(I'm at that hair-pulling stage again, feverishly working on last-minute changes to a new book for my editor and trying to root out all the overused words that dot the landscape of my novel like stubborn dandelions. This post, which first appeared here in slightly different form back in the earliest days of Poe's Deadly Daughters, remains as sadly appropriate as ever.)
Every writer will know what I’m talking about. It’s that broken-record thing your mind does without your conscious awareness. I can write a complete first draft without realizing that I’ve used a vocabulary of 200 words, tops. When I shift into rewrite mode, my inner editor is aghast to discover the same verb two dozen times -- in every chapter. She looked. He looked. They both looked. Again and again and again.
[Pause to bang head on desk.]
Out comes my copy of the Rodale Synonym Finder. Peered? A specialty word to be used sparingly, but great in certain contexts. Peeked? How many adults ever peek? Glanced and stared are easy to abuse, and like looked, they can multiply faster in a manuscript than hangers in a closet.
When I begin a manuscript with the intention of avoiding looked, some other word invariably moves in and takes over. Glared is one of my worst rough draft habits. My characters, always a high-strung lot, glare at each other, at traffic, at stormy skies, at inanimate objects and life in general, all the way through the first draft. I never realize I’m doing this while I’m doing it.
[Pause for more head-banging.]
My only remedy is to read through the first draft and make a list of overused words so I can replace them next time around. I’m dismayed at how little this list varies from one manuscript to the next. [Do you ever learn? Apparently not.]
English sometimes feels like a blunt-force weapon to me, lacking the delicate calibration of other languages. We don’t have marvelous words like Weltschmerz and Schadenfreude and hikikomori to convey complex emotional states. To say the same thing, writers and speakers of English have to string several words into a phrase or an entire sentence. Even angst and macho are borrowed from other languages.
Alaskan Native Americans have forty words for snow, to denote its many states and textures. I have three: snow, the generic white stuff; slush, what the generic white stuff becomes when it lands on warm pavement; and snirt, the dirty mounds of once-white stuff that are created by plows and always seem to last into May.
English may not have forty words for snow, but it has plenty of alternatives to said, and enthusiastic writers try to use all of them. I am no exception. Ironically, though, said is one word that should be allowed to stand in most cases, because our characters become ridiculous when they’re constantly exclaiming, shouting, pleading, crying, whispering, expostulating, etc. Said is believed to be invisible to the reader, regardless of how many times the writer uses it -- unlike, for example, looked and glared. So I often find myself striking some of the alternatives and upping my said total in later drafts. Then my editor tells me to replace most of the dialogue attributions with action.
I confess to feeling a mean little spark of glee when I realize that a well-known writer has failed to tame a bad word habit. One bestselling author is addicted to the word coursed. Adrenaline coursed through him. Anger coursed through her. Panic coursed through her. Joy coursed through her. And, of course, desire coursed through him. The author’s books are popular all over the world, which indicates that little or no irritation has coursed through her fans.
Are writers the only people who notice these things? Do they matter at all to readers who are not writers themselves? Maybe not. Maybe a book with incessantly glaring characters would go over well with readers. But as long as my overused words make me want to bang my head on my desk, I’ll continue to keep my list and spend days finding alternatives before I declare a manuscript finished.