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

The tedious (but necessary) part of editing

When I read an author’s work for the first time, I quickly discover his or her habits, pet phrases, favorite sentence structures, and unique approaches to dialogue or description. I also see whether or not s/he has taken a word, phrase or mannerism that was magical the first time it appeared and then reduced its impact by using it excessively throughout the rest of the novel.

For example, if the author describes war in chapter one as “an honorable horror” or sex with a main character as “wanton enchantment,” I might like the creativity of those phrases. If, as I read, I begin to see “honorable horror” or “wanton enchantment” showing up multiple times, I think, what a pity, you’ve just destroyed the impact of the right words at the right time, by using them every time.

Habit Words

Most of us are so used to the way we talk and write, we don’t always notice our own beautiful phrases and favorite words, much less those occasions when we overuse them. You’ve probably seen talk show hosts and others joking about people who can’t say anything without saying “like” and “you know” several times per paragraph. In most cases, the “like” and “you know” people don’t know how odd they sound to others because they don’t realize how often they say those words.

As writers, we’re often unaware of the special phrases in our own work that become trite through overuse by the end of an article, novel or short story, much less the everyday words we habitually rely upon so often that they become as trite as “like” and “you know.”  For one person, foods may typically be “tasty” or friends might be “dear” or one thing or another might be “memorable.”

In conversation, perhaps we can get away with our habit words. In writing, they become blemishes.This is not to say we need to eliminate them or, worse yet, use a thesaurus for a series of minor variations on them. But we do need to see how we’re using them and whether they are really serving us well when they appear frequently in our work.

Editing

A good editor will not only find your errors and inconsistencies, s/he will also find your watered down beautiful phrases and your overused habit words. For authors, the task is more difficult because we’re often focusing on scenes, chapters and plots while our distracting habits fly by unnoticed.

When we copy edit our manuscripts closely, though, pet phrases and habit words might start getting our attention. Perhaps we change them on the spot or perhaps we start making a list of words we might be overusing. Once the major elements of a work are fixed, the spelling and grammatical errors caught and the punctuation and overly complex sentence structures are fixed, it’s time to go through the manuscript again with what (for me) is a tedious by necessary part of editing.

I suggest using your word processing software’s search feature as one way to find your habit words. If you creatively wrote “an honorable horror” in page one of your book, search on the word “honorable” and see how often it appears. You may be shocked to discover you not only used “an honorable horror” multiple times in your 80,000-word book, but that you started using the word “honorable” in other combinations, i.e., “an honorable moment,” “an honorable job,” or “an honorable disposition.” Worse yet, the word combination will be coming out of the mouths of multiple characters as though they met somewhere and agreed to adopt a new pet phrase.

The search feature will also show you whether you’ve used habit words so often they’ll become a distraction to readers. One author might describe everything from people to days to dinners to experiences as “fine,” while another may use the word “dear” over an over. If the search feature tells you the word “fine” appears a hundred times in your book, you might want to go look at why that’s the case.

By the time you clean the pet phrases and habit words out of your manuscripts, I think you’ll see that your prose is not only stronger, it’s more on point in every scene and sequence of dialogue.

Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of the contemporary fantasy novels “Sarabande.” “The Sun Singer,” and the upcoming “The Seeker.”