by Terry Odell
I’ve been going through my manuscript, getting it ready to send to my editor. I’ve run checks on overused words and phrases using a program called SmartEdit—which, as always, finds a new one every time. This time it was “about.” But there’s another word I check for.
My high school Latin teacher used to share his opinions on unnecessary words and redundancies. Saying “From its earliest beginnings to it final completion” pushed his buttons. He complained that the word “up” was overused, and often unnecessary. Why say ‘face up to a situation’? To which class clown Leon replied, “So what’s the guy robbing a bank supposed to do? Walk up to the teller and say “This is a stick?”
Leon’s wit notwithstanding, up is a word I run checks on, because it seems to slip off the fingertips without conscious thought—over 300 times in this manuscript—and often can be dispensed with. Here’s an essay we used to use when we were training tutors for the Adult Literacy League in Orlando. I thought I’d share it today.
What’s Up With Up?
“We’ve got a two-letter word we use constantly that may have more meanings than any other. The word is up.
“It is easy to understand up, meaning toward the sky or toward the top of a list. But when we waken, why do we wake up? At a meeting, why does a topic come up? And why are participants said to speak up? Why are officers up for election? And why is it up to the secretary to write up a report?
“The little word is really not needed, but we use it anyway. We brighten up a room, light up a cigar, polish up the silver, lock up the house and fix up the old car.
“At other times, it has special meanings. People stir up trouble, line up for tickets, work up an appetite, think up excuses and get tied up in traffic.
“To be dressed is one thing, but to be dressed up is special. It may be confusing, but a drain must be opened up because it is stopped up.
“We open up a store in the morning, and close it up in the evening. We seem to be all mixed up about up.
“In order to be up on the proper use of up, look up the word in the dictionary. In one desk-sized dictionary, up takes up half a column; and the listed definitions add up to about 40.
“If you are up to it, you might try building up a list of the many ways in which up is used. It may take up a lot of your time, but if you don’t give up, you may wind up with a thousand.”
Frank S. Endicott
Do you have any crutch words that appear on the page all too frequently?
I try to avoid using it.
However, I seem to…oops…
It’s as if our brains and fingers aren’t connected. Maybe if we had keyboards that buzzed when we typed an overused word …? In a recent read, it was “start” … everything started happening. If you say a phone rang, readers will understand that it started ringing at some point, right? When I read that someone started walking, I expect him to stop and turn around.
So, Terry. Great post.
“So” seems to be popular currently. Listen for how many reporters begin every sentence with the word. In my WIP I discovered that I had been brainwashed, using it frequently, even as I laughed at others for its overuse.
“So” is another throat-clearing word. It’s on my hit list.
So is my go to word, too.
I have several pet peeves…I first wrote two and realized I have more than two…and some are spoken rather than written like at, as in where “Where’re you at? instead of where are you?
And what’s up with no one wanting to use the word me. It drives me crazy to read or hear “between you and I.”
And down. Why do we have to sit down? Can’t we just sit? What other direction are you going to sit?
That’s all I can think of now, but I’m sure more will come…
As for my work, I love the word just, and nine times out of ten, it’s not needed.
So true. Shrugged his shoulders is another one. What else do you shrug? The SmartEdit program I use has a check for redundancies, which catches some of these.
The I/me thing is a grammar issue, and I don’t know why people have so much trouble with when to use each. Maybe it’s because I studied German and Latin back in the day, and they teach cases, and which verbs take which ones.
“Just” took me a long time to catch, but a lot still slip by.
I’m thinking I might have to search for this one in my MS.
But what about throw up-you know-vomit? I guess you can say vomit, but throw up is way more fun and graphic. Which brings me to throw down…I’ll let you use your imagination on that one… 🙂
Well and turn are on my list. Well can be killed off almost every time. I’ve had to find synonyms for turn: swivel, pivot, slewed, whirl, spin. Gosh, I’m getting dizzy now.
In my current MS, I’m going to have to do a search on gaze. I fear I’ll be gazing at a lot of them…
There’s nothing wrong with using words when they’re needed. It’s using them when they’re not needed (and emphasis can be a valid reason to ‘need’ a word) that the writing sags.
Look and Gaze are hard to write around.
Over-using words like “gaze” is usually a red flag for viewpoint problems. You want to be inside the viewpoint character’s head instead of describing the scene like you are a camera.
CAMERA: Vicky gazed down at the tattoo on the corpse’s forehead. Something about the letters across his forehad bothered her. She studied it a bit longer then gasped with realization.
CLOSE THIRD-PERSON: The corpse’s tattoo spanned from one side of the temple to other. The weird jumble of letters made no sense, then they did.
Good examples. I’m a Deep POV person myself, although I generally think of having the camera inside the POV character’s head. 😉
Wow, Marilyn, I’ve never thought of “gaze” that way. But when I put it in the context you mention, it makes perfect sense.
You’ve given me the perfect tool to use for my next step in my current MS, where I already know I’ve overused “looked” and all its synonyms. I’ve had trouble coming up with those synonyms, but now I see what’s needed is to look more closely at each instance to see if there is indeed a POV issue, or author intrusion, etc.
Thank you. All y’all are sooo appreciated from my little corner of the world.
Ha! Love all the “up” quotes. My crutch is “so.” I overuse it in blog posts AND manuscripts. The editors catch it in the MS but they often stay in blog posts. Sigh.
Join the ‘so’ club, Sue.
In ancient times before personal computers, I kept a large index card of over-used words and phrases as well as words my brain or fingers refuse to type/spell correctly. Some of the content was from books on editing. It was a step in my rewriting and also my final copy-editing process.
On my first Mac, the word processor could list every single word and how many times it was used. Very depressing. But I began to notice when I used crutch words so the editing process was easier.
About this time, I also began to rebel about the evil of word overuse. I was raised on the King James Bible and trained as a poet. Some repetition is style and deliberate mental prodding to the reader who may not say, “Hey, she used this uncommon word or image much earlier,” yet the word/image will click in their brain, and they’ll react to it. (If you don’t know what the King James style is, read any speech by Martin Luther King, Jr., or the works of many famous Southern novelists like William Faulkner. )
I realized that removing every bit of personal style is a far worse crime than reusing words.
When I run my MS through SmartEdit, I consider it my task to evaluate each usage. Is the word serving a purpose in the context of that sentence/paragraph/scene, or is it something my fingers stuck in there while my brain was thinking of the next word?
As for unusual words — I still remember an author who used halcyon enough times that it jumped off the page and stopped me. Or the one who described far too many objects in the book as “chunky.” Had it been a specific chunky bracelet, the adjective would have been fine when the bracelet showed up through the book, but there were chunky shoes, chunky necklaces, chunky purses.
The challenge, as you mention, is to maintain your voice without distracting readers.
Adored this post! I will never look at “up” the same way again. Hope you don’t mind, but I shared on my author Facebook page. Blessings!
Glad you enjoyed the essay. Since I borrowed it myself, of course I have no objections to anyone sharing it.
“Just”. I guess it’s because I’m Canadian, so I just use “just” because that’s, like, just how we speak up here, eh?
I’ve managed to train myself to spot “just” as I’m writing, but I still have to go through and cull a lot of them.