Word Infatuation

This obsession isn’t as kinky as it sounds. What I’m referring to is that rare occasion when an author appears to have discovered a new word and then uses it just way too often. If it’s a fairly unusual word that most readers might have to look up the first time it appears, you should probably use it very sparingly. For example, if an author describes a female character in her book as “sylphlike” more than a couple of times, readers are going to notice. And not in a good way. The first use was fine, we all like to learn a new word from time to time, but repetition can make it seem like the author is just showing off.

A word doesn’t have to be uncommon, however, to be a distraction when it’s overused. I remember noticing this in a novel I read a year or two ago. I won’t name names, but it was written by a very prolific mystery author whose mass market paperbacks were very popular, sometimes bestsellers. But in this particular book, she lost me as a reader by blatantly overusing the word “murmured” throughout the dialogue. Her characters rarely just “said” anything, or even “mumbled” or “muttered”. They always murmured, often three or more times per page. Once this caught my eye, I just couldn’t help but count the times I saw the word. This totally distracted me from the story. I can’t imagine that I was the only one to notice. It’s often difficult for authors to see something like that in their own work, but it just amazes me that an editor at a big publishing house didn’t catch it.

Other repetitious words may not be quite as noticeable, but I think it’s a good idea to be on the lookout for them in your writing. Don’t depend on an editor, or worse, a reader to bring them to your attention. I’ve caught a few of my own problem words. For example, I had to go through and reduce the occurrences of the little word “just” in the first draft of my novel. It just about blew my mind to discover how often I had slipped in this almost meaningless little word.

Just for fun, go back now and count how many times I used “just” in this article. If you then read through this again, notice how that little four-letter word jumps out at you. Annoying, right?

What words do you as a writer have to be careful not to overuse?

What words get repeated too frequently in books you have read?

Norm Brown is the author of the suspense novel Carpet Ride from Secondwind Publishing, LLC.

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8 Comments

Filed under books, musings, Norm Brown, writing

8 responses to “Word Infatuation

  1. dellanioakes

    Norm, in “Indian Summer” I had trouble with the word “bit” as in “a little bit” I had to go back and cut it out almost entirely. I also caught myself in the “and then” trap. ERRG! Both very frustrating. I try hard as a writer not to overuse words, but do find myself slipping into the habit. There are some words that feel better than others, but I can’t imagine “murmured” being one of them. What, none of them can project? How irritating to be around a bunch of mumbling murmurers! I’d be telling them to speak up.

    I caught 9 “justs” in your post. Just tell me how many I missed. =)

  2. My dictionary defines murmured as “a mumbled complaint”. I remember that I didn’t feel like her characters were always actually complaining or grouching. I think most of the time, they should have simply “said” whatever they had to say. Little thing, but it did bug me.
    I stuffed quite a few “justs” in there. I believe you’re right. I count 9.

  3. The ever popular “that-itis.” Once, in a NYC pubbed romance which shall remain nameless, I counted 20 “thats” on a single page. Long ago, folks used to be told to attribute: “He said… She said.” Glad the practice is “so over.” ;)

    Thank-heaven for my dearest writing buddy, The Thesaurus.

  4. amydetrempe

    When I met with me crit group to exchange chapters they noted that for each one of mine(every other week) I seemed to pick one word, and never the same word, and use it over and over. I would get my chapter back and they would write at the top, “and the word for today is . . . ” I didn’t even realize I did this until they were pointing it out to me. We had a good laugh over it and I eventually became aware of my repeats. Or, at least I hope I broke that habit.

  5. Oh dear, Amy! I hope I don’t do that! If I have, no one has pointed it out. Now I’m worried.

  6. I started noticing the “justs” as soon as you said you removed them, especially since the next word was “just”. I tend to use the word “that” too much. I also like “and”. I’ve noticed that when I write personal or casual emails, even at work, I tend to start them with “well” or “So,”. I have a word infatuation too, call it Kinky.. go ahead. I counted nine “justs” too!

  7. In my own defense, the article contained only two actual occurrences of “just” before I went back and padded it for effect. That still could be too many, I guess.

  8. It “JUST” proved your point. I’m also like that, Claire. I tend to use no punctuation, write in train of thought and often misspell in e-mails. Like dialogue, anything goes, I guess!

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