Jilly: Search and Destroy

Do you repeat yourself, waffle on, or over-use pet words and phrases? Do your favorite authors?

This week I’ve been cleaning up my WIP, which is due to my editor tomorrow (yikes). I’ve spent way more time than I would have liked down in the weeds, examining individual words.

I know some writers use editing software like AutoCrit to iron out their tics and foibles. I’m tempted to try it some time. For now, my chosen method is to teach myself better writing habits by working systematically through a checklist of problem categories and likely offenders.

Based on this week’s findings, I have work to do.

I’m sure your prose is cleaner than mine, but since a problem shared is a problem halved, here’s the self-editing search and destroy sequence I followed:

1 Filter Words
Saw, looked, heard, felt, thought, noticed, realized. Words that remind the reader that somebody is telling them a story, instead of allowing them to experience it directly. The last thing I want is to create a barrier between the reader and the action, so filter words have to go. I thought I was quite good at avoiding this trap. This week, I discovered I was wrong.

2 Modifiers
Garbage/ filler words such as really, very, totally, just, quite, great, little dilute the writing and add nothing. It was really very embarrassing to see how many of these little pests had crept into my manuscript. Delete. Delete. Delete.

3 Adverbs
Mostly -ly words. Chances are they’re being used as a diversionary tactic to prop up a weak verb. Yet another way to create reader distance and make the story tell-ish instead of show-ish. Slowly seems to be a particular favorite of mine. Argh. Delete, and find a stronger verb.

4 Over-used
Sometimes words crop up on my ‘frequently occurring’ manuscript search because they’re particular to my world or story. For Alexis that would include star, light, energy, jewel, stone, rock, granite. They’re fine. Others I use repeatedly because they’re the first choice in my vocabulary toolbox and I don’t realise I’m working them to death. Subtle. Hammer. 😉 A reader would almost certainly find them distracting and/or annoying. Not the story experience I’m aiming for. Search. Open thesaurus. Peruse. Replace.

5 Repetition
If you asked me, I’d swear I never use the same word in consecutive sentences. It’s jarring to write, let alone read, right? Um, not so much. Back to the thesaurus.

6 Inappropriate
These aren’t so heinous, and I don’t think they’d easily be picked up by editing software. I look for two main categories: first, words that wouldn’t have existed in my story world, like adrenaline, which is tempting to use in a horses ‘n swords adventure plot but is a twentieth century discovery. Some words sound modern but are surprisingly old, and vice versa. Thank heavens for the interwebs, which makes checking etymology quick and easy.

The second type is even trickier: words that a specific character would not have known or used. I had Alexis using cabochon to describe the jewels worn by her half-brother, Crown Prince Darryl. Technically it’s correct, and the word dates back to the sixteenth century, so that’s okay. Alexis is educated, so she might have known the term, but she’s lived her entire life in a plain, simple monastery. Other characters could use cabochon. I took it away from Alexis.

7 Signature
These are the trickiest and are much more of a judgment call. Words that may not be used frequently, that may be clever and evocative, but which are repeated by an author in a context that’s particular to them and become a kind of signature. We’re straying into voice territory here.

An example: Ilona Andrews, one of my favorite authors, has two signature words that I always notice: carved and punched. Carved in the context of the hero’s muscles, especially biceps. Punched as in, his feet punched the floor. They’re brilliant word choices, but they’re distinctive and they distract me even though I enjoy them.

The ones I found and replaced in my ms this week were starburst and exquisite. Both ususally in relation to pain or agony. I’m sure there are others.

Apart from the above, my 95k word manuscript looked more or less clean. I think 😉

If anyone reading this post feels inclined to share their best self-editing tips, tricks and traps, I’d love to hear them.

4 thoughts on “Jilly: Search and Destroy

  1. I have a lowering feeling (Georgette Heyer’s pet phrase) that my work is larded (can’t remember who uses that all the time, but one of my favorites does) with signature words. One, I suspect, is “leverage,” used as a verb. It’s a piece of business-speak I picked up during my years in IT. I don’t know my beta readers almost always call me out on it.

    • “Leverage.” I never noticed that, but now, you know, I’m going to be on the lookout for it when I read pages of yours.

      This last week I’ve been dipping into a historical to unwind before I go to bed. It’s one I’ve read several times before, but until this time around I never noticed that “he bit out” appears to be the hero’s default dialogue tag. It’s an enjoyable book, but now I’m distracted by all the biting 😉 .

  2. Of all the useless words, I use “just” way too often. Every so often I do a search and then see how many I can delete. Usually, most of them. I let my characters say “really,” however, and all the other junk words—occasionally, anyway—since people do. But I try to leave them out of the text otherwise. I love that Search feature!

  3. I simply can’t see them in my own work, and I rarely see them in others unless they really are overused — and in that case, it almost becomes comfortable, like an artist’s signature move.

    I will say, though, that I do like repetitive sounds and words and sometimes phrases and will purposely use them, or just leave them in if I actually notice them.

    (-: There’s this new song out called “Bodak Yellow” — I ran across it when Miley Cyrus sang a pop version of it during one of Jimmy Fallon’s games on Late Night. YOU guys probably have heard it enough to hate it, but I only hear it when I choose — which was about three times last night, and once this morning. It does some very interesting things with repetition — especially of words like “bloody” and “money” and “move”. The underlying rhythm is hypnotic, and then you’ve got this assertive woman on top, paying the bills and stealing the men. Such an interesting combination.

    I have been embarrassed when one of you catch me using the same word over and over, and it’s not intentional. It’s often a very boring word, too. There’s something to be said for the invisible “said” but . . . do we really want “struck” to be invisible? I said I’ve been embarrassed, but I’m also grateful for the insight into how my writing looks from the outside. It’s one thing to purposely break the rules; it’s a second thing to break the rules unconsciously but have them work, and it’s a third thing to break the rules because one is simply not paying attention.

    Just want to add, this isn’t a first-draft problem; repetition is a way we can identify themes, sometimes. But finishing drafts? Yes. Good call-out!

    And congratulations on getting there!!!!! Such great news!

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