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.