On Editing – Overused Words

For the last couple of weeks, I have been working flat out on a fresh edit of my current MS, triggered by editorial notes from my agent. I had hoped to be finished with this round of edits last Friday, but as writer friends will understand, these things have a way of taking on a life of their own. Yesterday, I finally handed over the revised MS. Woohoo!

One night during this process, I had an interesting discussion with my husband about editing. He doesn’t write fiction, and was interested in knowing how I approached it. I can only speak to my own process, because everyone works differently, but in case it’s useful to anyone, I thought I’d share a bit about the editing of this MS.

I’ve lost count by now how many times I’ve edited this particular manuscript. I do know that from the original “finished” version, one I felt was strong enough to query and for which I got great feedback, I have cut 30,000 words. Thirty. Thousand. Words. This number may not boggle your mind, but it does mine. I have often heard it said and have said myself that “nothing is wasted” in writing. There is actually truth in this: I learn a lot about my characters from the stuff I write that never makes it into the book, which makes for a stronger book, no question; and there is always a chance something that doesn’t work in this book may find new life in another. But it is also a lie we tell ourselves so the cuts don’t ┬áhurt as much. <g> Or perhaps so we don’t focus on the sheer number of hours that went into writing those words and then cutting them again.

One of the things that struck me in this last round of edits was how many words I cut (about 4000, I think) simply by searching out and evaluating, rewriting, or eliminating words I tend to use too often. We all have these words. We’re probably even conscious of some of them and know to look for them. I already do that as a matter of course. But this time, I was surprised by some of the words I found, and as time-consuming and mind-numbing as this process was, I highly recommend doing it. As I worked through some of the substantive changes I needed to make on this edit, I kept a running list of any word I came across that I suspected I’d likely overused. By the time I reached the end, I had about 100 words on that list. Note that Scrivener does this for you (and I think Word can do it too), but in this case, I was specifically looking for words I noticed too often in the text, so making my own list was a worthwhile exercise, because in some cases, it turned out I’d only used a word twice, but it stood out, so I changed it. I wouldn’t have caught that relying exclusively on a word frequency list from a computer program, though I could certainly use it to double-check that I hadn’t missed anything glaring.

Once I had the list, I used the search function to find every instance of each of the words. This turned out to be a highly useful exercise, because it forced me to look at individual sentences out of context. I spend time fiddling with individual sentences when I write anyway, naturally, but taking them out of context gave me a new perspective and somehow made seeing the ways to fix them easier. I imagine this is why some copyeditors work backwards, from end to beginning, so that they see errors instead of losing them in the flow of the whole, as we tend to do when we read. If this isn’t currently part of your editing process, I suggest giving it a try. I was really pleased with the changes it made to my book. Now I wait and see if my agent is, too.

And now, ┬átime to catch up on all the things I ignored doing while I was editing…




  1. Brian James Freeman
    Dec 11, 2013

    Excellent advice! I’ve done this sort of “overused word” edit for as long as I can remember and I started the same way you did: noticing a word that seemed to be used a little too often and starting to make a list as more words popped out at me. The nice thing is, this edit gives you the opportunity to use different and better words in those places and, as you note, to see the sentences all on their own and out of context of the surrounding material. You can make some really smart edits/rewrites that way.

    • kathykenzie
      Dec 11, 2013

      Thanks, Brian. I’ve done it before, too, but only ever with the ten or twelve words I know for sure I always overuse. This deeper version of the edit was eye-opening.

      • Brian James Freeman
        Dec 11, 2013

        When I’m reading submissions, I can often tell if an author hasn’t done this sort of edit on the work. Those words really start to stand out. Also, as you note, sometimes there’s just an unusual word used two or three times when it probably should have only been used once. It’s just a great way to edit your work with new eyes.