Proofing Hit List Part One: Definitely Overused

When I finish the first draft of a story or novel, I let it sit for a few days, then I go back through it like a literary hit man, ruthlessly pounding my delete key like the trigger on a suppressed .45. Notice I didn’t use a sniping metaphor. Nope, I need to get up-close-and-personal with the draft; I need to see the terror in that adverb’s eyes before I send it to the great delete bin in the sky. I have a short hit list of targets that crop up in all my drafts, so I thought I’d share some of them with you.

Keep one thing in mind, this is how I proof my drafts, and the things I adjust or remove and the reasons I do it is not one-size-fits-all. There’s a lot of debate on things like the use of adverbs and dialog tags (two targets on my hit list), and the way I use them or don’t use them is an attempt to achieve a style and voice I prefer. You may be going for something different, and that’s okay too.

Today, let’s talk about the first two things on my list: unnecessary adverbs and overused/repeated words.

1) Unnecessary Adverbs. Remember when I said there was some debate on a few of the things on my list? Well, this is one of them. Some folks like adverbs and others think you should expunge them from your manuscript. As a fan of writers like Stephen King and Elmore Leonard, I lean toward the latter, and I try to nuke as many adverbs from my manuscript as possible. That said, I’m not going to get into all the whys and wherefores of adverb editing—there are articles aplenty on the interwebs if you’re looking for that discussion. Instead, I want to focus on the almost-always useless adverbs that tend to pop up in my manuscripts. These adverbs are: absolutely, actually, certainly, definitely, particularly, simply, and suddenly. In most cases, I find these words add nothing to the sentence and just sit there, bloating my manuscript like literary lard. Here’s are three examples from my own work:

  1. Lilly smiles, her perfect lips parting to reveal short, pointed fangs (one of the few things that’s actually kind of scary about her).
  2. There were definitely more bones than he liked; he could see their whitish outline just beneath the slightly translucent flesh.
  3. A shape suddenly appeared beneath the raft, a shadow, massive and sinuous.

I’ve highlighted the offending adverb in the three examples. In all cases, I don’t think they add anything to either sentence nor do the sentences lose anything when the adverbs are removed.

Now, if you go and read anything I’ve published, you’ll find some of these adverbs, especially in my older works. Despite my checklist, I still miss things, and sometimes my editors have a different opinion on the use of adverbs, and, hell, I do like the occasional adverb (as you can see in example two). The goal here is to strive for my version of perfection with the understanding I’ll never attain it.

2) Overused/Repeated Words. This one falls squarely in the writer’s personal foibles category. We all have favorite descriptive words, and if you’re like me, you tend to use the fuck out of those words because they’re the first goddamn thing that pops into your brain. Case in point, whenever I have to describe something that is big, like, really big, I need to use the word massive (see example two in the unnecessary adverbs). It’s a fine word and all, but when you use it fourteen times in a 4,000-word short story, it becomes a little noticeable. It’s so bad that one of the first things I do when I finish a draft is run a “massive” search, then delete or change ninety-five percent of the ones I find. I think it’s a good idea for writers to identify their pet words and keep a list of them. I have a short and growing list I search for when I’m proofing.

What are some of the targets on your own proofing hit list? Tell me about it in the comments.

11 Comments on “Proofing Hit List Part One: Definitely Overused

  1. Engaging post. I feel sorry for your early drafts 🙂

    I’ve learned that adverbs are on the “not cool” list with a lot of writers, and I generally agree. I also tend to favor shorter sentences because I am more interested in the story than flowery language. Replacing the verb/adverb with a stronger verb almost always adds zest to the writing (e.g., ran quickly vs spinted, raced, or tore). On the other hand, I don’t think that adverbs should be completely verboten. I have a story where a couple walks slowly. I checked the thesaurus, and didn’t feel like ambled, loped, shuffled, etc, fit.

    As for target words, I don’t have anything as organized as you. I guess I just tend to ask myself if certain parts don’t add anything, or if they don’t cut them out. Contests with tight word counts have really helped me cut the bloat 🙂

    • Yup, no mercy. 😉

      Adverbs are one of those things I see discussed a lot, and though I try to remove as many as I can, I do think there are times when you just straight-up need one.

  2. I’m often guilty of using too many similes. I’m like a teenager with a bag of Doritos; I can’t stop myself. See? Well, used sparingly they add to a story; when they show up in every single paragraph it’s annoying.

  3. Though generally not as much of an issue as adverbs, adjectives are often cuttable as well. Just as a strong, specific verb can make a modifier superfluous, so too can a vivid, concrete noun.

  4. huh interesting. I don’t use a lot of adverbs when I write but I’ve got a few words I abuse. My main character’s eyes glow all the time. So he sees the world with a greenish cast. People notice that about him right off the bat so anytime we borrow someone’s viewpoint they remark the eyes even if they don’t say it aloud. So I use every permutation of verbs and adjectives to express that. In a 200000 word MS, they get used a lot.

  5. This is helpful and timely! Can use this as I work on training scripts, and am willing to guess my participants will be grateful.

  6. One thing I look for is “That”… I use it a ridiculous amount. I think it’s because it’s part of my process so I don’t stop myself in the rough but after.. it has to go. I love it because it helps me but it’s a crutch not writing gold.
    I also have this strange tendency to use fragments when I write. So I have to go through and decide which fragments I like for flavor and which are annoying/confusing/whatever.
    Great post, I look forward to more 🙂

      • You know, I just thought of another one I look for… “He started to” or “They began” I’m so bad at doing that one sometimes too. And it makes me cringe 🙂

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