I’ve recently finished a structural edit on a YA manuscript, involving swapping some scenes around, making changes that needed to be worked through from beginning to end. In other words a proper structural edit, not a copy edit (which will come much later).
I usually write for adults, so writing YA is a new departure for me and something I see me doing alongside my science fiction and fantasy for adults, not instead of. I used to be a children’s librarian in the early days of YA and I’ve always been interested in reading it. But whether I’m writing for young adults or adults, considerations are the same. I work in Scrivener and when my manuscript is complete I compile into a doc file and settle down to read the whole thing through one more time.
And that’s when I usually notice… superfluous words
Sometimes words that I really don’t need worm themselves into my manuscripts. Words like: back, get, like, just, one, and know.
It’s always worth doing a light pass over the manuscript to check whether any of these words can be excised or changed to make the manuscript better.
Look at these two sentences. The word ‘back’ is totally superfluous. Removing it doesn’t alter the meaning of the sentence at all.
He pulled me back into the shadows as someone moved past on the inside of the door.
He pulled me into the shadows as someone moved past on the inside of the door.
We stepped back out onto the terrace.
We stepped out onto the terrace.
We raced back to safety.
We raced to safety.
My other overused word is ‘just’. I’m horrified when I discover I’ve used it twice in one sentence or three or four times in one paragraph. Often I can remove it from a sentence without it leaving a hole or changing a meaning, but as an adverb it has a variety of subtle meanings and can sometimes do the heavy lifting in a sentence. It’s a vert hard-working word and its exact meaning is usually a matter of context.
just = exactly: as in “that’s just (EXACTLY) what I need”
just = now, very soon: as in “she’s just coming” (She’s coming VERY SOON.)
just = very recently; in the immediate past: as in “I’ve just (RECENTLY) seen Mrs Briggs at the bus stop.”
just = at the present time: as in “Alice is in the garden just now.”
just = only or simply: as in “We’ll just (SIMPLY) have to work harder.”
Just = used for emphasis or to make a statement stronger: as in “I just can’t get them to fit together.” (You could substitute with SIMPLY.)
just = used to reduce/downplay a statement: as in “It was just a thought.”
But sometimes just doesn’t do much work in the sentence, so that’s when you can get rid of it.
I guess they’ll just have to come and get him in the morning.
I guess they’ll have to come and get him in the morning.
I was breathing heavily as if I’d just (RECENTLY) run a marathon.
I was breathing heavily as if I’d run a marathon.
One easy way to spot overused words is to paste the text of your whole book (or story) into Wordle – a very handy (free) programme which creates a word cloud with the most used words shown as the biggest. I downloaded wordle maker from wordle.net some years ago. Unfortunately that site doesn’t appear to exist any more. But there are links on MonkeyLearn to different word cloud makers. https://monkeylearn.com/blog/wordle/
So here’s my first word cloud from the recent edit, made by pasting in the whole 105,000 word text. (Yes, in the version I have there is the capacity to paste in a whole manuscript). In this word cloud you’ll see the word back is writ large.
And this is the word cloud after I’d done a search on every instance of back and removed all the superfluous ones. The word is still there, but much reduced.
So then I checked the manuscript for just, get, like, one, and head. and this is the wordle I ended up with. I’m happier with the distribution of well used words, but I will check it again after the copy edit.
What are your most overused words?