Dry Eyeballs, Loose Heads & Dental Hygiene

Imagine my surprise when I was revising a manuscript for approximately the eighty billionth time (rounding to the nearest eighty billion) and discovered far too many characters with dry eyeballs, loose heads, and preoccupations with advertising their dental hygiene. Yeah, it was quite a shock. Here’s how it happened….

I was minding my own business, polishing my manuscript for submission, when I made the fateful move. I used Word’s “Find” function (CTRL+F) to hunt for stare and staring. Those two words weren’t just spicing up my manuscript. They were drying out my characters’ eyes and quite possibly giving them somewhat psychotic appearances. I mean, jeez, do characters really need to stare 60 different times in a 50,000-word story?

Delete. Revise. Administer eye drops.

Next I checked their heads. CTRL+F. Nod. Thirty-one times!?!?

Delete. Revise. Send characters to chiropractor.

I sat back and breathed a satisfied sigh. My story was tighter. Stronger. Ready for—

What’s the deal with Grandpa Willy’s teeth?

Sure, my story has a quirky step-grandpa whose default facial expression is a smile. But do I always have to tell the reader about it? How many smiles and grins can there be before someone notices a piece of spinach stuck between my character’s front teeth? (When I discovered three characters combining for five smiles on a single page, I knew I had a problem.)

Delete. Revise. Floss.

I found myself on Wordle (www.wordle.net), which highlights frequently used words by creating a “word cloud” for a section of text. The more often a word is used, the larger it appears in the cloud. I pasted in all 50,000 words of my story.

Wordle: smile & nod
[Wordle “word cloud” for this blog post.]

The next thing I knew, overused words and descriptions flew from my manuscript like chickens fleeing a feather-pillow factory. Good-bye then (minus 47). Adios just (minus 46). Ciao look (minus 22) and glance (minus 40).

Five days and about 12 hours of revising later, I was done. And you know that 50,000-word story I mentioned? It’s down to less than 49,000. And those words that got deleted? Haven’t missed a single one. It’s enough to make a guy smile and nod. But now I might not tell you that’s what I’m doing.

* * * * *

So…any overused words or descriptions you’ve uncovered in your own writing? Any tricks you’ve found useful in dealing with them? Share your thoughts and insights below.

T. P. Jagger on PinterestT. P. Jagger on Youtube
T. P. Jagger
Along with his MUF posts, T. P. Jagger can be found at www.tpjagger.com, where he provides brief how-to writing-tip videos as The 3-Minute Writing Teacher plus original, free readers’ theater scripts for middle-grade classrooms. For T. P.’s 10-lesson, video-based creative writing course, check him out on Curious.com.
  1. Jordan,
    I might have to add sigh to my search-and-destroy list, too. . . . I enjoyed reading your full blog response, and your “Samantha Sutton” series looks great!

  2. Hilarious post! And yeah, I have a whole list of words I have to watch for and do searches on when I’m revising . . . not just weak words, but *pet* words we tend to overuse without realizing how much we use them!

  3. Julie,
    Yes, you should definitely check out Wordle–it’s a pretty cool way to get a glimpse of what words creep into your manuscript the most. Obviously, character names will be prevalent, but beyond that you may find some surprises. (Wordle ignores words like and and the.) Glad you found that tidbit useful! 🙂

  4. Thanks, I’d never heard of Wordle, but it sounds like a great one to try out! My characters do tend to stare at each other a lot. Wouldn’t it be nice it we could make up some new synonyms for some of these words?

  5. Very helpful and it’s good to know I’m not the only one. Other problem words to look for are character names. Too often a character name shows up on every other line. If your writing flows in a logical progression, most of these can also be tossed.

  6. Glad I’m not alone, Michele! In a new manuscript I’m working on, I’m making a list of potentially overused words and descriptions. And that list sure is longer than I thought it would be!

  7. Very clever, TP! You are not alone. I am also guilty of too many looks, smiles, nods, and stares. And my characters are too 🙂