Revising, Writing

Why You Might Want to Change That Repeated Word

I just finished a chapter-by-chapter repeated word search of my manuscript, and it was brutal. I started at the end of March and have been working on it diligently since then. That’s right–for six weeks! You may think that’s dedication, but I would never have had the patience for it if I hadn’t been participating in a weekly chapter swap with another writer.

I’m not sure how you would do this if you’re working in Word, but I described how I went about the actual process for Scrivener in an initial post titled Quick Tip: Check Frequently Used Words by Chapter. As I mentioned in that post, previously I searched the overall manuscript and spent about two weeks weeding out my crutch words. This process was so much more in-depth. It took me about three hours per chapter because I searched almost every word that appeared even twice in a chapter to ensure that it actually needed to be there twice. Often it did. I’m not by any means suggesting that you should only use a word once per chapter–heck, sometimes you need to use a word fifteen times in a chapter!–just that it’s worth the effort to examine every word and make sure you’re using the best word. Because as writers we all have a tendency to fall back on familiar words, and they may not be the words that are most appropriate for our characters or the particular scene.

Here are some reasons you might want to change a word, even if it only appears twice.

It shows up within two paragraphs, and it’s not for emphasis. This happened quite often in my chapters. A word I’d never have noticed otherwise (like “interrupt”) would appear in one paragraph and then again in the next. Particularly if it’s not that common of a word, it really stands out if you repeat it too close together, even if you aren’t using it the same way.

Two different characters use the same term, and it fits one voice better than the other. Think about the voice. Maybe it’s an innocuous enough word that both characters would say it, but perhaps there’s a stronger choice for one of them.

Characters are shrugging, sighing, laughing, nodding, etc., more than once. I check for beat words in an overall manuscript search, but they were thrown into sharper relief in a chapter search. It forced me to carefully observe each character’s movements within the chapter to ensure I wasn’t doubling up on them–or if I was, that it was purposeful.

It highlights a vague word/phrase that you could make more specific. I’m not sure how to best describe what I mean here, but I found that highlighting these commonly used words made me really think so that I’d dig deeper and improve on vague phrases. Often it was when a character used words/phrases like “something,” “what we’d done,” “thing,” “everything,” etc., in thoughts or dialogue. Sometimes those catch-all words were appropriate, but in other cases I needed to replace them with a more specific description. For my current manuscript, it was often a lot funnier for my characters to say something more specific. For example:

“You found us, and considering our history, I couldn’t tell you what had happened.”


“You found us, and considering our history, I couldn’t tell you we ran away because we’d lost our dead babysitter.”

You’ve used the exact same phrase more than once in the same chapter. Maybe I would have caught this in a broader manuscript search for common words, or maybe a CP/reader would have noticed it, but it definitely stood out when I was searching within a single chapter. Since I fast-draft, I generally write a scene and/or chapter within a day, so it’s not surprising an exact phrase would pop up more than once. And when you’re just reading through, it’s easy to skim over it if it’s a common phrase. By completing this concentrated chapter-by-chapter search, I’ve eliminated these types of brain blips :).

A WORD OF CAUTION: I always include this caution because it’s very important. When searching for and replacing commonly used words, it’s easy to get happy with the thesaurus and write out voice. So my next step after completing this process is to read through the whole manuscript again. I expect that I’ll change some of these words back to the original words I’d used, even if it results in some repeated words. Sometimes that’s necessary for voice. I recommend reading the manuscript aloud for a voice check, either reading it yourself or having the computer read it. I do both at some point while revising.

How detailed do you get checking for repeated words?

Quick Tip, Revising, Writing

Quick Tip: Check Frequently Used Words by Chapter

I’ve posted before about checking my manuscript for frequently used words (How I Tackle Revisions: Crutch Words; How Repeated Words Affect Your Voice). Some of these are crutch words–thought, just, really, very, etc.–and others are words that crop up in the course of an individual manuscript because of its focus. I usually do this after a second or third draft, mainly because I know so much of the sentence-level writing will change after I receive feedback from readers. But this manuscript is a bit different. I’ve been trading chapters weekly with another writer, so although I’ve just finished my first pass revising the last chapter on my own, the first half of the manuscript is already more like a second draft based on the feedback I’ve received.

