Updated: Apr 11, 2022
The worst feeling in the world is to search for a word in your novel and realize you've overused it—perhaps hundreds, or even thousands, of times.
It makes for a much weaker manuscript, but everyone does it. It's force of habit. We all have those pet words that we revert back to whether we're aware of it or not.
In my case, I'm a repeat offender. There are certain words that seem to slip undetected into my writing again and again and again.
Because of this, I've made a handy dandy list of my most commonly overused words. I'm doing this for my own benefit (and also for the mental health of my editor), but I'll share it here with you, too.
Very: It's amazing how much we use this word and how little it does. If you go through your manuscript, I can almost guarantee that deleting this word will make your writing stronger about 99% of the time. "Very tired" can just be "tired," or it could be "exhausted." The thesaurus is your friend. Use it.
Just: I'm guilty of overusing this one, but if you take it out (especially in dialogue), your character will sound much more decisive. Instead of "I just want to go," use "I want to go." Can you feel the difference? There is pure power there.
Really: This is a lot like using "very" in some cases ("I'm really tired") or it can also mean "truly" ("If they really want to make a difference, they should work harder"). Either way, consider taking it out. I overuse this, especially writing YA characters. It slips into dialogue more than it should.
Feel/felt: Instead of saying, "She felt tired," show it to your reader. "Her shoulders sagged with exhaustion." See the difference?
Think/thought: In real life, people say, "I think" quite often, but it's almost like a space filler. It shows a hesitancy that you (most likely) don't want your characters to demonstrate. In the case of "I think we should go" vs. "We should go," it's clear which one sounds better and more confident and less wishy-washy. Your characters should stop thinking and state their minds.
Begin/Began/Started/Stopped: Wow. I do tend to use these quite a bit. "She started cooking dinner" vs. "She cooked dinner." What is your intention here? Is it important your reader see you character cooking, or is it important that she's starting the process of cooking. This might seem small, but it's important.
That: It seems like such a nice, vanilla short of word, which is part of the problem. There are times you need to use this for clarity, and others times you'll find it completely unnecessary. "This is the best book that I've ever read" sounds much better as "This is the best book I've ever read."
Breathe: Unless your character is asthmatic, and their condition is vital to the plot, we probably don't need to talk about the respiratory process. Inhale, exhale, breath, etc.—take them out. We all breath, but we don't need to talk about it. Romance writers (and I'm one of them), tend to use this word a lot. Sometimes it's relevant in the throes of passion, but most of the time it's unnecessary. Get rid of it when you can.
Adverbs: As Mark Twain famously said, “When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don't mean utterly, but kill most of them--then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are far apart.” Mr. Twain knew his stuff. Find those words ending in -ly and get kill as many as you can. Some repeat offenders in my own writing are: totally, definitely, literally, certainly, absolutely, basically, and actually. There are more, but (basically!) if the word makes you sound like a Valley Girl or Cher from "Clueless," take it out.
Was: Oh, baby. You're going to hate me for this one, but check and see how many times you've used this naughtily three letter word in your writing. I'm not saying to delete every single one. That is crazy talk. But if you use it more than five times on one page (or in one paragraph), maybe you need to mix it up a bit. First of all, it's a warning that you may be overusing gerunds—those pesky "ing" words. Instead of saying, "I was going," why not say, "I went"? Did you just hear angels sing? I hear it every time I removed one of these suckers from my writing. And the overuse of "was" can also indicate laziness. Instead of writing, "She was beautiful," make it more interesting. "She radiated beauty," or maybe, "The statuesque brunette entered the room, every part of her pure perfection, and Stanley's heart stuttered to a stop in his chest." Don't tell us she's beautiful. Show us her beauty through Stanley's eyes.
Now go through your manuscript and see which of these words you're guilty of overusing. Once you go through this list a few times, you'll notice you begin to avoid these words automatically as you're drafting your book, which is a good thing.
Happy Writing, everyone!