6 Overused Phrases and What They Reveal About Your Writing

mark-twain-never-saidOne of the most difficult things for authors to do is improve the tone or style of our writing. Tone especially is a nebulous, hard-to-define quality that is essential to the reader’s enjoyment of our work, but we rarely get specific feedback about it, or find any way we can fix it if something is wrong. And feedback is essential, because these qualities are so intuitive that it is difficult to self-analyze. It’s easy to figure out that you use more commas than most writers. It’s much more difficult to realize that you sound “preachy,” and even harder to fix the problem.

However, there is one way of getting into the depths of your own writing: analyze your overused words.

Overuse of certain words is a common problem with authors. You get into the flow of writing and you don’t notice that you have repeated yourself. It’s no big deal; it’s part of the creative process. Subsequent passes through by yourself, your editors and your beta readers find these errors. You find different words and the problem is fixed.

Not. So. Fast.

Ask yourself why those words stood out as overused. Some of them may have only been used fifty or sixty times in your whole novel. And and the are probably used thousands of times. Nobody asked you to remove a bunch of them.

The reason those specific words got classified as overused is that they bother your readers. If people noticed them, they are a distraction from the flow of your writing. If you can figure out why these specific words are annoying, you could be on the way to making your style of writing more universally accepted.

Finding these words with a program like ProWritingAid is useful, and then you have to use your artistic judgment to decide when they are overused.

Multiple Use Close Together

If it’s only a matter of a word used several times in one paragraph, fixing it is easy and can be useful. Using the word ran three times not only distracts the reader, but also shows that the author should be using more active verbs, such as tore, dashed, and scrambled. This is Creative Writing 101 stuff.

Dig Deeper

But there are other, more subtle messages we send through our use of language, and when we find ourselves repeating the same word over and over in our writing, it is worth our while to figure out why we are using that word so much. Perhaps something in our attitude needs correction.

Filter Words and Phrases

Melissa Pearl covered filter words in general in a recent post. I don’t know either why we use them so often, unless it’s our natural modesty and diffidence. We’re saying, “This isn’t just my idea, you know. See how this character came to the same conclusion I did?”

Some of the words I’m talking about are filter words and some aren’t, but that isn’t the point. They all reveal something about our thought processes and our writing style. For Example:

1. I think: Weak Writing

This expression is on Melissa’s list, and it’s a big one. It shows hesitancy. It demonstrates that the characters (and the author) don’t have the courage of their convictions. If you want to use that habit as a character trait, fine, but if you’re overusing it with many characters, I guarantee your writing sounds tentative and weak. While diffidence is a great quality for aiding human interaction, it’s a lousy way to present a strong writing style. These are your characters, after all. You’re hardly going to insult them by giving them stronger emotions.

2. It looked: Point of View Cheating

This is one of the most difficult repeats to avoid. Eye contact between characters is a key to any social interaction, and most of the synonyms are extremes, like peeked and stared. But if you are using it in other senses, especially as seemed, you’re using it as another distancing word. Don’t say, He looks like he… Say, He is… It will power up your writing.

However, if you’re overusing looked, it may be something else entirely. You may be having point of view issues. Take a look 😉 at this sentence:

He looked as if my constant nattering was beginning to bother him.

Now, why didn’t the author write,

My constant nattering was beginning to bother him

and have done with it? He couldn’t, because if the story is from my POV (point of view) and not his, then I, the observing character, cannot know what is bothering him, and it would be what my editor quaintly refers to as a “POV slither.” So what this author is trying to do is cheat on the POV, by having the real POV character make a character judgment that should be made by the reader, with gentle assistance from the good writing of the novelist. So if you’re having problems with looked, seemed, noticed and their ilk, check to see whether you’re trying to spread your POV around too much in order to tell what you did not show.

3. Then: Leading By the Nose

ProWritingAid really trashed me for using then. Of course, then is a very handy little conjunction for joining phrases and clauses and making your story flow. However, I discovered I had been overusing it in the if-then sense, meaning hence or therefore.

If you believe that, then this whole discussion is pointless.

There’s nothing wrong with using it in this sense, either, unless you overuse it. If you do, you have to ask yourself whether you are trying to lead your reader by the nose too much. If you are always drawing attention to connections, perhaps you are being over-explanatory, and in this case I decided that is exactly what I had been doing. It made my writing sound teacherish. Of course, I am a teacher, so it’s not unusual, but it is a habit I have to fight. So when I went looking for thens, each time I found one that was making a logical connection that the readers could make for themselves, I reworked the whole idea, not just the word.

Hint: overuse of thus, so, therefore and even, hence, are worse symptoms of leading by the nose. Watch for them especially in Non-Fiction, and stop lecturing!

4. He realized: Show, Don’t Tell

Used even a few times, this is probably another symptom of telling, not showing. If you have to tell the readers that somebody realized something, it means that you wanted the readers to realized it as well, but you’re afraid that you haven’t done a good enough job of showing it, so you’re telling them again. Stop it!

