Posted in Craft, The Nitty Gritty of Children's Writing

Three Commonly Overused Words in Fiction

Overuse of “look” or as Deborah Halverson aka DearEditor says, “Stop Looking!” A character looks up, looks down, looks around, looks another character in the eyes, looks at his watch, looks in her mirror. Some try to replace “look” with “gaze,” “stare,” etc. But the problem is deeper than that.

Looking is not as descriptive as other possible actions. It’s fairly passive. It doesn’t provide sensory details. Sometimes, it is distancing the reader.

Here are a few examples:

  1. John looked out the window.
  2. Leslie glared at her daughter.
  3. I looked at the paper on my desk.

Stronger possibilities:

  1. Out the window the Ponderosa pines were swaying in the wind. If John is the main character, we will assume he sees this.
  2. Leslie’s eyes narrowed emphasizing the hated wrinkle between her eyebrows. If her daughter is present, it will be pretty obvious that Leslie’s not exactly pleased with her.
  3. The paper on my desk said, “Don’t come back.”

I always suggest using Find in Word (Control F for PC, or Command F for Mac) to see how many “look”s there are. Usually it’s a surprisingly high number.

Then start replacing them with more dynamic content. Of course, you don’t have to get rid of all of them, but changing many and getting out of the lazy “looking” habit will definitely power up your writing.

Too many feelings. Using “feel”, “felt,” and “feels” often are telling instead of showing.

Here are a few examples:

  1. His legs shake and he feels an overwhelming blanket of anxiety stifling his mind.
  2. She felt sad. What does that look like?
  3. I felt sweaty and the mosquitoes were biting. Definitely telling!

These could become the stronger:

  1. His legs shake and an overwhelming blanket of anxiety stifles his mind.
  2. Her shoulders drooped to match the shape of her mouth. Now that I can picture.
  3. I licked sweat off my upper lip and smashed a mosquito on my jeans.

The fix. I do a search in Word (Control F for PC, or Command F for Mac) for the correct verb tense of “feel” in my story.

I change them one of two ways:

  • Rearrange the sentence to share the same info without the word “felt.”
  • Make it more active by helping the reader experience what is happening.
  • Show and add sensory details.

You may ignore it in dialogue.

Write seemlessly (pun intended). Avoid “seem,” “seemed,” “seems.” Often used with “to.” You are the writer and creator of the story, so you know whether something happens or not. You should be sharing what happened—not guessing what happened. “Seemed” indicates uncertainty.

Here’s a simple example: It seemed to be raining. It’s either raining or not raining, isn’t it?

Look at these two:
She seems to remember many of the other cousins and there were a lot of them.

The walls seemed to lean toward me.

The fix. Remove “seem” forms in your narration and correct the verb tense. Tighten if necessary. The two above could become:

She remembers many of our numerous cousins.

The walls leaned toward me.

A possible exception. Sometimes a character expresses an opinion in dialogue or even in their thoughts. “You seem unhappy,” Jon said. If that’s how Jon talks, fine. Or perhaps he might say, “You look unhappy” or You sound unhappy.” But if Jon has an attitude and is more concerned about appearances that actual unhappiness, he might say, “Wipe that frown off your face!” It depends on Jon’s personality and the situation.

Of course, there are other commonly overused words and you may have some unique to your own writing. But go on a search and destroy mission with these three and it’ll give you a good start on self-editing.

