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The Making of a Novel: A Simple Solution for Overusing Certain Words

10/13/2010 05:53 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The other day, in an LA Times Op-Ed piece entitled Amazing No More, writer/reporter Michael Krikorian argued that the word "amazing" has become so over-used that it's time we put it out to pasture. "It started to mean good," he wrote, "not that there is anything wrong with good. I like good. But suddenly every thing was amazing. How was that movie? It was amazing. How was the concert? Amazing. How's the dust on top of your refrigerator? You guessed it."

This piece reminded me of a passage by John Updike about the word love -- how we use it to mean everything and it comes to mean nothing. Updike suggested that we come up with a whole range of words to use instead of love, the way Eskimos have so many words for snow. (I can't find this passage -- either in my own files, or by searching the Internet. It's killing me....)

Every writer has go-to words that we tend to overuse. Some of mine are "perhaps," "believe," "somehow." If a reader starts to notice an overused word, they'll get pulled out of the story -- which is never good. Simple proof? When I'm listening to teenagers who pepper their conversation with tics such as "like." I start counting the repetitions, and completely ignore whatever it is the kid is trying to say. Something similar happens to readers.

If I find an instance where I have overused a word two or three times in a row, I'll stop and do a search on the word in my whole document. If, in 35 pages, I've used the word "perhaps" 15 or 20 times, I know I have a problem. The key is noticing the overuse.

As Susan Bell says in The Artful Edit, "...voice easily falls in love with itself, and, distracted, fails to notice the mines embedded in the page. Micro-editing protects you against your failed sixth sense."