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: www.heleneyoung.com
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