Posted in Craft, The Nitty Gritty of Children's Writing


We see the word recreating and usually think “kicking back” or doing something for the enjoyment of it, as in recreation, and that’s true.
But, what if we pronounce the word re-creating?
Re-creating could be a “big picture” look at a novel. Sometimes, we honestly know a manuscript we’ve written isn’t working. Sometimes, it’s our critique group, agent, or an editor who points out big problems. Either way, re-creating can include slashing scenes/chapters, or creating brand new ones. We might need to re-create our character, who is either too flawed or not flawed enough, or not likable enough. We might have to re-create plot, or fix the tension or chronology in the story. It might take starting the story in a different place or at a different time. We may be restoring the story to fit the bright shiny vision we first had. Re-creating might change the whole story into a different shape. It may feel like going backwards. But if the end result is a better story, it’s worth it. I love this quote: “Don’t hold onto a mistake just because it took a long time to make.” -Lucy Ruth Cummins
Once the overall story is working well, then we can move on to scene by scene revisions. With this step, we might be strengthening our characters, going deeper into their emotions and motives. Perhaps we’re adding in sensory details that ground the reader or removing unnecessary description. Is a conversation compelling or is there trite dialogue that needs to be cut? Is everything in a scene necessary? If not, take it out.
Next is revising individual paragraphs and line by line editing. We refresh tired words, overused phrases, and check the pacing of our sentences. It might include tightening. Our goal is to make the words stronger, clearer, and more compelling. Here’s a great quote I found on twitter: “I keep going over a sentence. I nag it, gnaw it, pat and flatter it.” -Janet Flanner
We may not do our revising in such separate steps, but however it’s done, it’s necessary. I like what Linda W. Jackson says, “First drafts are paper plates. After many revisions, they become fine china.” Now that’s quite the re-creation!
Recently I was recreating, as on vacation, where I got to add another state to my list of those visited. Which reminds me that sometimes it’s time to visit a new project–not just return to those we’ve written before, or those in progress. In that case we are re-creating the story from our mind onto the page or screen. (At least if you’re like me, they’re always different in my imagination than what ends up in actual words.)
Sometimes, we’re re-creating ourselves as we try something new. I remember hearing Kirby Larson talk about taking a poetry class while working on a novel. That something new helped her write her Newbery Honor book Hattie Big Sky.
And back to the usual definition of recreating. We do all need time away from our writing so that we can come back refreshed and ready to go.

Posted in Craft, The Nitty Gritty of Children's Writing

Self-Editing Tips

Need ideas on how to edit your own manuscript? Here are some ideas to try. First, let your chapter or manuscript sit for a couple weeks, so you can see it afresh. Read it aloud.
Do you . . .
. . . stumble? It may mean your sentence or word choice is awkward. Or if written in verse, that your rhyme is forced or your meter is off.
. . . hear the difference between how your characters speak? If not, try this–highlight all of each character’s dialogue in individual colors, then using the color key, read through a single character’s words. Does his speech sound consistent? Can you tell who is speaking without taglines? Do each of your characters sound realistic? Aren’t lecturing? Sound age appropriate?
. . . see the setting? It may not need to be highly detailed, but especially in novels, the reader needs to know where the character is. (i.e. a child playing in a parking lot, or an abandoned lot, gives quite a different picture than a child playing on a playground, or at the video arcade.)
. . . use all five senses? Sight and hearing are pretty easy, but don’t forget to use taste, touch, and smell.
. . . feel emotion? If not, perhaps your characters aren’t quite alive yet. Show us what she is feeling, to help us feel it, too.
. . . doubt whether something is working or not? If in doubt, work it out! Don’t ignore those troublesome spots. Check with other writers if not sure why it isn’t working.
Check for . . .
. . . passive writing. Your biggest clue is use of ing. i.e. She was standing becomes the more active She stood.
. . . excessive adverbs. Are you overusing “ly” words? Instead of using a weak verb and an adverb to modify it, replace both with an active verb. (i.e. I walked quickly to I raced or I sprinted or I scurried.)
. . . weak adjectives. Use adjectives that really make a difference. (i.e. white snow tells a reader almost nothing, because snow is usually white. However, dirty snow or packed snow or yellow snow each create a different picture.) Don’t forget you can use similes and metaphors occasionally, too.
. . . specific nouns. Don’t be vague and you may not need to use adjectives with your nouns. (i.e. instead of He fed his pet, try He fed his dog or He fed his Great Dane. See how getting more specific, gives a clearer picture?)
. . . overuse of prepositional phrases, especially those beginning with “as.” Actions can be shown one at a time and are often clearer, than trying to show two actions at once. (i.e. As Benny walked to school, he saw . . . could become On the way to school Benny saw . . . or Benny had almost reached school when he saw . . .)
. . . overuse of flashbacks. Flashbacks pull the reader out of the present action. Use sparingly. Consider telling the story in chronological order and see if that improves the flow of your story.
. . . heavy sections of black text. Reader’s like some white space. This can be provided by using dialogue, shorter paragraphs mixed in with long ones. Breaking up narration with action. Eliminating unnecessary description.
. . . scenes that don’t move the story forward. Sometimes we write too many details, when instead we need a brief summary as a transition between scenes. (An example would be the details of what a character had for breakfast, who with, and how long it took, when this really is just filler between the important idea he had when he woke up and his action to use the idea after breakfast. When Lee woke up, he knew what he had to do. After breakfast, he raced next door . . .) Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Does this add to the story?
  • Am I getting to the main point here?
  • Will the reader care about this?
  • How does this make my main character appear?

