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Author Topic: A bit of a quandry using 'a bit' a bit too often
genevive42
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I just went through my 111,000 word manuscript that's in the final stages of editing and discovered that I used the word 'bit' seventy-three times. I did some editing and got it down to thirty-four. I think most of those are fine but I'm sure I will be paying close attention every time I see that word in my work from now on.

My question is: Do you have any words that you repeat a lot? What are they and how do you handle it?


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JeffBarton
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My characters smile too much, so that word happens too often in the manuscript. I never counted the smiles, but critiques have pointed them out. When it's the POV character smiling, it's easy to change to describe her emotional reaction rather than show an external expression. When the POV character sees the smile, she can't know the thoughts behind it unless the other character says some dialog.

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Robert Nowall
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I've tried to cut down on some of the things my characters repetitively do while talking to each other---it breaks up the dialog but they're doing the same things over and over. "He turned towards her...he turned away...he smiled...he frowned..."

I try to deal with it in editing...and, when I think of something new for one of 'em to do, I put it in.


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KayTi
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My characters "make their way" places all the time. Yikes!

I've got a short list of words and phrases to search for on edits, but I'm not at that point yet. "make their way" is just one of them. LOL


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Crystal Stevens
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It's good to be careful when making your characters do certain things while talking. Try asking yourself if the action you describe through things like "he smiled", "he turned", "he nodded", etc. actually adds anything to the story. Can things of this nature be deleted and not hurt the story?

Certain mannerisms when repeated do add to the character. For example; A young girl in one of my novels likes to cock her head to one side when she's trying to explain something to someone else such as an adult. Things of this nature can add to the character just so it's not over done to the point of distracting the reader.

Another thing to consider if your characters nod, smile, grin, etc. just for the sake of doing it is to explain what caused this reaction. This can be true with other parts of your story too. See how many times you "tell" something happens when you can "show" it by how the character feels or reacts to the situation without ever mentioning the action directly.

Any of these suggestions (and possibly others I haven't even thought of) can get rid of using repeated phrases and help enhanced your writing. I know it has mine .


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Elan
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My characters sigh a lot.

The first time you use a distinctive phrase it's telling. The next ninety-eight times are annoying. I remember reading a book where the characters "stood with arms akimbo" about every other page. There was another where the lead character "ran his fingers through his hair" until I was about ready to pull it out myself. I quit reading Robert Jordan's massive Wheel of Time fantasy in large part because if I read about one character "pulling her braid" one more time, I was going to scream.

My guess is saying "a bit" a bit too much is a writer's equivelent of the verbal speech pattern of using "you know"... you are going for the easy fill-in phrase, rather than pruning your text thoughtfully or perhaps stretching for a different phrase to convey the same thing.

I would challenge you to completely remove "a bit" from your text. Test the sentences out without it. Good writing is succinct. As the old adage goes: Good writing is like building a good car engine; don't include any parts that don't have a function.


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Meredith
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quote:
My characters sigh a lot.

You know, I think mine sigh a lot, too, come to think of it. I may need to go through and have a look at that.

I would be particularly careful of a phrase like "a bit", because it diminishes what you're saying. I have to halt myself with "almost" for the same reason.

[This message has been edited by Meredith (edited August 09, 2009).]


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jayazman
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I still like The Wheel of Time series and am anxiously awaiting the last 3 books. Yep, for anyone who didn't already know, the supposed 'last book' is now going to be 3 books. Yay for Brandon Sanderson.

The pulling of the braid is a 'tell' for that character and shows when she is angry or upset. It is used consistently and helps distiquish her from the other female characters ('cause there's alot. You know what I mean )
I know Jim Butcher has talked about this and I'm pretty sure OSC has said this also, to give characters a distinctive trait and use that to help the readers keep that character straight in their minds.
I know that I have felt I needed to take notes on who characters were and how they related to the POV characters and why several times while I have been reading the TWoT. So anything that helps make the characters distinctive is absolutely necessary when dealing with as many people as RJ does.


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genevive42
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I'm glad I'm not the only one.

As to the suggestion to totally remove 'a bit' I have done it significantly. I have also gone through and checked words like 'small', 'little', 'somewhat' etc. I am certainly going to go through again and see what else I can come up with. But there are those times when I want to lessen something or make it more casual so they might not all come out.

What's funny is I caught these mitigating words in my friend's writing and once I brought up the subject we both noticed them in mine. It goes to show how critiquing others can improve your own writing.

As far as other phrases that I've seen repeated in published books they include: 'hands on hips', 'pressing' or 'pursing' of lips and 'sobbing' or 'choking back sobs'.

Thanks for all the input.


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extrinsic
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The word bit's frequency in contemporary English usage occurs in a low frequency for a three-letter word, about No. 1034 or a frequency of 0.0099. 34 times in 111,000 words is about 0.0003. Bit occurs more frequently in modern prose, probably partly because of its other definitions and usages derived from technology, about No. 252.

Bit used in "women's language" has a rhetorical value. It's a hedge word in some situations. It's a bit like saying somewhat in a hedging manner. Used to characterize a character, hedge terms like bit, almost, sort of, somewhat, and like, etc., offer a manner of distinguishing characters from one another through dialogue and representing an unassertive or politely hedging speaker.

A hedging narrator, though, would seem to me to be a subjective one. An unassertive narrator might be rhetorically significant, if the narrator doesn't need to be assertive when being definitive and specific. Or there could be a meaningful contrast of an at times unassertive narrator and at times definitively assertive.

However, excess usage of women's language for one character might become somewhat like a "Funny Hat" characterization.

