Posted by: J. Thomas Ross | November 3, 2015

Writers: Eliminate Your Pets – Pet Words and Phrases, That Is

The Internet abounds with advice for writers of all levels. Scores of paper and e-books about all facets of writing have been published. Sooner or later all writers come across the advice that during revision they should “kill” their “darlings.” That advice has been attributed to a number of well-regarded authors, but the source is not as important as the advice itself. Basically, established writers recommend that novice writers delete their most treasured passages when those passages do not contribute to the good of the work as a whole.

In other words, writers should get rid of what doesn’t belong in the story, no matter how much they love it. (It can be saved in another file, though; that passage might be just perfect in another work.)

In addition to taking out passages that don’t work in the story, I urge writers to identify and eliminate their pet words and phrases, those default words and phrases they fall back on and use frequently without thinking.

We all have some – don’t deny it. Pet words and phrases abound in first drafts, but because of authors’ familiarity with their own stories and because of authors’ tendencies to mentally see what they meant to say, pet words and phrases can go unnoticed by the writer. This same blindness does not, however, apply to readers. Thus, a manuscript benefits from a reading by eyes other than the author’s. Critique groups and beta readers can prove most helpful in spotting what authors miss.

(Yes, editors can do this as well. If you want to send out or self-publish your best possible work, you’ll need a top-notch editor, and established top-notch editors generally charge by how long it takes them to edit a page. So, unless you have a hefty bankroll, making your manuscript as flawless as you can before sending it to an editor can save you money.)

Of course, every piece of writing has a number of repeated words. Frequency alone does not make a word a pet word. Articles, such as a, an, and the, as well as conjunctions, such as and and but, occur frequently in writing, but they don’t qualify as pet words. So what precisely are pet words?

As a critique group member and as an editor, I’ve run across several pet words that most writers seem to use, words such as move, turn, pull, and push. These words are action verbs, but they are vague action words. While there are places where they may be the best choice, for the most part, choosing a more specific substitute has greater effect (and is less noticeable) than repetition of these vague verbs.

Let’s look at some examples.

The verb move would be the correct choice if your character is changing her place of residence.

Abby moved to North Dakota last week.

However, if your character is changing position in a room or other location, a more specific verb is preferable and will avoid repetition.

Rachel moved to the window.

becomes

Rachel raced [or strolled/scrambled/staggered/etc.] to the window.

You can see how the revision gives the reader a stronger image of the action.

When the verb move is used as an introduction to the real action – as a type of filter that distances the reader from the action and slows the pace – it should be eliminated altogether.

Sam moved to intercept the pass.

When revising a sentence like this one, you have to decide which action – the moving or the intercepting – is the important one. If the point is that Sam intercepts the pass, then move is not necessary and should be taken out. However, if the point is that Sam’s movement is an attempt to intercept (which, by the wording, we would assume he fails to do), then moved should be changed to a more specific verb.

So the sentence would become either:

Sam intercepted the pass.

or

Sam attempted to intercept the pass.

Not all pet words are verbs. Adjectives, such as uncomfortable and nice, can also be pet words. Each writer has an unique set of pet words and phrases. To recognize yours, have others read your manuscript and point them out. Then you can not only search out and change or eliminate those pets during the revision process, but you can also watch out for and avoid many of them as you write your next manuscript.

Do you know what your pet words are? Have critique partners or beta readers helped you identify them? What do you do to avoid such repetitions?

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