Friday, September 2, 2011

Writing Fresh

Few things bog down a manuscript the way pet phrases, repetition, unnecessary words, and clichés do. And sometimes you're too close to the manuscript to recognize them if you're not paying attention. (The picture is - I think - of a daisy. As in the cliché "fresh as a daisy." Get it? Okay, you know it's bad when you have to explain your own visuals...)

Pet phrases
It seems like I have one or two for every manuscript I write. In this last one, my main character's stomach was constantly "churning," and everybody's eyebrows and mouths were "quirking up." There's nothing wrong with these descriptions, but they need to be used more sparingly than once a chapter.

I recently attempted to read a book that shall remain nameless. About half the things the characters said were either said "wryly" or "dryly." It made me crazy. And my husband too, because I started keeping a tally. When I finished a page, I would report, "2 wrylys and 1 dryly." After about 5 minutes of this, he requested that I please either put down the book or suffer in silence. I opted to put it down.

When you're doing edits, keep your eye out for your pet phrases.

This can include pet phrases, but it also involves words used too close together, similar words in the same sentence, or sentence structure.

Here's what I mean about sentence structure:

I flick the page of her math book. “That looks fun.”
Macy scowls at the textbook. “I hate math.”
I stretch across the floor and close my eyes. “I believe you’ve mentioned that.”

See how that's action then dialogue three times in a row? I pulled that from the manuscript I'm currently editing. Yeah, that's gonna have to be rearranged.

It also illustrates my words used too close together, since I'm not crazy about math book in that first line, then textbook and math in that second line.

Unnecessary words
Every writer has these - words that wind up in their sentences even though they're unnecessary. My big ones are:


Again, here's an example pulled from my current manuscript:

“Well, maybe this makes me weird, but sometimes I just think about that kind of thing. You know, my parents and Auburn’s dad have always expected us to take over the vineyard. And I just wonder… I don’t know. I just want a choice in it all, you know?”

I used just THREE times in that dialogue. THREE! Way too many. When I revise, my character will be allowed one.

"Something" is probably the strangest one on my list. I'm always tacking it on to the end of my character's sentence. It's something I do in real life, and I pass it on to my character's as well. It looks like this:

"You wanna go to the pool or something?"

"We could go to the coffee house or something."

"It's like you're mad or something."

I cut a lot of "somethings" during my second draft.

I'll highlight one more from my list. "That" is a big one for many writers. I'm amazed by how many times I use it. Like twice in the sentence below:

“So you don’t have anything else that you want to do … you just want to know that you could do something.”

Both of those can be cut.

The most common one by far, I think, is a stomach being full of butterflies. Others I often see are character's deflating "like a balloon stuck with a pin," a character stopping in their tracks or turning into statues, air getting sucked out of the room, and silence being deafening. Also, comparisons to the movie Groundhog Day are pretty worn out, in my opinion.

Reading widely can really help you identify cliché phrases in your own writing. It helps you recognize what's fresh and what isn't. I'm guilty of using all those I've listed above, especially in first drafts.

What on this list do you struggle with the most? What are your pet phrases and words? What clichés make you crazy?


  1. Great post, Stephanie! I've notice I use "just" a lot in my work, too. I'm always going back and taking them out. :-P

    And cliche's are a weakness of mine, too! Deafening silence, stopped in their tracks, air sucked from a room, butterflies in the stomach...I've used 'em all! :-P lol But it's really great when, going back over my WIP, I take the cliche and think of something more unique, but still visual. Certainly stretches the imagination!!

  2. LOVE this post. Unless you're freakishly evolved, I think everyone deals with this.

    Have a great weekend!


  3. My biggies are "that" and "just" too. Especially "just." I just can't write without it! ;-)

    And I began a book once that used "primordial" twice on the first page. Just too much for so interesting a word. It grabs the attention, which is good the first time and distracting the second. And heaven forbid there's a third . . .

  4. Thanks for yet another wonderful post Stephanie!
    This is one piece of advice I've never come across before!

    I usually read my work twice or thrice and cut out words which sound weird and makes too much odd noise! Also, I'm just having a hard time with 'just'. It just can't get outta my way!

  5. Kelsey - "freakishly evolved." That cracked me up!

  6. Awesome post. I totally relate! Thanks for another great post :)

  7. I have a love/hate relationship with the reality of fave words. The word that I use A LOT in the first draft and gnash my teeth at during the second draft because I KNOW I've used it a lot and I DON'T want to find it fourteen times on one page but I DO is: quite.

  8. The word I'm learning to use less is was. I noticed a difference in my writing when I cut out a lot of was'. I have a problem with that, sometimes you can cut out was and it drives me half nuts.

  9. I tend to use the same phrase for stomach problems, like the butterfly thing especially. And then churning is probably one of them lol.
    But mainly I just use the same term in one book, and then in another book I reuse another term far to much. Ah the lovely stuff of being a writer :) hehe.

  10. Great post :D

    I use "just" and "that" waaaaay too often...

    The clichés I struggle with are the ordinary ones that don't even do anything for the story - the ones that seriously drive me bonkers - "clear as mud" "stopped in their tracks" stuff like that

  11. One of my pet phrases is 'I don't know.' I say it alot in real life too!

  12. Alana, I read an article about sparking up your writing by cutting out was's and it totally revolutionized the effort I put into DESCRIBING things (what's with my sudden fascination with caps, I wonder?) and not just saying "she was tired" or "he was annoyed."

  13. Adding onto Rachelle's comment, my original agent almost didn't sign me because of my "passive writing" which is what all those wases usually indicate. (I have no clue how to make "was" plural. Everything I try looks weird.) Cut was! (Or if you write in the present tense, "is" is the equivalent. She is tired. She is annoyed. Etc.)