Since I won’t be through the swapping process for several weeks, I decided I’d start weeding out overused words. I’ve always dumped the full text into Wordle to create a graphic representation in the past, but I remembered there was a feature in Scrivener that tracked word frequency. I did a search and happened upon an article that had an interesting suggestion: to check word frequency by chapter instead of overall. To do so in the Mac version, you open up the chapter, select Project –>Text Statistics, then click the arrow next to Word Frequency.

Here is the screenshot from one of my chapters before revising. At the chapter level, I care about a plethora of the word “was” or “had”–I want to fix passive voice–but I find it equally as interesting if a word appears twice. Because if a word shows up two times in a single chapter, it deserves a closer look. In this particular sample, I will definitely be addressing those two sighs, and unless it’s for emphasis, one of those ideals will probably go.

Note: A couple of weeks into this process, I started sorting by Word, then Frequency. I found this sped up my search. Often similar words–“want” and “wanted”–would both show up twice.

What I like about checking repeated words at the chapter level is that it forces me to look more closely than I generally do when I execute this process at an overall manuscript level. I’m less likely to skim over some of the words because they aren’t appearing that often. We all have words that we fall back on, and there are so many more out there that could better convey our character’s point. As always, though, I caution you not to write out your voice just to avoid a common word. Sometimes it’s still the best word, even if you just used it in the sentence immediately before :).

Revising, Writing

How Repeated Words Affect Your Voice

As I have my manuscript out with another reader, it occurred to me that in addition to not doing a voice check since an earlier round of edits, I also hadn’t done a check for repeated words. Although my reader may give me some line edits–she doesn’t have to :)–that’s not the main focus at this point, so I decided to do a final check for overly repeated words.

The funny thing is, I’ve been doing this long enough that I’ve managed to weed out some of words I used to have issues with–something, one–but I still overuse common words like think and know. Who doesn’t, right? Ooh, there’s another common word–right! Often taking a careful look at the use of any of these words will cause me to realize that another word would be stronger or perhaps I need to rephrase the sentence entirely. And in other cases I decide that it should stay exactly as it is. Sometimes you don’t need to fix what already works!

Anyway, I wrote last year about how crutch words affect voice, but I think it bears repeating since I just did a voice check and I’m now going through it again. So here are some common words and some things to think about–ooh, or consider!–before you swap those words out for a synonym. Since I’ve already gone there, I’ll start with think :).


  • As I was reading, I discovered one of my MCs frequently says “You’d think I had … ” and proceeds to give some type of metaphor. I didn’t even realize this was part of her voice until I did this search. Obviously I couldn’t swap that out! A lesson in when not to eliminate a repeated word.
  • On the other hand, there were several instances of dialogue where an adult was speaking to one of the MCs, and based on the tone of the conversation, they would be likely to use a word like ponder, assume, believe, consider, contemplate–or even a phrase such as be under the impression.
  • Sometimes it’s stronger for the character to imagine, expect, suspect, anticipate, or consider than to think. It all depends on the context. Sometimes they should just think.


  • Um, this word is now in my second sentence, but I’m not even removing it. I think even is a particularly good voice check word as it’s a word that adds emphasis. Do you need that emphasis? When I went back through, I discovered that often it was unnecessary, or the sentence could be restructured. However, when not abused, it can have impact in a character’s voice.


