Tag Archives: editing

Habit Words : Use, Abuse, Remedies

snoopy at pink typewriterDo 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?

yellow bollards, repetition concept

Repetition can be boring. And people do notice…

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.

masked ninja warrior with half-drawn swordBut 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. cartoon of woman reading book eating apple

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.

Sara Craven, authorNow, 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

boot with ball and chain, labelled SIN

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.]couple in huff with each other

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.old habits to new, remedy for habit words

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.

screenshot of habit words

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.woman against background of question marks

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?

  1. 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…
  2. 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…
  3. 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?

cartoon Victorian man takes camomile and senna remedies

Image by Prawny from Pixabay

**Habit Words — a basic starter kit

woman shocked and puzzledWere 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.

exclamation mark in fireNote: 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.


Writers and Teamwork : a Team of One? Or More?

fanfare of trumpetsThis week, I finished a book. Writing a book, that is. So I’m feeling smug. (No mention, please, of the fact that the agreed deadline for the MS was end of July.)
And when I finished it, I thought:
“I’m a completer-finisher. Eureka!”

She’s off again, I hear you groan. What on earth is a completer-finisher? Continue reading

A Writer’s Dilemma : Creating or Editing

romantic novelist busy creating or editing

The writing life is hard. And some parts of it are harder than others. [Yes, I know. Cue violins?]

light bulb image for ideasWhen i do talks for readers, they regularly ask me, “Where do you get your ideas from?” I answer. Of course I do. But for me — and, I suspect, for a lot of other writers — the challenge isn’t finding new ideas to write about. My challenge is turning the zillions of ideas fizzing around my brain into words on the page.
Thousands and thousands of words.

man reading book in open air

If you’ve read any great books recently, the chances are that you raced through thousands of words in a few hours. Perhaps you missed out on several hours’ sleep because you just had to keep turning the pages? That’s really pleasing for the writer. But it’s also daunting. Because you, dear reader, may well want another book by the same author.
Now. Immediately.

It takes a few hours to read a great book. It takes months, or years, to write one.

Getting the words down : creating or editing?

Continue reading

Explicit Sex in Romances : how often, how necessary?

woman in bed uncorks exploding champagne, metaphor for explicit sexExplicit Sex in Romances: none, lots, somewhere in between?

Explicit sex in romances is a complete turn-off for some readers. They like the bedroom door firmly closed and refuse to read any romances where it is not. That, of course, is absolutely their choice. And I have written some romances that, in my opinion, worked very well without sex scenes. Indeed, one of them — Rake’s Reward — has been called “fizzing with sex” even though it contains no explicit sex at all.

But, equally, I’ve written romances with a lot of explicit sex on the page, even though that is bound to have lost me some potential readers.

So, are there any guidelines for authors here? Continue reading

Electronic Benefit and Compulsive Micro-editing

boring micro-editing Confession time: I have a problem with compulsive micro-editing;  and I don’t normally believe in electronic benefits.

I am a quintessentially late adopter. Even when I have been pushed through the airtight seal into the orbiting 21st century, I’m not one who expects to find anything much good coming from the new technology at my command.

Mainly, of course, because it’s NOT at my command. It goes its own way. Sometimes it’s too fast for me and whizzes onto the next page, next program. And freezes. Or it’s too slow, so that I lose confidence and try to go back. And it freezes.

This is true of laptops, desktops, tablets, E-readers. The whole boiling. I hate ’em.


Except that they make my writing life just a little bit, well, easier.

Conviction Tiffler Addicted to Micro-editing

Micro-editing, the enemy of the finished bookYou see, I’m a conviction tiffler.

If, like Autocorrect, you don’t recognise the term, I borrowed it from a woman who was once my editor. What she actually said was — in a public restaurant, quite loudly —  “If you don’t stop tiffling with that sodding book, I shall come round with chloroform and forceps and remove it surgically.” Continue reading

In Praise of Dirty Drafts

This week I have been remembering the first draft of my first book. Well, the first book I actually completed.

First draft libraryI remember that it was written by hand, mostly while I was waiting for books to be retrieved from the stack in a very famous library.

The leather-bound tomes, the scholarly hush, the dust dancing in the sunbeams, the academics concentrating all  around me…. oh, I remember them as if I’ve only just walked in from that day with my book bag stuffed with notes and my head full of my characters.

First draft cafe napkinOr sometimes I wrote that first draft while I was waiting for an old friend in our favourite coffee shop.

When inspiration struck there, I sometimes scribbled the idea down on any old scrap of paper — including a cafe napkin once or twice.

By now, dear Reader, you will have realised two things: Continue reading

Creating Atmosphere 2 : Using Light and Shade

Creating atmosphere : with shade in the picture

contrast in shade

Light and shade help to create atmosphere. It doesn’t have to be deep gloom or blinding sunlight, just a degree of contrast.

To see what I’m getting at, have a look at the 3 pictures in the slider  below, showing roughly the same view of a snowy landscape, but in different kinds of light. I reckon the changes of light and shade move the viewer from misery (or at least gloom), through hope, to something much more positive.

The question is: can we do the same thing, subtly, with mere words? Continue reading

Creating Atmosphere : British India Comes Alive

Atmosphere : unspoken unease and menace

At Sophie’s prompting, I’ve recently been reading a new (to me) crime writer, Barbara Cleverly   (a writer who only just missed the cut for 12 days of Christmas). Cleverly’s first 4 books are set in India in the 1920s, after the horrors of the First World War (which haunts many of her characters) but while the British Empire still rules.

Atmosphere: Last Kashmiri Rose coveratmosphere : ragtime in simla coveratmosphere : damascened blade cover

What stayed with me, apart from her genius for plotting, was the atmosphere she created for her pre-independence India — an underlying feeling of unease, even menace.

Cleverly’s British Raj is like a thin and very fragile glass lid on a huge cauldron of broth. Readers can see through the lid to the liquid below. Not quite boiling yet, but with the occasional large bubble forcing its way through the shimmering and (apparently) serene surface. As readers, we sense that it wouldn’t take very much to crack through that flimsy lid from below. Continue reading

Subtext and Space Between the Words

Roman Holiday subtextI’m intrigued by subtext and, in particular, the space between the words in a novel. 

Yet perhaps the most perfect example of this is not in a novel at all, but in a movie. It’s the little miracle that is Roman Holiday, starring a luminous Audrey Hepburn as a stifled princess. Gorgeous Gregory Peck plays against type as a distinctly dodgy expat newspaperman. They don’t have a Happy Ever After ending, either. Yet its perfect, mostly because of that extra layer of meaning.

Why Subtext in Roman Holiday is Interesting for Novelists

Continue reading

Busy Week at Casa Liberta, Workshop and Wilde

busy weekWe’ve had an exceptionally busy week at Casa Libertà.

Joanna had serious train travel and a full diary, while still reluctantly convalescent. Sophie had much writing – blogging, a magazine article and catching up with belated Amazon reviews of recently-read books – together with a trip to see Wilde’s A Woman of No Importance. 

Above all, we were running up to part two of our Sparkle editing workshop, otherwise known as Bling it Up. So we spent Friday on a full day’s dress rehearsal before Saturday when the curtain went up. Continue reading