There’s a lot you need to keep in mind when you’re editing your work.
You want to make sure your writing flows, that the pacing is strong, that your paragraphs and sentences make perfect sense for the reader.
Your storytelling and your characters come first, always, but once your work is at a level you’re happy with, it’s important to take a few more passes at your manuscript to make it even just a little bit better.
Changing or deleting specific words and phrases will improve your writing tremendously. You know what else will help, too? Adding variety to the words you use often.
I just finished one last draft of my newest short story, and part of the editing work I did was locate specific words I use often in my writing and give them some variety so I wasn’t ever using the same kind of word over and over from the first page to the last.
What are those words I use often, and that you might use often, too? Let’s discuss…
Here’s a word I use more than almost any other. All right, maybe not more than “the” and “a” and “it,” but you know what I’m saying. My characters look at each other so much of the time. They’re always looking. And in some ways this is a word I’ve come to despise because I see it so often in my work.
There are two strategies I take when it comes to the word “look.” I first search for the word from the beginning of my manuscript to the end and see if there’s any uses of it I can delete completely. Often half or more I can cut.
But sometimes you need to explain to the reader what the character is looking at, so it needs to stay. But this doesn’t mean you only have to use “look” every time. Try some of these alternatives as well…
- Peer — I use this one a lot. It’s always an effective alternative that basically means the same thing.
- Glance — I use this one if the character is only looking at something or someone for a few seconds.
- Stare — And I use this one if the character is looking at something or someone for an obscene amount of time.
And then occasionally I’ll use something like “darted his eyes” or “narrowed her eyes” or “averted her gaze,” but these always sound awkward to me so I allow myself exactly one use of each in anything I write and no more.
Here’s a word I can never get enough of. If I can get through an entire chapter in one of my novels without a single use of this word, I feel like a champion. It’s the easy go-to word to break up dialogue or show that a character is feeling something.
Ultimately it’s a pretty generic word that doesn’t mean a whole lot, so in the case of “sigh,” you should avoid it as much as you can. I would say you should only have one use of it in every few chapters if you’re writing a novel and maybe two uses of it total if you’re writing a short story.
Are there other words you can use for “sigh?” Sure, there are. First, you can rephrase the word so instead of saying “he sighed,” you can say “he released a loud, angry sigh,” just to give it more detail. But even that isn’t great.
Sometimes I’ll use these alternatives, too…
- Groan — It kind of means the same thing, but it’s slightly more angry.
- Gasp — I’ll use this word if the character is surprised by something.
- Exhale — This one is even more ambiguous than “sigh,” but at least it’s something different.
I actually didn’t realize how often I had my characters sighing until I searched for the word, and I was mortified. So mix this one up as much as you can.
It’s hard to admit how often I have my characters smiling, but if they’re not sighing at something or looking at somebody, they’re most definitely smiling. It’s an easy word to use to show that your character is happy about something. You have your character smile, and the reader understands how they’re feeling.
The problem with having a character smile too much (and the same goes for having a character cry too often, too) is that the expression gets old really fast for the reader. The character smiles four times in a single chapter, and they start to read like a robot.
You want to mix it up, so here are some other words you can use at times…
- Grin — It basically means the same thing, but if you really need to have a character smile twice, on, say, the same page of your manuscript, have her smile first and then grin second.
- Beam — I use this one only occasionally if the character is really, really happy, just because the word can read awkward in a context that doesn’t make sense.
- Smirk — This word is a specific kind of smiling — something that’s kind of mocking or condescending — so like with the word “beam,” you’ll want to use it in the right context.
Like with all of these words, you want to keep “smile” to a minimum if you can. Instead of choosing the easy way by including this basic word, show why your character is happy through other details and descriptions whenever possible.
Something else my characters do all the time? They’re turning! He turns around here and she turns toward something there, and there’s just so much turning. Why can’t my characters just face forward for once?
The thing is that throughout your story you’re going to have characters occasionally turning toward things, there’s no way around it. The question then becomes, do you have to use the word “turn” every single time?
Of course not. There are other words that add variety, like these…
- Move — This is the obvious one, where instead of writing “he turned around” you can say “he moved the other way” or something simple like that.
- Spin — I’m not ashamed to say I use this one sometimes, too, although it does sound a little silly, so I would keep it to a minimum. Saying a character “spins around” has an almost child-like quality, so I wouldn’t use it in a scene of high drama or terror.
- Twist — Here’s one I also use maybe once or twice in a manuscript, although, like with “spin,” it does sound a bit awkward and almost archaic if not used in the right context.
Just keep in mind that you shouldn’t only use “turn” over and over again. Some readers might not catch all your uses, but others will.
Here’s the final big one. The dreaded word, “walk.” Your characters are often coming and going, right? So how else are they usually moving but walking?
Of the five words I’ve gone into, this is the one with the most variety. Let’s discuss a few of them…
- Run — Here’s the easiest alternative to “walk,” to show the character is moving fast.
- Sprint — Use this one if the character is running really fast.
- Race — Sometimes I’ll use this if I’ve used “run” or “sprint” too much in a scene.
- Amble — I’ve always loved this word. It means to “walk casually” basically.
- Roam — This one is kind of like “amble” and means “to drift.”
- Saunter — This one is also kind of similar to “amble” and can be used instead of “stroll.”
- Traipse — This word is a bit more specific, so I allow myself only one or two uses of it in a manuscript. It means “to walk wearily.”
- Step — Here’s an alternative to “walk” I use often, especially if two characters are standing close to each other and one of the characters moves just a tiny bit closer to the other.
- Move — Of course you can on occasion just use this word if you’ve used “walk” too many times in a scene.
- March — This one always reads awkwardly to me, so I’ll only use it if it makes perfect sense for the context of a scene.
- Make Her Way — Also kind of awkward, but you can use it maybe once to mix things up.
- Perambulate — OK, that’s a joke. Don’t use it!
On and on and on… you see what I mean. There are ten or more examples I didn’t even go into, so, yes, there are lots of ways to say a character walked from place to place.
Although you shouldn’t use a new alternative every time, there’s simply no excuse to only use “walk” all throughout your manuscript.
Add variety to common words in your writing, and your work will improve every single time.
Again, I know it doesn’t sound like that big of a deal if you have one too many uses of “look” or “sigh” or “smile” in your writing. If a reader catches two examples of “turn” or “walk” on a single page, that person will probably not even notice, and if they do, they probably won’t care.
But it absolutely makes you stand out from the crowd if you pay close attention to small details like these and make the effort to take your writing from a nine to a ten, always.
You want to be published, right? You want to find success. Add some variety to the words you include in your writing, and you’ll be well on your way!
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