  • Know is especially hard to get around from a voice standpoint, particularly if you’re writing young adult. There’s no easy swap for I know. You might be able to use I get it a few times or I understand, but your choices after that become I’m aware, I’ve been informed, I realize, I sense, etc. There might be a few instances where you can get away with these in a teen voice, but mostly they’ll come off as phony, so you either have to write out the knowing altogether or leave it and ignore the repetition. On the bright side, if it’s within adult dialogue, the adult could be aware or informed.
  • Then there’s the other form of I know–the people I’m acquainted with, the people I’m friends with, the people I’ve met. Yeah, those are all better for voice than just saying the people I know [sarcasm].
  • If you’re using I know as in I’m positive or I’m sure, well, there are a couple of options to substitute.
  • I don’t know could be I’m not sure, but keep in mind these aren’t exactly the same. The first statement is more definite.
  • Do you know could be Have you heard.
  • Do your characters say, You know? Mine do. And a lot of the time, I left it–because that’s how they would talk.


  • I don’t just like, I love my similes and metaphors, so there are quite a few likes scattered through my manuscript. Sometimes they can be exchanged for as if or as though, but it depends on who is speaking and also how the sentence is worded. It’s both a voice call and a structural issue. You can’t just swap out like for as if or as though and call it a day. You’re often better off leaving it or, if there are two likes close together, rephrasing one of the sentences entirely.
  • On the other hand, if you have a rather formal adult–or pretentious child or teenager–you might want to slip in something even more formal than as if or as though. Perhaps an in the manner of, similar to, such as, for instance, characteristic of, etc.?
  • Don’t eliminate voice phrases. One of my MCs says It’s not like quite a bit, but since it’s part of her voice, I didn’t change it. However, when I noticed someone else saying it, I made a change so it would stay unique to her.


  • Get away with, I get it, get out of–these are all phrases that come up frequently in my manuscript. The tricky part is that often these are already voice substitutes for other common phrases like I know (I get it). However, that doesn’t mean they can’t sometimes be rephrased to something else. As with the previous words, be wary of switching out a more sophisticated phrase if it won’t fit the voice. Evade, abscond, or avoid might work in place of get out of–but they might not.
  • It might be fine for certain characters to obtain, acquire, land, procure, grab or score an item instead of get it. Just make sure whatever verb you use as a replacement is a good voice fit.

This post is getting–oops!–long, so I’ll stop there for today. I might continue with some more next week.

Keep in mind: just because the words are repeated doesn’t mean they have to go. Yes, if they’re repeated in close proximity, you should probably take a look and see if you can make a change. And even the act of going through and examining those common words will help you see where some words could be stronger, but sometimes–particularly if you’re on a later draft–the words you already have are what should be there. Don’t feel like you have to change all of your words or get fancy with a synonym to avoid too many occurrences in the manuscript. If it fits with your MC’s voice, keep it. Just be aware of the words you’re using.

What other tricky words do you hold on to/change for voice?

Revising, Writing

How I Tackle Revisions: Crutch Words

So I’ve written about crutch words before. On my last manuscript, weeding out crutch words was my final step before querying agents. I decided to address them much earlier in the process this time, while I was waiting for feedback from my first round of readers. I realize that I’ll be making significant changes to the manuscript, but I expect I’ll be much more aware of my word choices as I revise, so I don’t think it’s too early in the process.

Because I was in waiting mode instead of anxious to start querying, I went much more in-depth with this step than previously, and although it was a tedious process, I know the manuscript is stronger for it. As before, I started by creating a Wordle:A Boy Could Wordle 032514 copy

Next, I set my Scrivener window to show the full manuscript as a continuous document. Starting with the largest words that weren’t proper names, I searched for each word individually. I love the way Scrivener highlights them so I can just page down. It’s easier to see when the words occur in close proximity than, say, using the find function in Microsoft Word. Here are the words* I covered:

back, get, didn’t/don’t, something, like, know, just, could/couldn’t, away, way, one, time, really, go/going, want, was/were, would, right, need, think

These are the words I instinctively write in a first draft. Sometimes they’re the right words, but often there are stronger words that could take their place and convey the same meaning more powerfully. The tricky thing about crutch words is that you don’t want to strip them entirely or it can strangle your voice.

