbing their face. Plus EIGHT tea drinking scenes in the first few chapters.

    Praise the Gods for editors! Worth every pride crushing pencil mark.

    October 23, 2013
  7. Humbling indeed, Phillipa! In Safe Harbour I had too many scenes involving Darcy feeding the people around her. Sure she’s a chef but she had every reason to say ‘look after yourselves, guys!’

    October 23, 2013

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