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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Open Discussions About Writing » Overused words: What's ok?

   
Author Topic: Overused words: What's ok?
Gan
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I'm not a fan of overusing words. This said... What words are okay to overuse? Is there any rule of thumb?

For instance, in my current novel, characters are smiling, frowning, and giving confused stares... There are only so many words that one can use to note these things. And I don't want to break away from the story to describe someones lips moving in a way that resembles smiling. It seems much clearer to just use the word "smile".

Is it fine to overuse these simple but meaningful words? Or should my characters facial expressions be toned down?

[This message has been edited by Gan (edited January 22, 2009).]


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skadder
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'Is' is okay to re-use fairly liberally, and I think 'he' (not sure about 'she').
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Troy
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No, we're not doing 'she' in 2009.
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Robert Nowall
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Well, we could revive the "he said" argument again...you know how some people feel about "said."
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Zero
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grin
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Christine
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Some words get out of the way. For example -- said. Most of the time, it's best to just say he said she said. It's a tag and people don't even really notice it until you start trying too hard. He said happily. He said angrily. He muttered. He snarled. That sort of thing.

A while back someone on this site (who may not even frequent hatrack anymore) wrote a simple program that pulled out every word you used in a story, sorted them by frequency, and todd you how often you used it. I thought it was brilliant but unfortunately I can't find it anymore. I was thinking about writing a version myself. But anyway, you look at the most common words and if you're seeing things like the, a, and, or, but, he, she it...you just kind of shrug it off. But if you realize you've used the word cosmopolitan 24 times, you may want to rethink it.

It's a measure of frequency vs. obscurity.


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annepin
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The term "overuse" by definition means that you're using it too much. So it's not okay. You can use a word often, but if it gets noticeably, it becomes overused.

Personally, I dislike it when an author falls back to the same descriptive device. Does everybody's eyes have to twinkle? I remember this being the case when I read Twilight---seemed like every other sentence Edward was "smiling dazzlingly" or giving a "dazzling smile." It makes one groan.


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extrinsic
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Shakespeare's SONNET 130

My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips' red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damask'd, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.

  [from http://www.shakespeare-online.com/sonnets/130.html]

A conceit poem. Arguably, in one interpretation, Shakespeare satirized his contemporaries' overused descriptions, overwrought prosody, and sacharine idolatry of their lovers. One of my favorite poems, at least because another interpretation is a metafictive one of the power of words.

100 words and derivatives out of an estimated 600,000 English words account for over 50% of usage. Besides proper nouns, most novels use roughly 2000 different words and derivatives (lemmas). A fifth or sixth grader knows 2,000 to 5,000 words, A high school graduate about 12,000, a college graduate about 17,000.

I have two wordprocessor applications that are able to count and index words by frequency and page number. Both applications call the function conformance. By default, they're set to ignore common words and can be adjusted. One is WordPerfect, the other is Case Catalyst, a stenography application.

Language is sufficiently standardized in most usages that letter and word frequency analyses are a useful tool for deciphering substitution ciphers.


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TheOnceandFutureMe
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You might want to consider what you're focusing on as the writer. You say there's only so many ways to say someone smiled. So stop saying they smiled. In a few places it will be necessary, but usually the context of the dialogue will give the reader an idea of the facial expressions of your character.
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Cheyne
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To count word frequency you can use "wordle" (google it-click create) It will tell you the number of times you use each word and gives you nice little graphic of your most commonly used words. You can exclude the super common words like 'the' or include them.

I just went and checked it out again and was unable to get the word list that I had previously gotten. But I did get the list before so it must be do-able.

Too bad you can't just save the graphic, it is cool, but you can take a picture of it to save.


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Gan
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Thanks guys. Words like "Said", "He", "She", and names, I'm not too concerned about. It was just some other ones. I think I'll keep it in mind from now on, and refrain from describing the facial depictions so much. It's probably obvious as to what the characters are feeling anyway.

I appreciate it, thanks for the help.


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marchpane
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Wow. That Wordle thing is pretty cool.

I've just run the latest chapter of my novel through there: the two big ones are the names of my protags. Other than that, these ones seem to be getting a lot of use:

like
thought
know
something
eyes
back
hand
head
face
even
now

'Like' I seem to mostly use as a comparative. 'Thought'... I don't know, I should probably use it less, but it seems so clumsy and artificial to use words like 'wondered', 'contemplated', 'considered', etc.