Because I was doing a word search instead of reading chronologically, I was forced to consider each word carefully in the context of who was saying/thinking it. Often a synonym would work in the context, but I still had to consider whether it was appropriate for the character. I asked myself questions like:

  • Is the antagonist more likely to say “I get it” or “I understand”?
  • Would the MC’s father say “I don’t think sorry is good enough” or use a more definitive statement such as “Sorry isn’t good enough”?
  • Would a teenager ever say “as though” in place of “like“?
  • Would this character say “going to” or “gonna”?
  • Is “want to” or “could” necessary before this verb?
  • Does it makes sense to contract “she would” to “she’d” or “would have” to “would’ve”?
  • Is there a negative verb I can use instead of modifying a positive verb with “don’t/didn’t“?
  • Can the sentence be reworded/rearranged to avoid the use of “was“?
  • Can I delete the word entirely without changing the meaning of the sentence or the voice?

By the end of the process, I felt confident each of my characters had a more unique voice, and I also cut 1,000 unnecessary words from the manuscript. Interestingly, as I got down to the smaller words, I sometimes found a word I’d swapped out earlier (i.e., “need” instead of “want”) and decided the original word really was the best choice. The nice thing about doing this earlier in the process is that I will be reading through the manuscript several more times, and I will be much more alert to these particular words and how they relate to the character involved.

How do you eliminate crutch words? Do you struggle with the same words I do?

Other posts in this series:

*You may notice I held off on words related to body parts–head, eyes, see, hand, etc. That’s because I plan to go through and analyze my beats separately. I recently purchased “The Emotion Thesaurus,” so I’m hoping that will help me clean those up.

Reviews, Young Adult Review

YA Review: IGNITE ME by Tahereh Mafi

Eventually I’ll get back to middle grade, but there have been a string of YA books in series I’m already reading that have come out in the last few weeks, and I have another one today.

I originally picked up SHATTER ME by Tahereh Mafi because of Twitter buzz. Although I didn’t fall in love with the main character or the love interest, I was fascinated by Ms. Mafi’s interesting use of language and the intricacies of the plot. She hooked me even without a character I could identify with, and that interest carried through the whole series, including the two e-novellas that fell between the full-length novels. While I enjoyed the first two books, I absolutely loved the final installment, so I’ve decided to only review IGNITE ME. However, you still need to read the first two books–and really the novellas–to get to this one, so if you haven’t read them yet, hold off on reading this review. In fact, STOP READING NOW! Sorry to yell at you, but the following description for IGNITE ME includes spoilers for the earlier books, and so will my review.

Ignite Me by Tahereh MafiThe fate of Omega Point is unknown. Everyone Juliette has ever cared about could be dead. The war could be over before it ever really began.

Juliette is the only one standing in The Reestablishment’s way. She knows that if she’s going to survive, The Reestablisment cannot.

But to take down The Reestablishment and the man who very nearly killed her, Juliette will need the help of the one person she never thought she could trust: Warner. And as they work together to bring down their enemy, Juliette will discover that everything she thought she knew–about Warner, her abilities, and even Adam–was wrong.

Here are the five things I loved most:

1. The use of language – As I mentioned above, Ms. Mafi’s use of language fascinated me from the very beginning. In the first book she extensively used strikethroughs and interesting punctuation to give a unique look inside Juliette’s mind. It kind of blew my mind how perfect it was for the character. As the series continued, Ms. Mafi phased out some of these techniques to show how Juliette grew from someone contained entirely in her own mind to looking outward. I’ve never seen such an interesting use of language as character development.

2. Warner – Oh, I just love Warner. In the first book he was an intriguing villain, but then I read DESTROY ME. After that, he became the broken hero I wanted Juliette to heal. Without that novella, I would have read UNRAVEL ME with a completely different perspective. It’s impressive how Ms. Mafi makes both Juliette’s initial impression and final judgment of Warner so believable.

3. Juliette’s friendship with Kenji – I loved the dynamic between Juliette and Kenji. It brings a lightness that is rare in a story where almost every other relationship is tense. It also kept the story grounded in young adult, as most of their actions and interactions otherwise are very adult.

