Do you use habit words in your writing?
I bet you do. Perhaps all authors do? A few weeks ago, in her excellent presentation on snappy dialogue at the RNA Virtual Conference 2020, Virginia Heath confessed to overusing the phrase “he huffed out” as a speech tag for her heroes. Virginia, being a professional, knows how to catch and reduce her use of habit words. Do you?
To start at the beginning: what are Habit Words?
Habit words and phrases are part of an author’s voice, the words and phrases that come naturally and automatically, that trip off the tongue, that make the writing sound like you. So, in Virginia’s case, her heroes huff. That’s very interesting, because it’s an unusual expression. I don’t remember ever having used it in any of my writing. So it’s not a habit word for me — it’s not even a word in my normal vocabulary.
But I have many words and phrases that do sneak in, like thieves in the night, under the radar, in true cloak-and-dagger fashion.
And if you’re thinking I’m sneaking in far too many clichés here, you’d be right. They can count as habit words, too.
To be serious for a minute… Habit words are OK, and you’ll get away with using them, as long as the reader doesn’t notice. If the reader gets to the point where she notices, the author is in trouble. Because once a reader has noticed, she’s never going to un-notice again.
Think of your reader saying: “Everything in this ****** story is rather. It’s rather good, rather sweet, rather famous, rather young… If I see one more rather, this book goes in the bin.” Oops.
Now, rather isn’t one of my worst habit words. Not any more 🙂
The late, great Sara Craven, having read one of my drafts on a writing retreat, advised me to beware of rather. So, since then, I have. Thank you, dear Sara (Annie).
But I have plenty more sins to my account. In fact, I commit so many of these authorial crimes that I have a rap sheet of habit words. Yes, a complete A4 sheet of them. I’m rather ashamed to admit that. (Sorry. Couldn’t resist.)
When to check for evidence of habit-word sins
Once I’ve finished a draft, I usually check for overuse of habit words (= sins). Note that I do not try to cull them while I’m writing. Why not? Because they’re part of my writing voice. If I start watching for them while I write, I’ll risk becoming stilted and not-me. I’d be editing rather than creating. Not a good mix.
That first dirty draft, that no one else gets to see, has to flow and be natural, with my characters taking the stage and running the show. If they say rather too many times — I blame the characters, not the author — it can be fixed before anyone else sees. But if I tell them to stop using certain words, they’ll probably give me the two-fingered salute and stalk off in a huff.
[Oops! Seems I do use huff, after all.]
Sneaky tips for checking whether you’ve sinned
First, you need to identify your sins. [See starter** kit below.] You need to be aware enough of your writing habits to know whether you overuse words like rather and really and of course and… and… and… My advice is to keep a list of them on your computer. And keep updating it, every time you identify another word-sin. Don’t be embarrassed. Everyone sins. And — shh! — you don’t need to confess yours to anyone else.
Second, check how many times you’ve used each habit word/phrase in your completed first draft. Word processing is a great help here. If you use the Find or Search function, you should be shown all the instances of your sin. It will probably count them for you, too. If you just want a quick sin count, you can use Find and Replace + Replace All, putting the same word in each box. The screenshot below shows my count (5) for rather in my vampire story in Beach Hut Surprise.
Be aware that Find or Find And Replace + Replace All can give misleading results. For instance, if you do it on just (a very common word-sin), it will also count justice, justify, Justin, unjust and any other word containing just-. The solution there is to put just in both boxes and then tick the box for Whole Words Only.
Remedies for habit-word sins
You may not need to do anything. You may not have overused your habit words in this particular MS. For example, of my 5 uses of rather in the screenshot above, two were rather than, which doesn’t count as a sin in my book. One qualified a verb, so I let myself off there. Two qualified adjectives. Would my reader be annoyed by two in twenty-thousand words? I reckoned probably not. What’s more, I thought they worked well in the context and so I left them in.
But if I’d found thirty instances of rather qualifying an adjective in that novella, I’d have been sure I needed to do something about them (or some of them).
What remedies are available?
- Delete the habit word altogether, if you can. A word like rather can often be deleted and the text left unadorned. So, he seemed rather young for a… becomes he seemed young for a…
- Replace the habit word with something else. It’s a good idea to have substitute words listed on your rap sheet alongside your habit words. A good thesaurus will help you find alternatives. Against rather, your rap sheet might list quite, pretty, somewhat, a little, a bit, fairly, comparatively… etc. Armed with your list, you consider the context of he seemed rather young for a… and you decide to amend it to, say, he seemed youngish for a…
- Rewrite the sentence to get your point across without using the habit word or even a synonym for it. In this case, you might decide on he didn’t look old enough to be a…
Less drastic than the remedies below?
**Habit Words — a basic starter kit
Were you shocked when I suggested, earlier, that you should know the words you overuse? Did you wonder how to identify them? Well — and well is a classic of the genre — I’ll make it easier to get started. Here’s a list of some commonly used habit words and phrases. Chances are that you sin with at least some of these (but congratulations if you don’t):
actually, after all, at least, certainly, clearly, doubtless, even, I see, just, no doubt, not even, of course, only, possibly, pretty, probably, quite, rather, really, simply, somehow, still, suddenly, surely, then, well, you see, !
