Tools for culling repetitious words from your writing

Before I started working in charity communications, I spent four years teaching English as a foreign language in Prague and London.

One of my first classes was full of Czech bankers who gave up their Saturdays to learn English. They were an intermediate-level group, so they could make themselves understood but were far from fluent. They were also one of my favorite classes to teach because every single one of them was enthusiastic and fearless, throwing themselves wholeheartedly into every activity I planned. We spent our Saturdays laughing together.

Half-way through the year, their boss (who was paying for their classes) visited to find out what they thought of their teacher. She interrupted my class with no warning and spoke with them in Czech, so I only understood the gist of what was going on. The boss asked them a question; my students smiled at me.

“Awesome!” one of them shouted, giving me a big thumbs-up.

“Yes, she’s totally awesome!” another agreed, also with a thumbs-up.

Thumbs up
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It was the moment I realized I always praised them in the same way. “Awesome answer, Jiri!” “Your pronunciation was totally awesome, Pavel!” Big thumbs-up from Katrina.

Yes, I’d just moved to the Czech Republic from Los Angeles. And no, I didn’t claim to be teaching them proper English.

We all have words that slip into our speech more than others. When they infiltrate our writing, it becomes a problem. There are certain words my readers nail me for over and over. When Kaki Warner read an early draft of my second manuscript, she noted how many times I referred to my characters’ stomachs and bellies. That’s where they carried all of their emotions. (Her stomach clenched. His belly knotted.)

These repetitions are usually invisible to me – of course they are, otherwise I wouldn’t let them survive the first edit. But once someone points them out, I see how obvious they are.

I’ve found a couple of fun ways to visualize my writing and help me cull repetitious words.

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How a small community can smother your characters

As a contemporary romance writer, I know that series set in small towns and tight-knit communities are insanely popular.

But there’s also a danger that, as a series grows, those communities can begin to smother the vibrancy of later novels and their characters.

This isn’t just a danger with small-town contemporary romance. It can happen in any series that focuses on a particular community, whether that’s the ton in Regency romance or a fantastical world completely of the author’s creation.

Here are the ways communities can alienate me, the reader, and my thoughts on how to avoid it.

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Discovering the book you wish you’d written

A few weeks ago, I sat down to read a book by a new-to-me author that’s coming out soon. The premise had sounded intriguing, but to be honest, I’d requested it along with about a dozen others so by the time I started reading it I couldn’t even remember what it was supposed to be about.

So I read. And I read. And soon I started thinking, “Holy crap, why didn’t I write this book!”

Just to be clear, I don’t think I could’ve actually written this book, for many reasons. It doesn’t have a similar plot to any of my stories. The characters are very different from mine. It’s not even the same subgenre I write.

But it’s set in the same sort of world I’ve worked in for years, a world I’ve researched backwards and forwards and spent countless hours writing about for my day job: the world of major disasters.

The book I wish I’d written is Hot Zone by Catherine Mann. And this is how I tried to console myself for not having written it.

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Attack of the overbearing body parts

Woman with a stomach ache
© Juergen Sack/istockphoto

For some reason, my first drafts tend to be dominated by one body part, and it’s probably not one you’d expect, considering I’m a romance writer.

I hadn’t realized I had a bullying body part until one of my beta readers returned her incredibly helpful comments on the novel manuscript I wrote last year. Throughout the manuscript, she wrote “Stomach again” and “Gut again”. My characters experienced all their emotion and tension in their bellies. Their stomachs twisted and ached. Clenched and heaved. Tightened and rolled.

When I told people I wanted to write gut-wrenching emotional romance, that wasn’t quite what I meant.

The odd thing is that last year, when I wrote this manuscript, I was under a hell of a lot of pressure because of family illness and unrealistically big work commitments. I told my husband at the end of the year—when the pressure began to ease—that I’d had a stomach ache for about ten months. The pain hadn’t been debilitating, but a niggling ball of stress had lodged itself below my ribs and refused to shift.

When I saw all the places I’d relied on my characters’ tummies to show their emotions to readers, I had to laugh (a belly laugh, of course). Writing this story was the only way I’d been able to relieve some of my own tension. My writing time was the only peaceful time I had each day.

And apparently I’d achieved that peace by transferring my own stomach ache to my poor characters.

Are there body parts that dominate your early drafts? Do your characters carry most of their emotion in one place? Am I alone in transferring my stress to my characters? (Please say no!)

The worst thing I’ve ever written didn’t kill me

Revolver
© Brian Lary/sxc.hu

In the months leading up to my college graduation, I panicked. What the hell could you do with an English degree except teach or go to law school – neither of which I was very excited about?

I took the LSAT, but only because I watched a lot of Law & Order and wanted to work with a hot detective like Benjamin Bratt. Fortunately, I got lost on the way to the exam and didn’t have enough time to eat lunch, ensuring I got a mediocre score and gave up the thought of going to law school.

I’d make a terrible lawyer.

My best friend was panicking, too. She majored in world arts and cultures, an even less practical degree (though she does know how to do a traditional Indonesian dance). So she proposed we apply to teach English in Japan through the JET program.

The application required me to write an essay, which I did quickly and without much care. After all, I was an English major so I could write, right?

By the time I had my interview, I’d forgotten what I’d written. I walked into the room where three people sat behind a table. One of them was glaring at me already.

Not a great sign.

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