. . . clear transitions. These can be brief (i.e. the next morning), but the main purpose is to show we’re not in the same place and/or time.
. . . a strong beginning. Did you start with the moment that is different? Did you start with action, not background info? Does your reader soon know what the main character’s problem is?
. . . a satisfactory ending. Does your story come full circle? Is the problem presented early on resolved? (Doesn’t necessarily mean a happy ending or all questions answered.) Did your character change and grow? Did your antagonist get what he deserves? Was this relationship/problem resolved at the right time?
. . . varied sentence structure. Don’t always use noun verb subject order. (i.e. Dolly washed her hair and sat down to do her homework could be changed to After washing her hair, Dolly sat down to do her homework.)
. . . varied sentence length.
Short sentences create more tension. Longer ones, a more relaxed feel. You can even have sentence fragments where the subject and verb are understood, not stated or use them for emphasis, i.e. CRASH!
. . . correct spelling and grammar.
You did use your computer spell check, right? And rechecked after editing? And checked visually? Spell check can’t catch “their” instead of “there,” but it can catch many words. Your grammar checker can help where spell check doesn’t. It is not an infallible tool–it especially was not aimed at fiction–but if pops up, make sure you understand the “rule” it says you are breaking.
. . . correct punctuation
. A great favorite resource is Errors in English and How to Correct Them by Shaw. It helps with word usage and grammar, too. If you have someone in your critique group, who readily spots grammar and punctuation mistakes, ask them to read over your manuscript.
Weed Out Weasel Words
They are those words that just slip their way into your manuscript. Often they are used again, and again, and again. The examples below may or may not be a problem for you, or you may have others to add to this list.
seems, seemed
Agent Rachelle Gardner has an even longer list on her blog.
Or because of your subject matter, you may use the same word over and over. Find other ways to say it.
One well-published author, Peg Kehret, looks at each page and tries to eliminate 3 words per page. Pretend you have a word count limit per chapter or scene. When forced to reduce text to make word count, you often see unnecessary words or sentences.
Repeat as Needed
Make your changes, again let the manuscript set for a time. Sometimes it helps to print it out in a different size font. Reread it and see if more changes are necessary. Repeat as many times as needed. When satisfied that is as good as you can make it, take it to a critique group or do a manuscript exchange. After the critique, you’ll probably be making more additions, deletions, and corrections.
Pay Attention to Comments
Pay attention to critiquers’ comments that you receive frequently, i.e. show don’t tell. If you have good critiquers, this is an indication you have a weakness in that area. Do your best to not hear that comment again by educating yourself to spot it yourself. If you don’t understand what they mean, find out!
If you consistently get personal rejections that comment on one problem, that problem may cross into other manuscripts as well. Learn as much as you can about strengthening your skills in your problem area.