Revising for Word Choice
May 24, 2022
Note From Rochelle
Do you correct the grammar of your favorite television characters or songs? When the guys from One Direction croon, “Nothing can come between you and I,” I shout back, “you and me!” It doesn’t change a thing, but I enjoy it.
I’m pretty sure that my time would be better spent playing with word choice in my own writing. Today’s tip talks about how to do that.
Rochelle, the Write Now! Coach
The Right Word:
Revising for Word Choice
By Rochelle Melander
I found my first critique group through work. When I arrived at the meeting, I learned that everyone wrote novels. Long ones. I wrote children’s picture books. It took time, but we discovered how to help each other. They taught me about plot. And we all learned that word choice matters.
Picture book writers must tell their stories in just a few hundred words. There’s no room to waste precious space with filler words like “well,” unless they’re part of the story. Every word counts.
But that’s true about everything we write. Readers don’t like lazy writing no matter where it appears, in an early reader or an epic historical novel. To research this article, I polled my Facebook community. Readers commented more than 200 times on the post, complaining about everything from verbal and written ticks (Right?) to misplaced apostrophes. Here are some of the ways word choice impacts your writing.
When Murasaki Shikibu wrote The Tale of Genji, she used the phrase “sadness of things” over 1000 times. Of course, Shikibu wrote long before the invention of the thesaurus (1805). Plus, she was creating a whole new genre—the novel. We can hardly blame her for repeating a phrase. We all have words and phrases that we rely on when we write. For me, it’s “began to.” As in, “She began to worry.” But the verdict is in: stop it. Readers tire of seeing the same phrase repeatedly.
Words can convey unintended meanings. Minnesota teaching artist Ashawnti Sakina Ford wrote an article about phrases to eliminate from the rehearsal room, including offensive to Native Americans like, “Let’s have a pow-wow.” Many words and phrases are loaded with bigotry and prejudice—and we need to think before we use them. This can be tough because we may not know that a phrase is offensive. This is why it’s helpful to get many different eyes on your work before you publish. In addition to your editor, hire a sensitivity reader. Ask friends to serve as beta readers. And keep reading about the history of words.
Do you have phrases that you love to use? Clichés can quickly establish character, setting, and time period. They can also make your reader groan, even faster than a pun. Romance author Jennifer Rupp cautions against overused phrases like this:
- They sat in companionable silence.
- (Fill in emotion) washed over her.
- Her eyes filled with unshed tears.
- She felt (fill in emotion) she didn’t know she had.
You may feel like avoiding clichés is harder than teaching an old dog new tricks, but…try.
Does anyone say that?
In searching for the perfect phrase, we may land on words and phrases that don’t resonate with our readers. Readers get frustrated with books that read like the authors had both a dictionary and a thesaurus. I mean, really—do I have to look up every other word to get the gist of your message? One of my librarian friends also commented about those phrases that no one really uses: “Weird body phrases like “arms akimbo,” “sucking his teeth,” “screwing up her face” annoy me because I feel like I never hear anyone say them, but they’re way overused in writing.”
Moviegoers love spotting modern objects and other anachronisms in historical movies. Like the Starbucks coffee cup in Game of Thrones or the water bottle in Little Women. Don’t forget the 18th century kilts that William Wallace wore in Braveheart, a story set in the 13th century. If we’re writing a historical novel, we certainly need to avoid using props and settings that didn’t exist in our story’s time period. But we also need to check our vocabulary. Are we using too many modern words and phrases? Do we have our Regency characters say, “Okay”? (By the way, there’s plenty of debate about the purposeful use of anachronism. Some readers are okay with writers who create characters that think and act in ways that are eons ahead of their time.)
Location, location, location!
When a writer knows an area well, they write about it like insiders. When they don’t—mistakes happen. Author and avid reader Jeanette Hurt caught a regional mistake in a favorite novel: “I love Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden series, but he once referred to the Kennedy Expressway as the JFK. No one in Chicago would ever do that, and it totally took me out if the story. The JFK is an airport in New York, not an expressway in Chicago.”
I once threw a book across the room because it used a word incorrectly. But I’m more mature now. I just sigh and read on. In my informal Facebook poll, many readers cited this as a main pet peeve. A few of the mistakes that annoyed them include:
- Fewer, Less
- Further, Farther
- Bring, Take
- Over, More than
- Lay, Lie
- It, Its, It’s
- Their, There, They’re
- Your, You’re
That’s what she said
When I first started writing picture books, my characters never said a word. Nope. They chirped, grumbled, and bellowed. My critique partners tried to tell me that real writers don’t replace every “said” with a snazzy verb. I didn’t listen. But your readers will notice when your characters protest too much. Unless you really need that fancy verb, use said.
Revising for word choice sounds overwhelming. But it doesn’t need to be. When you draft, don’t worry about any of this. Give the book your all—and that includes your worst clichés, best adverbs, and favorite grammatical errors.
Make a list. Before you revise, make lists of your quirks and common mistakes (e.g., I misplace “only”). It can be helpful to ask development editors and beta readers to point out problematic areas. Take a look at the items on this list. Then, decide what matters to you—and make a style sheet.
Review. Take a pass at your manuscript for word choice. This often happens after you’ve revised the manuscript for pacing and plot holes. Because why putter with word choice when the whole scene might end up on the cutting room floor? But once you have a pretty complete draft, take another look at it: can word choice help you tell a better story?
Because that’s the goal: to write something that engages your readers. And it’s hard to do that when they’re annoyed by our word choices.
The objective case pronoun “me” is not just baby talk. Especially when a noun comes between the verb or preposition and the first person pronoun, “me” needs special attention. I can read a story to my sister. You please read a story to my sister and me. I left my book at home. Mom left my brother and me at the library for story time.
“From” goes with “to”. “Between” goes with “and”. I will work from 1:30 to 3:30, but then I must leave for another appointment.
I can take calls between 2 and 4 p.m., but I sleep between 2 and 4 a.m.
“Either…or” and “Neither…nor” are separate pairs. I can listen either to you or to the tv, but not to both simultaneously. I read neither horoscopes nor letters to the editor.