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TaleSpinner
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I use "The Synonym Finder" by J I Rodale to find alternatives for words I find myself overusing.

I find it more useful than a thesaurus because it's structured like a dictionary. IIRC a thesaurus is organized according to concepts.

I think how much overuse is too much is a matter of taste, style and context. In an action scene involving the hero and his Aston, for example, I might refer to it as either the Aston or his car. If there were many references to it as he chases the bad guys, I'd avoid calling it his automobile, his transportation or his machine, because this would attract more attention than several references to the Aston or the car. In an action scene I'd want the reader's attention on the action, not the words.

[Edited to add: For me this is a huge problem. I find myself reusing the same word or phrase all the time--even when writing a post about repetition! "I find" twice in two sentences! Aaaarrrrccggghh!!]

[This message has been edited by TaleSpinner (edited January 24, 2009).]

[This message has been edited by TaleSpinner (edited January 24, 2009).]


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Gan
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Haha, it can be a ball buster eh?

I've never used Wordle, but the word processing program I use, called yWriter, has its own word usage counter built in. Definitely a handy tool.

I agree with you, TaleSpinner. Sometimes its just silly to avoid a word, if the word fits.

I guess there's no real strict rule of thumb. I'll just have to go with my instincts.


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luapc
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I think every writer has to worry about over analyzing their prose. If a story is good enough, the words dissappear, and all that's left is the story. As writers, we have to remember that we are "looking" for such things, and in the process, creating our own writing deamons, as it were. If you want to check that out for yourself, just reread a story you really liked as a "reader" before you seriously started writing, and analyzing it. As a reader you no doubt overlooked all sorts of things that you will now think are horendous as a writer.

That said, unique words are the ones I think a writer really needs to concern themselves with. If you are the type that falls easily in love with new and unusual words, then use them more than even once in a novel, it will become noticeable. It's even harder if you have a great vocabulary and like to use unusual words in your everyday prose. To you, it seems normal, but to most readers, could well be noticeable, and even worse, annoying.


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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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Stephen R. Donaldson did that a lot in his Thomas Covenant books. It was okay, except when he used an archaic word when a perfectly good modern word was available. Made him look like a show-off.


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Gan
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Iuapc, I agree that one can get too 'involved' in the writing. I'm sure all writers suffer a little of this. I try to not over analyze, but sometimes I feel its needed.

Kathleen, I think that the overuse of 'big' words, and archaic words, can be quite irritating. I don't think I could ever allow myself to overuse such words. Especially since my writing isn't very large-vocabularied (If I can say it like that...). I like to keep things simple, and use the 'big' words for those moments where I really want to capture something.


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Gan
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On another note. I know saying said is the best way to go. Does that mean, however, that you should never use another verb? I mean, you would use "said" the majority of the time. But if someone is whispering, would it be okay to say whispered?

[This message has been edited by Gan (edited January 24, 2009).]


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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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Whispered is fine, but I wouldn't recommend using it every time they whisper in a conversation. One can whisper and then another can whisper back, and then you can go to said (unless you want to do the "why are we whispering?" gag).

It's a matter of giving the reader the right idea and then backing off instead of cramming it down their throats by repeating it when it's no longer necessary.


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Gan
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Thanks Kathleen, tis' what I had been hoping.
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TaleSpinner
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Having writ what I wrote above, later in the day I found myself visiting a bookshop and found that while Roget's Thesaurus is structured by concepts, there are several that are organized like dictionaries.

I found myself purchasing an Oxford Thesaurus ... and, I whispered, overusing the "I find myself" construction again!


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marchpane
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The good thing about words like 'said' is you tend to skim over them when reading dialogue, but having a lot of different 'speaking' verbs (whispered, mumbled, shouted, etc) can stand out and look a bit awkward...
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Gan
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quote:
Having writ what I wrote above, later in the day I found myself visiting a bookshop and found that while Roget's Thesaurus is structured by concepts, there are several that are organized like dictionaries.

I found myself purchasing an Oxford Thesaurus ... and, I whispered, overusing the "I find myself" construction again!


Man! You're terrible! Go read a book... about writing!

On a side note: Books about writing, always seemed kind of ironic to me.


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TaleSpinner
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"Man! You're terrible!"

Isn't it just too sad?!

But there's an upside. I learn that instead of finding myself, I can now spot, pinpoint, unearth ... sniff out ... light on, hit on, or (literary) descry myself -- but I'm not sure about hitting on myself ...


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