When writing a longer piece of fiction, it’s easy to get whisked away by your characters and plot, caught in a whirlwind of pacing and tension. Sometimes, in all of the chaos, we lose sight of the art of language. This is building off of a previous post about using a thesaurus to spruce up tired diction.
I recently went through an entire 100k word book that I’d written. Among other things, I was checking to make sure my use of contractions was consistent, characters didn’t change appearance throughout the book (you’d be surprised how often I realize that eye color, hair color, or height changes), and language was up to snuff. Along this journey, I found a list of words that I used too often and common mistakes I made. I wrote the book in question four years ago. So there was a lot of stuff that needed to be snuffed-up… up to snuff, snuffied up? Yeah, let’s just go to the list.
I also used a service provided by Wordle.net. It shows you a visual representation of the words you use in a group of text (aka a copy/paste of nearly 100k words of Book). The larger words are the words that you use most frequently. This is mine for the book I’m working on editing, and it gave me a sense of the words I was using most, and the words that I needed to avoid.
Words to Avoid Using:
I can’t tell you often a character looks somewhere, sees something, and then plot happens. This was a mistake of my youth, where I mistakenly thought that I couldn’t describe the setting if my character wasn’t aware of it. If Tella Saldea walks into a grand hall, she has to notice the vaulted ceilings and the tall, thin windows in order for the reader to see them. Wrong. They can. The nature of the world is that things exist without us. So keep an eye out for where your characters are looking. If you find yourself making this mistake a lot, try employing the other senses. Is the grand hall filled with music? Do the notes of Musicano’s Fourth Melody bounce across the high ceilings? Is there food? Does the scent of celery and burnt potatoes make your character’s mouth water?
When I say to avoid using “had”, I don’t mean the way it is used in phrases such as: “Alicia had an advanced degree in neurobiology.” I mean avoid it in phrases like: “Lyren had picked up his sword and was now advancing on the massive beast.” This word has more to do with tense than it does with diction. This is the dreaded pluperfect tense (I had gone, you had gone, we had gone). In my own writing, I found a lot of pluperfect sentences, and I have only one thing to say about it: “AGHGHGHGHGHHHblargityBLARRRG.” Using pluperfect is almost always unnecessary. The above sentence could just as easily be: “Lyren picked up his sword and advanced on the massive beast.” Doesn’t that sound better? It puts us right there in the action instead of making it feel like a summary exposition.
I fell into the habit of describing people’s reactions and emotions by describing their eyes: “Her eyes widened in surprise / He narrowed his eyes suspiciously / She couldn’t find any trace of recognition in his eyes.” There isn’t anything inherently wrong with describing people’s eyes as a way to show how they are feeling and reacting. However, make sure that you have a VARIETY of ways to describe emotions. “She gasped in surprise / He placed a wary hand on his sword / She searched for some sign of recognition, but he was like a statue.”
You rarely need just. The only time I think it’s probably defendable (real word?) is in dialogue. Seeing as how it’s on my wordle, and it’s not super small… I might have to revisit my own draft and do some deleting! In the words of the Cybermen: “You will be deleted. You will be upgraded.”
smirked and eyebrow
I know these two seem a bit weird. Yet my characters are constantly smirking when they say something witty, and raising eyebrows to challenge each other. Using the find function (ctrl F) in Microsoft Word allows me to see just when and where all of these words are creeping up.
Another stage direction my books suffer from is “back.” Characters are constantly going back, looking back, and thinking back. Now, it’s not so bad to have this stage direction. The only reason I say this is because a wordle I found for a Harry Potter book has ‘back’ among its top contenders as well.
This one probably is closely linked to “looked”. Often, characters “looked around” and then saw something. If this is the case, the “looked around” can just be omitted. Just tell us what was there! In other cases, my characters are often turning, spinning and even whirling around. This is another case of stage directions.