This post originally appeared in Deborah's blog.
Although I’ve always written and probably always will write, my profession is editing [and now, publishing]. I’m a substantive editor, which means that in addition to doing copy-editing to make flow all nice and pretty, I get to comment on things like characterization and continuity. No book is without flaws (or typos, alas), and being a critic before publishing is in many ways more satisfactory than after, because it gives the author a chance to fix the problem. Since I’ve been editing, I’ve begun to notice a few trends.
One of the most interesting of these trends is something I think of as “invisible words” - that is, words most people (including many editors) will never notice are overused but that nevertheless deteriorate the quality of writing.
You can fix some of these over-usages with a simple find/replace search, but the phrasal repetition will require an external editor.
Almost every author has certain words he or she really likes to use. When these are uncommon words (“susurrus” – I’m looking at you, Terry Pratchett), this is noticeable by even the average reader. For example, I learned the word “bumptious” from Diana Wynne Jones. She uses it twice in The Lives of Christopher Chant. That’s all I needed – a single repetition, and it became noticeable.
“Bumptious” is not an invisible word. Invisible words are words that almost no one notices because they are so common. They include:
really, just, very, even, all, so, well, oh, indeed, rather, little, bit, now, right, still, already
I once wrote to delicately tell a superb internationally bestselling author that he used “little” on almost every page. As you can see, invisible overused words are often adjectives or interjections.
There are also invisible sets of words, including:
all right, at least, of course, at first
These are not, of course, comprehensive lists, and all writers overuse different combinations. For example, in sentences and not including examples, I used the word “all” four times in this entry. Did you notice?
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