Novel Writing Tips – Words That Can Poison Your Prose

It Starts With One Word

Today, I want to talk about poison words. Sorry for my tardiness, but I’m in the process of selling my house, and that’s going down in a couple hours. Still, I need to get this out, because at this phase of the writing process, it’s necessary to discuss.

This post comes out of several needs, one of them to update my old list. If you are following along weekly as you are progressing through your novel, I wanted to talk about trimming some of the fat off your sentences as you write. If you have started the editing process on your current WIP, then this is also something to think about. I recommend making a running list somewhere you can find it easily, and refresh yourself from time to time by looking it over.

Now, this isn’t to say that these words should be eliminated from the English language, or anything like that, but you need to be aware of them, because their overuse can slow your story down to the point of killing it. Let’s get started:

had – This word is usually indicative of a tense change, usually bordering a paragraph of past perfect tense. Any other use serves little purpose except in slowing down your writing. I went from complex, wordy sentences to short ones, and in simple sentences had is an eyesore. It can also be used to denote that one event came before another in independent clauses, but in general, try to limit your use of it.

was – Ah, those wonderful moments when past progressive mixes with present participles. This word spawns a list of -ing words. Historically, this isn’t a bad thing, and you will see it a lot in older writing, but it sucks the life right out of a story. He was, she was, they were, bla bla. It’s also indicative of telly writing. Perfect for non-fiction, but in a story, too many of these will have your reader scanning text instead of visualizing the story. Overuse leaves you with a fictional history book, rather than a novel.

-ing – Not exactly evil, but crude, slow, and leads to the much more horrible abomination, the dreaded -ingly suffix. Present participles, like most verb forms, can often be strengthened by staying in the moment, and making declarations rather than beating around the bush. Sometimes they can liven up imagery, but as a general rule, try to avoid this tense.

about, ready, starting – The signals of an inactive verb is coming. This shortened form of foreshadowing isn’t exactly devastating to your prose, but it isn’t helping. “Tom was about to start washing the vegetables,” vs “Tom grabbed a strainer from the cabinet, dumped in the fresh greens, and opened the faucet.” See the difference? Try not to let your characters “start” anything, and stick with what they are actually doing. Actually, it’s good to find these in a draft that needs more words, because you can expand the text, and deepen the imagery.

just and very – These are two words that should be stripped from your text as often as possible. They fall into the “helper word” category, but these two are particularly annoying. The words themselves are fine, nothing wrong with them. But they are overused to the point of distraction, and so need to be limited. Many first novels are littered with them, and they are an indicator of a poor vocabulary. That’s not to say you don’t know the words you should be using, but they don’t come readily to mind. Break out the thesaurus, and do a search for “just” and “very,” and strengthen the verbs that are attached to them.

that – As I write my posts as first drafts, I’m sure that “that” shows up quite a lot, even in this stream of text. I use “that” all the time, even though I consciously limit myself on it’s use. Sometimes I take off writing and don’t notice that I’m using it. In general, if you find “that” in a sentence, take it out, and see if you really need it. Most often you won’t.

and, but, so – Conjunctive phrases are a necessity, unless short, choppy sentences are what you aim for. The key here is variety, proper use, and necessity. Most longer sentences can be busted up, verbs and descriptions can be strengthened, and you can eliminate some overuse of these. I don’t want to harp on them too much though, because depending on your writing style, they might work perfectly.

have – This fits in with the weird tense changes above, but it’s more subtle. Just make sure that the tense of your story isn’t interrupted. Even when swapping tense, “have” and “had” can be used once to mark the time change, and once again to break the reader free of it. I try to use them in pairs.

-ly – Indicates a weak verb. Consider revising.

There are a plethora of others. In general, if a word is appearing very often, do a search to see how your use of the word compares to the total word count. That will give you an indication if you are using it too much. As an added note, try not to repeat the same verbs in consecutive paragraphs, or especially in consecutive sentences, unless you are going for a certain effect that requires it. Also, the less common the word, the less often you should use it in your text. Please limit “trepidation” to once or twice per novel, etc.

Again, the effect that you are going for will change things up. Patrick O’Brian uses “prodigious” over and over and over, but that’s a word his characters seem to love using. Make sure you have a reason before you stretch a word use to its limits.

Thanks for dropping in. I have some other stuff to do now, so I will probably post this week’s video later. I’m saying goodbye to Louisiana today, and there are still a few things I need to do before I leave, because I won’t be back for a long time.


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Author: spottedgeckgo

Writer. Making my living on my pen, and working to turn a raw chunk of land into a future homestead.

4 thoughts

  1. Great post. I’ve had it on my agenda for quite a while to write a post on words you can cut from your writing. I’ve even thought about making it a series, because there are so many words that can be trimmed. It’s a great way to cut your word count down, which is important, and it makes the story stronger. The novel I’m editing now is 20,000 words longer than the range I was aiming for when I wrote it. There’s a lot of cutting going on over here. In the end, I’d really like to cut 35,000 words.
    I’ve been specifically tackling “was” from my writing in the past week and a half. It’s annoying at this point. Editing really brings to light all the words you tend to overuse. Some of them are individual, for some reason there are words I personally overuse. And others are universal, and overused by a lot of writers. I even have a list going specific to this novel I’m working on.

    1. That’s awesome. Any reason that you are shooting for 35k? I find extra words everywhere, and at this point I don’t think editing can ever really be “done.” Just a matter of when it is “done enough” depending on the story. When I do the post for my kindle books I might emphasize that since they are ebooks, if anyone finds typos/etc. to let me know and I’ll upload new files (let the readers do the editing, hehe). There are definitely some words I cling to when I write, but for others they aren’t an issue, and a couple of words that always seem to get swapped when I type. Maybe some unidentified form of dyslexia, I’m not sure.

      1. Well, for a horror novel, I like to keep the story between 80k-100k and my draft was just over 120k. The 35k is an arbitrary number to drop it back into the proper range, and to help me keep in mind that my story needs to be tightened overall, not expanded. Normally, as a general rule, I find it helpful to cut at least 10% off the total word count as I’m editing. I think as writers we tend to add words instead of subtract them during the editing process.
        That’s a good idea to use the feedback from readers to clean up any misc. errors. It never fails, no matter how many eyes have reviewed a manuscript, a fresh set will always catch new errors.

        1. oh, ok. I misread 35k as your target length for the MS. Sometimes they will grow a bit from the 1st draft. Mine come out telly, so my first draft will be short, 2nd a bit long, then trimmed down and distilled on the third. Except my horror story, that just kept growing.

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