Friday, February 6, 2009

The curse of pet words by Chester Campbell

When I got the initial edit of Secret of the Scroll (my first published mystery) back from the editor, I shuffled through his nine pages of notes and stopped on this one:

"For some reason you like the color blue. Nothing wrong with that but if it breaks the mood of the story, then we have a problem. You have used blue as follows:

"blue cardigan/sweater

"blue car number one, Israel

"blue car number two, Nashville

"Father Coughlin decked out in blue

"Worker at Kibbutz in blue workclothes

"Blue blazer, and (dark) blue vehicle, shirts

"And the piece de resistence! Jill in oversize blue dress!

"When the reader starts counting the number of times you use something, you've lost him. He's detached from your book. The magic is gone."

Thank God for Word's search and replace function. What Bob Middlemiss mentioned was like the first dandelion in the front yard. When I did a search on "blue," I found the word appeared 48 times in the manuscript. After paring it down for the final version that went to the typesetter, only 17 blue mentions remained. They were spread around over the course of 264 pages.

In subsequent manuscripts, I have found other favorites that turn up way too often. Words like "suddenly." In her book Don't Murder Your Mystery, Chris Roerden cautions, "One 'suddenly' per book, please."

Another of those unbiquitous terms I have encountered too many times in my prose is "laughed." He laughed. She laughed. They all laughed. I wind up going through and creating some other way to indicate amusement.

Then there are words like "almost" and "about" that should be turned into definite quantities whenever possible. And there's "just," which one blog titled "Just Is a Four-Letter Word" went on to say, "It's a dangerous word that should be used as sparingly as possible."

These are "just" a few of the words that hound me. What about you? What words do you find difficult to eliminate from your writing?

Check The Marathon Murders for a sample of my efforts.


Mark Troy said...

I tend to overuse "look" and "could."

L. Diane Wolfe said...

I'm sure I have a few overused words, but my husband schooled me away from overusing 'snorted.' One snort per book he ordered!

L. Diane Wolfe

Jean Henry Mead said...

I also like the color blue, Chester, and probably also overuse it. I loved Secret of the Scroll, BTW, as well as your other Greg McKenzie books.

F. M. Meredith, author said...

That and just are my two favorites.


Ruth @ Bookish Ruth said...

I'm guilty of overuse of "definitely" and "suddenly", and most likely several others that I'm not aware of off the top of my head.

Chester Campbell said...

Thanks for the comment on "Secret," Jean. And thanks to everybody for your contributions. It's what makes editing so much fun. Ha!

Earl Staggs said...

My most-used vices are "just" and "then." And now that you've got me thinking about it, I used to start a lot of sentences with "and" and used "got" a lot, too.

Dana Fredsti said... depends on whether it's in dialogue or narrative. Some characters use certain words over and over, but that's because people do in real life. 'laughed' is a good one. Sometimes the simplest words are the best, so it can be hard to find a replacement that doesn't stand out in a bad way even more!