Dig out your last complete MS and check how often you’ve used them. How often per thousand words? Then decide for yourself how often is too often.
Note: That exclamation mark at the end of the list isn’t a mistake. Some readers get more annoyed by overuse of ! than by repeated words. Dame Isadora is very robust on the subject. It’s one of those habits that’s impossible to unsee once you’ve spotted it. (Look at Georgette Heyer’s dialogue if you don’t believe me.)
Try using Find/Replace to count the exclamation marks in your completed MS.
I, Vampire has 20. That’s one per thousand words. OK? I thought so, though I did check each one of them. Fingers crossed that no readers complain.
Good luck and do let us know whether this has been helpful. We’d love to know how you get on. And if you have your own habit-word tricks, please do share. We writers are always learning.
I learned early on that “just” and “suddenly” were words I needed to eradicate from my brain. I’m sure there are more. I’ll certainly be adding “rather” to my check list.
Snap, Liz. Just is a major sin for me. I’ve just (!!) been taking it out of a finished draft. And it’s everywhere. But as I said in the blog, I don’t try to take my sins out while I’m writing. If I tried to eradicate them from by brain, I might not be able to write at all.
Great advice, Joanna. My habit words tend to change from book to book, as soon as I identify one, another rears its ugly head! Ah well, we keep trying, It’s good to now I am not alone!
That’s so interesting, Melinda/Sarah. I find that if I dig out an unusual word while writing a manuscript, it sticks in my mind and I keep using it unconsciously. For example, yesterday I discovered the word wryly used twice in five lines. One of them went, natch 😉
Nightmare city. Seemingly, apparently, rather, quite, so that, clearly… the list goes on. It’s always my final polish, going through for the overused words. I usually notice them when I’m doing the last reading. As for ! , have had a phobia about them for years. Put in, take out, put back in, agonise, and usually eliminate almost all of them these days.
I take a leaf out of Jodi Taylor’s book (pun intended). I’ve never seen a single exclamation point in her entire canon. And yet the exclamations and intended emphases are absolutely clear throughout. She writes very funny books and the wording for her humour speaks for itself.
So glad I’m not the only one to have a long list of sins, Liz. Interesting thought on Jodi Taylor and the dreaded shriek marks. I now eliminate almost all of them, too. I go through using Find and keep asking “why does this sentence need one”? Usually it’s perfectly clear without.
Great post, Joanna, thanks. I started an A4 sheet last year to remind me which words I overuse, although it sometimes depends on whether it’s a contemporary or historical novel. Fortunately, I recognised (at last) how many times I used ‘So’ (at the beginning of a sentence), plus ‘surely’ and ‘realised’ to name but three. I’ll now have more to add after your post!
Made me smile, Rosemary. Just (!) checked and realised (!) that I didn’t include either so or realise in my starter list of sin-words. But it was only a starter list. So (!) anyone can add more to it.
A fab post, Joanna. I’m glad I’m not the only one to suddenly realise I have quite a habit of rather over-using certain words somewhat!!
Sorry Lynne. This comment ended up in the spam folder.
As you’ll see from the other comments, lots of authors, even the multi-pubbed, are confessing to the habit-word sin here. So we are not alone, you and I 😉
Late commenting on this, as, once again, blog didn’t appear automatically. However (one of my words) I have many sinful words, and the most recently submitted mss identified another – Oh. My editor says it’s because my books are 85% dialogue, which they probably are and it also makes them extremely hard to identify and eradicate. You can’t do a search and replace on them, the buggers. It took an entire day to deal with them by which time I was cross eyed and screaming. So this time, I’m picking them up as I go, like screamers. Well, sometimes…
Sympathies on Oh, Lesley. Easy enough to find, but what to replace it with? I can understand how you ended up cross-eyed.
A very timely reminder, Joanna. Thank you. It helps to read your typescript out loud – sometimes it’s easier to hear the Habit words than to see them on the page. I have to watch out for ‘Actually’.
I agree about reading aloud. I do that when I’m struggling with a scene. I spent 7 hours on one scene yesterday — yes, honestly — and most of it was because I couldn’t get it to flow. I don’t use that route for my habit words, but I can see that it could help. Actually is on my sin list though I don’t use it as much as I used to. OTOH, I do have to watch for of course, especially in dialogue.
‘so far’ is my biggest sin, and there are too many others to include here. I have noticed they change, one day I’ll repeat a certain word all the way through that session. Another day it is a different word. Go figure 🙂
Apologies, Sherry. This comment ended up in the spam folder.
I don’t think so far is one of mine. But I do agree about how they change. Words seem to get into a loop in the creative brain, don’t they, and keep coming out?
An excellent post, Joanna. Very interesting, and enlightening about one’s own work. There’s plenty of food for thought there. (I nearly wrote, There’s rather a lot of food for thought there!)
As I said in the post, Liz, once a reader has seen our habit words, it’s impossible to unsee them. If you found the post helpful, I’m glad.