Pet phrases ultimately distract readers.

I’m reading a bestselling novel that uses one word and one phrase multiple times, and my first thought is: “Why didn’t the author or the publisher’s editor catch this?” When I write, I sometimes think up a cool bit of dialogue or an apt bit of description. Funny thing is, the first few times I use them, these bits and pieces of language seem fresh and new.

But then my intuition starts nagging at me: “Malcolm, you’ve seen these words before.” There are probably fancy applications that will ferret out suspected words and phrases that have been overused. I have no idea what they are, so I use the “find” feature in Word.

If I think I might have used a word or phrase too often, I type in a phrase such as “passel of popes.” Sometimes I’m shocked at how often I used it. The repetition of phrases, especially slang or a character’s often-used cliché can help define that character and make him/her different from the others in the cast. This fails when multiple characters are using the same cliché

That’s not only unlikely but kills the differentiation between characters the author was trying to achieve. One phrase that’s been overused in the novel I’m reading is “If you say so, Sir.”

I’ll give the author some slack by suggesting that phrase might have been popular in the 1950s where the novel is set. In today’s usage, that phrase is considered sarcastically cutting, meaning, “I think that’s really stupid but you’re entitled to your opinion”–not something I’d want to say to an officer who outranks me. The phase fails to have any impact when dozens of characters are saying it. The publisher should have caught this.

The word the author used over and over is “precious,” in this case, referring to something hard to find and yet essential, as in “The soldiers found a supply depot filled with precious rations.”  Or precious fuel. Or precious ammo. Maybe the author sees this as a stylistic device. I don’t.

I wish he’d used a different word about 95% of the time. It’s easy to miss overused words and phrases in our own work. A good beta reader and/or a good editor might catch most of them. Otherwise, if you think you said “passel of popes” too often, let Word tell you how often that was. —Malcolm