Three Commonly Overused Words in Fiction
By Sue Ford writing for children as Susan Uhlig
As an instructor for children’s writing, I see overused words repeatedly. Let me share three.
The overuse of “as.” I learned this from Deborah Halverson (DearEditor.com). It has become so ingrained in my thinking that I spot it everywhere.
I think we use it to show things happening simultaneously. Bucky stuffed gum in his mouth as he walked across the street. Nothing wrong with the sentence, but when this pattern is used over and over it gets repetitive.
Sometimes, “as” is used with incorrect chronology. Naomi stepped outside as she opened the door. Wouldn’t she have to open the door first?
Often, “as” is used with dialogue. The cat flicked his tail as he said, “That’s my mouse!” As he said, doesn’t add. I’ve seen it in the other order, too. “That’s my mouse!” the cat said as he flicked his tail.
It’s not that you can’t use “as,” you just don’t want to overuse it.
The fix. Highlight all the “as”es in your manuscript and you’ll probably see a lot of them. Consider these options to change up your writing:
- Use “and” instead.
- Consider a different preposition, such as “when”, “while,” “after,”or “once”.
- Reorder the sentence.
- If you have a “said as” drop the “said” and use the action alone.
- Check for correct chronology.
- Break it into two sentences.
Too many feelings. Using “feel”, “felt,” and “feels” often are telling instead of showing. (Note: this applies more to short stories and novels, not picture books where we often do more telling.)
Here are a few examples:
- His legs shake and he feels an overwhelming blanket of anxiety stifling his mind.
- She felt sad. What does that look like?
- I felt sweaty and the mosquitoes were biting. Definitely telling!
These could become the stronger:
- His legs shake and an overwhelming blanket of anxiety stifles his mind.
- Her shoulders drooped to match the shape of her mouth. Now that I can picture.
- I licked sweat off my upper lip and smashed a mosquito on my jeans.
The fix. I do a search (Control F for PC, or Command F for Mac) for the correct verb tense of “feel” in my story.
I change them one of two ways:
- Rearrange the sentence to share the same info without the word “felt.”
- Make it more active by helping the reader experience what is happening.
- Show and add sensory details.
You may ignore it in dialogue.
Write seemlessly (sic). Avoid “seem,” “seemed,” “seems.” Often used with “to.” You are the writer and creator of the story, so you know whether something happens or not. You should be sharing what happened—not guessing what happened. “Seemed” indicates uncertainty.
Here’s a simple example: It seemed to be raining. It’s either raining or not raining, isn’t it?
Look at these two:
She seems to remember many of the other cousins and there were a lot of them.
The walls seemed to lean toward me.
The fix. Remove any form of “seem” in your narration and correct the verb tense. Tighten if necessary. The two above could become:
She remembers many of our numerous cousins.
The walls leaned toward me.
A possible exception. Sometimes a character expresses an opinion in dialogue or even in their thoughts. “You seem unhappy,” Jon said. If that’s how Jon talks, fine. Or perhaps he might say, “You look unhappy” or You sound unhappy.” But if Jon has an attitude and is more concerned about appearances that actual unhappiness, he might say, “Wipe that frown off your face!” It depends on Jon’s personality and the situation.
Of course, there are other commonly overused words and you may have some unique to your own writing. But go on a search and destroy mission with these three and it’ll give you a good start on self-editing.
Sue Ford writes for children under her maiden name, Susan Uhlig.
Right now she is shopping around a YA novel in verse.
Most recent published books were e-books for Schoolwide.
She has also done ten work-for-hire projects. Three picture books were for Unibooks (Korea) for their English as a foreign language program and came out in 2012 and 2013. Seven e-readers were for Compass Media (Korea) also for their EFL program and came out in 2013.
Her picture book, Things Little Kids Need to Know, was chosen as a 2000 Read, America! Collection Selection.
Sue’s also sold over 160 magazine pieces for children and adults. Magazines include Cricket, Highlights for Children, Jack and Jill, Ladybug, and many more.
She has been involved with the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators since 1993 and is currently the Oregon Region’s Webmaster and a Regional Advisor Emerita. In addition, Sue is an instructor for the Institute of Children’s Literature.
Sue’s website: www.susanuhlig.com has writing resources and recommendations of children’s books.
Sue Ford writes for children as Susan Uhlig. She has sold over 160 pieces to diverse magazines for children and adults. Her most recent children’s books were ebooks published in 2015 with Schoolwide. Work-for-hire projects include three picture books for Unibooks (Korea) for their English as a foreign language program (2012-2013) and seven digital readers for Compass Media (Korea) in 2013.
She is an instructor at the Institute of Children’s Literature and a freelance editor. She enjoys mentoring other writers and is a long-term volunteer for SCBWI and is a Regional Advisor Emerita. You can find her on the web at https://susanuhlig.com where she blogs about writing for children and recommends book. She’s also on twitter @susanuhlig.