4. The romantic tension – For me, the best romance is built on tension, and that is evident through all three books. I won’t outright say who Juliette ends up with, but honestly, I don’t think there was any doubt at the end of UNRAVEL ME. Even when I felt like the romance was finally going to be resolved, Ms. Mafi kept building the tension. Sooo good. One caution for younger readers: this book shows more of the physical than a lot of YA. It didn’t seem gratuitous as so much of the story is tied up in Juliette’s issues with touch, but in case any of my MG readers are interested in this story, you might want to hold off.

5. The ending – I did not expect the story to go the way it did, mainly because I couldn’t have anticipated Juliette’s character growing as much as she did in the early part of this book. The climax was a satisfying end to the story. In the acknowledgments, Ms. Mafi said: “It is my very great hope that you will find this a worthy final installment.” From my standpoint, the answer is yes, Ms. Mafi, a very worthy finale.

Who else has read IGNITE ME? I’m happy to discuss spoilers in the comments!



It’s Just A First Draft

As of yesterday, I’m about 15,000 words into my first draft. Drafting has always been hard for me, but I’ve finally figured out a system that works for me. I set myself a daily word count goal and make sure I meet it every writing day. Once I do, I’m free to do other things, like send queries, critique for someone else, research new agents, write a blog post, enter contests, or read.

As a perfectionist, I have to remind myself that a first draft doesn’t need to be perfect. Here are a few of my mantras.

It’s ok to use cliches, repeated words, and common gestures. Of course these need to be minimal in a final draft, but a first draft is about getting the story out. I could easily let myself agonize over each sentence and how an agent or editor would tell me to fix it. Instead, I remind myself I can fix it when I revise. No one except me is going to see it in that state, and the placeholder cliche or ninetieth nod will stand out when I’m ready to spend the time on individual sentences instead of the overall story.

It’s ok to tell. I wish I could churn out a first draft with scenes that show my characters’ emotions and actions without having to tell the reader. I might have a lucky few passages like that while drafting, but there’s way more telling. I’m ok with that. I have to start somewhere, right? There’ll be time to eliminate those adverbs and narrative interruptions when I go back through the manuscript.

It’s ok if something doesn’t make sense. If you’re someone who can outline every plot point in advance and know exactly where the story’s going, good for you! As I explained in my post on outlining, I’m more of a loose plotter. I lay out scenes, but they often end up changing. I’ve already moved some around and had to insert new scenes just in the first 15,000 words. But being flexible means that sometimes something pops up in the story that I didn’t already plan for, and as a result, it doesn’t make sense. With my first novel, I would have gone back to fix the earlier scenes, but I’ve learned to leave it be until revisions.

It’s ok if you don’t know everything that’s going to happen. In line with the previous point, I don’t stress out if I don’t have everything figured out when I start drafting. Sure, it would be easier if I did, but it’s amazing what creative ideas show up while I’m typing. Non-writers probably don’t understand it when we say we didn’t know something was going to happen in the story we’re writing, but it’s so true! Yesterday I was typing along and a character I hadn’t intended to be in the scene showed up, greatly complicating things for my main character. I wasn’t really thinking about her. I was just typing and suddenly she was there. I really like the conflict she brings, so way to go, subconscious.

I guess the overarching reminder is: It’s just a first draft. Chances are I won’t keep fifty percent of the actual text of that draft. I’ll finesse that copy until it’s a showing, coherent, inevitable without being predictable story free of too many cliches or sighs. For now, I’ll focus on powering through to the end. Then I can get to the fun part, at least for me.

What do you have to remind yourself as you draft? Or do the little things not bother you in the first place?

Revising, Writing

Those Pesky Crutch Words …

I had this whole post written and WordPress deleted it–twice! Thank goodness I discovered you could retrieve a draft, although I’m still having to cut and paste it.