5. He was surprised that…: Show, Don’t Tell

Same thing. You’re telling the readers that they are supposed to be surprised. No! Bad Author! Go and rewrite it so the readers can figure it out for themselves.

6. Actually and Really: Hitting Them Over the Head

My editor caught me up on this one, and I discovered what I’d been doing. One of the themes of the story revolved around the difference between perception and reality. Fair enough, but I’d been trying to push my readers into noticing it. Jumping up and down and shouting, “See? Theme point! Theme point!” doesn’t give readers anything to think about. Once again, I went through the MS (Good old Find All function) and rethought every use of those words. Not just finding synonyms, but changing the flow of the paragraph to do less telling.

How Am I Doing?

Just for fun, I ran this article through ProWritingAid to see if I had overused anything. I was relieved that I had not, except for think in the paragraph dealing with that word, looked for the same reason and notice, which I consider using three times to be reasonable in a work dedicated to an analytical process. (Unlike one pre-editor version of Out of Mischief, where I used think or believe 17 times in a section of 1000 words.)

Yes, we need other people to edit our work to give that reader reaction. Often an astute editor will pinpoint overused words, but what happens then? The above technique lets us use that information to do self-analysis and improve our writing style as well.

Author: Gordon Long

Gordon A. Long is a writer, editor, publisher, playwright, director and teacher. 
Learn more about Gordon and his writing from his blog and his Author Central page.

25 thoughts on “6 Overused Phrases and What They Reveal About Your Writing”

    1. I’ve been thinking about overused commas in this light. Breaking up your sentences into shorter phrases with pauses in between could be like talking slower, pointing out every phrase so that the reader catches everything you mean.
      And that might indicate that you’re talking down to the reader, trying to make everything…very…clear…to…them…do…you…understand…?
      Which, besides destroying the flow of your prose, really gets under a reader’s skin after a while.

  1. When I beta read for people, I often point out “weasel words” such as you point out here. Now, if I could only see things so clearly in my own MS. 🙂

  2. I have found that reading out loud helps find awkward phrases. Sometimes I stop and wonder “Did I really say THAT?”

  3. Thank you for the info on the subscription service.

    Here is an easy inexpensive helpful hint: I made my own list of common offensive words and one of my review steps is to use Word’s Find/Replace to highlight offending words, annoying phrases or punctuation, this way I quickly and easily see and correct them as necessary. Then I clear the highlight before I sent the MS out for review.

    1. As I’m going through with Pro Writing Aid, the moment I find one of those overused words showing up, I stop and go through the MS with a Find All and fix them all. Otherwise the darn computer will keep telling me, over and over again. Nagging does work!

  4. Thanks, Gordon!

    I read my work aloud at least once. My ears pick up repetitions (and omissions) my eyes miss.

    I’ve found that Hermetic Word Frequency Counter works great–especially on a full-length novel. A search online for word frequency counter will also locate free sites where you can enter shorter passages for an instant word count.

    1. As I keep saying, I use Pro Writing Aid (I am not trying to plug them) and I find the “repeat words” is the biggest error list. I wish there was a way to dial that down, because so many of them don’t matter.

      1. Hermetic allows you to create a list of words you want it to ignore, and has other options as well such as:

        ignore words with fewer than ## characters, with fewer than ## occurrences, etc.

        I never use it for short stories or flash fiction, but it saves me untold time with longer works.

        Having said that, I intend to check out Pro Writing Aid to see what it has to offer.

        Thanks for the informative post!

  5. Thank you, Gordon, for this insightful post! After the latest review I just received on my first book, I will well take this into consideration. Although much of my problem with “repetitiveness” (even in my speech) may have stemmed from certain issues I have had since the near fatal head injury I acquired in an auto accident years ago, I also realize it has showed up in my writing quite a bit. Between this and that review, I now see something I can work on in the process of hopefully becoming a better writer. Thanks again.

  6. One of the tricks I learned while editing audio for a radio news network was to cut “I think.” A lot of people say it at the start of a statement, as a way to sound less dictatorial or something – but as you point out, Gordon, it just makes you sound wishy-washy. (Plus it saves about a second, which is a big deal when your sound bite can’t be longer than 15 seconds or so.)

    Also, i find that I can often cut “just” and “that” without changing the meaning of the sentence at all.

    1. I learned to remove “that” in newspaper journalism, where every word counts, but sometimes it keeps the meaning more clear and/or smooths the flow to leave it in.
      Usually “just” is meant to give an impression of ease and cool disregard for the difficulties of life, which it does. But it cloys very quickly.

  7. Thanks Gordon for leading me through the progress of how the reader might interpret the words I use so that I don’t end up taking my readers through the proverbial quicksand of repeating myself. Interesting insights into the hidden meanings of words as they relate to writing.

  8. General response to all the above comments; it’s good to see that overuse of words is something that writers at all levels are concerned about.
    It shows why polishing a novel takes so long. I’ve written a novel in six weeks and polished it off and on for a year.

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