"Funny-hat characterization
A character distinguished by a single identifying tag, such as odd headgear, a limp, a lisp, a parrot on his shoulder, etc." Turkey City Lexicon

"Of course, not all women use all of this language all of the time, and some may question the whole. It would also do [to] do a duplicate study now and see how much of this has changed since the 1970s." Changing Minds: Women's Language.

Nor is women's language exclusive to womankind. I project it as a feminine trait that may equally occur in men or youths' speech.

What Robin Lakoff calls women's language is still societally pervasive today, though her study occurred in the '70s. Language and Women's Place 1975, New York: Harper and Row.

Women's language;
http://changingminds.org/explanations/gender/womens_language.htm

[This message has been edited by extrinsic (edited August 10, 2009).]


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KayTi
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A critiquer here once pointed out my somewhat (lol) excessive use of hedging or helping words like really, very, somewhat, a bit, a little, etc.

By taking the opportunity to really look at my writing for these helping words, I have been able to significantly strengthen my work. Adverbs served a similar purpose for me, and the same is true - I find that my work does better when I've been merciless about cutting these categories of words. I do wonder if it's something about being a woman that causes me to insert the hedges and otherwise attempt to be less direct - I'll have to look at that link you posted, extrinsic, thanks for that.

Oh, and for what it's worth, this attention to helping words in my fiction has also brought my attention to their use in business correspondence and I feel I have been able to be more effective in email communication because of this. Win-win!


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genevive42
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That is an incredible answer extrinsic. Thank you for the research and attention to detail. It gives me something to consider on my next edit.

Where do you find out about word usage frequency?


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extrinsic
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I search on English word frequency. There's lots of frequency studies available on the Internet that rarely overlap in numbers or frequencies of words except the and similar articles. They sometimes come close. Outcome depends on source materials used in the study.

I didn't have to do much extensive research. I've been exploring these topics for awhile to apply them in my own writing. The Changing Minds.org site has a wealth of information related to managing people in group situations. Considered as persuasion, the art of rhetoric, there's a lot of fodder there at Changing Minds for writing development.

[This message has been edited by extrinsic (edited August 10, 2009).]


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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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Along with weakening or "mitigating" the impact of your story, "hedging" words can also distance the reader (which is fine if that's what you want, of course).

It's better to use such words on purpose (as part of characterization, for example) than just throw them in because that's the way you think you ought to be writing.

In fact, it's better to use whatever words you use on purpose. Knowing what you are doing in your writing and why gives you better control.


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philocinemas
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Uncommon words that are used more than twice distract me. I remember reading Lord of the Flies and noticed that Golding used the word "furtive" several times. There was also a word in 1984 that was similarly distracting, but I don't remember the word.
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extrinsic
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I've got lists of words and phrases that I avoid in writing, that I stumble over when reading. Fuzzy variants of somehow and seem are in the top ten. I consider them fuzzy when they lack for causal or motivational contexts.

The pavilion somehow collapsed during the county fair.

Johnny's feelings seemed hurt.

Those examples are also narrative summaries, tells, in that they summarize circumstances rather than dramatically show actions.

Several of the current crop of Hugo and Nebula nominees have instances of one or the other or both.

[This message has been edited by extrinsic (edited August 10, 2009).]


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Doc Brown
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There's a big difference between overusing a word in narrative and having it come up frequently in dialog.

Imagine watching classic Star Trek and counting the number of times the word "Logical" was spoken in an hour. Would it be more than a typical hour of television? Of course! Mr. Spock used that word all the time. Logic was a part of him.

It can be good to give characters favorite words. A character that likes the word "bit" in dialog could be charming.

But a narrator that constantly uses the word "bit" would just be annoying. Find a synonym.


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genevive42
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Okay, I got it down to fourteen uses of bit and I think that's fine. I did use synonyms or even altered statements where I could but sometimes 'bit' was just the right word with the right tone.

'Bit' isn't evil but I will be ever vigilant in the future.

Thank you for all of the discussion. The response has been fantastic.


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Robert Nowall
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There's the "Hi, Bob" drinking game...you watch "The Bob Newhart Show," and every time somebody says "Hi, Bob!" to Bob, you take a swallow. Pretty soon, you've established that Bob is a popular guy on the show, that "Hi, Bob!" is a pretty good way to greet Bob, and you're also plastered out of your skull...

Sometimes the perfect word is right there, and you don't have to change it...even if you use it hundreds of times elsewhere in the manuscript.


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Crystal Stevens
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I just finished reading WRITE TIGHT by Willaim Brohaugh, and it covers the subject of "pruning" words much like we've been discussing out of your manuscript to tighten your writing and get your point across much more clearly. It's the best book I've come across on this very subject and hits home on most of what we've covered but in more depth. It's a good read.
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posulliv
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I thought I’d drill down into this word frequency idea with my own work, so I placed the old mental bit in the chuck and bored and bored and bored. I was making a deep hole for myself but that was nothing new.

“He bit off more than he can chew,” you might say, but bit-by-bit I made progress. I took the bit between my teeth, and although I bridled at the thought, I decided to do the tried-and-true “Google it bit”. Byte after byte, bit after bit, my computer sifted through the wisdom of crowds. Were there words that I used too much?

I sharpened the bit of my editing axe. After first smoothing the surface of my thoughts with the bit of my mental plane I combed through every last bit of my work. Was word frequency counting the key with the perfect bit to unlock my hidden potential, or just another thing to worry about as a struggling ‘bit actor’ in the world of genre fiction?

I now feel confident throwing my two bits in to this discussion. I’d say that going back through my work for overused words helped. Some. And now that my manuscript has finished printing, I can return to my original boring task without further procrastination.


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rich
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I think, Patrick, that was a bit much.
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thayeller
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I like to make my characters smirk.
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