Anyway, there’s a lot of advice out there telling you to eliminate words like:

  • just
  • very
  • kind

This rule is so ingrained, I don’t have an issue with these particular words anymore. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have my own crutch words. The other day, I came across a post on the From the Mixed Up Files blog about some other overused words: eyes, head and smile. I’d already checked for those, too, but the post also reminded me about Wordle, a site that lets you paste in your text. It then creates a word cloud of the most common words, excluding words like the, and, it, etc.

What a great way to figure out which words you overuse. And I have to say, the words I discovered were my crutch words surprised me. I’m sharing them here in case they might be your go-to words, too.

Something. What a lovely word. It’s so … universal. It can mean anything, and that’s the problem: it’s vague. Culling out this word encouraged me to be more specific, and it strengthened a number of passages in my manuscript.

Back. It’s really handy that Scrivener highlights all instances of a word you search for–until you see it five times in one paragraph. How did I miss that? Well, it has to do with the fact that this word is so versatile. Someone stepping back, the body part, taking something back, and so on. I didn’t notice I was using the same word because it had different meanings. And the interesting thing was, often I could just delete it entirely.

Around. Another word that often was unnecessary or could be replaced with a stronger description.

Time. I never realized how many different ways you could use this word. At a time, in time, on time, the last time, at the same time … Often I had to leave it because I couldn’t come up with a synonym that wouldn’t sound pretentious or awkward.

One. The biggest culprit here was the phrase “no one,” but I also discovered a tendency to use this particular number if there were amounts involved. I’m not sure what that means.

Way. Another versatile word–the way someone does something, no way, on the way, a direction, by the way. I used all of them!

Know. When this word appeared, I expected it to be a lot of sentences starting with “I know I …” That wasn’t the case at all. It’s amazing how many things my characters don’t know, need to know, or want to know, and often there wasn’t a synonym that fit.

Through this exercise, I cut 1,000 words from my manuscript, and it’s better for it. Of course I didn’t eliminate these words entirely, but they’re much more sparse now. Here’s my final Wordle for THE DEXELON TWINCIDENT:

Dexelon Wordle

What are your crutch words? Do you rely on any of the same words I do?


The Wonder of Language

When I first started writing middle grade, I wondered if I should use simpler words for a younger audience. My gut reaction was “no” – I want to use all the amazing words in my head. After all, I came from a family in which my parents talked to us like adults even when we were small. There’s a popular story about my then three-year-old brother telling my aunt something was “intriguing.” That’s just the way we talked in my family.

Now that I have children of my own, I’ve followed that example, and it’s amazing to see how my kids learn new words. My son turned four in February, and he absorbs new words like a sponge. He’ll ask me questions like:

“What does ‘appreciate’ mean?”

“Why does traffic mean lots of cars?”

He wants to know not just what words mean but why they mean that. I can’t always explain a word’s origins to him, but I love that he wants to know.

Aside from vocabulary, though, it’s interesting to see how he connects the dots, particularly with words that have multiple meanings. More than a year ago, we were on the way home and my husband said he was going to run into the grocery store for something. My son’s response? “You shouldn’t run in the grocery store, Daddy.”

Just yesterday, I was amazed once again. We were talking about how I keep my nails short to play my violin. He asked me, “Why can’t I touch your headband after you put the stuff on it?” For a moment, I had no idea what he was talking about. What does a headband have to do with my violin? But then I connected the dots the way he had. I’ve told him not to touch the hair on my bow after I put rosin on it. He couldn’t remember the word “bow” but knew it had something to do with hair, so he substituted “headband.” We then had a discussion about how a bow is used to play a violin, hold back hair or shoot an arrow. Language is a world that gets bigger for him every day.

The English language offers a plethora of beautiful words for us to use. I learned so much of my vocabulary from reading, and I hope my work will do the same for others. I’m not suggesting the use of obscure words for the sake of teaching them – just not being afraid to use a word because you think a kid might not know it. If they’re interested in your story, they’ll figure the word out, and maybe it will open up a new world for them.

Anyone else have an interesting story about how kids use language?