Getting the Words Right

I had a great writing weekend! I’m editing my manuscript hard and heavy now. Now that I’ve got my files salvaged from previous computer mishaps, I’m really excited about barreling through to the end and getting this thing done.

This weekend¬†my biggest chore was “getting the words right.”

I always loved the interview that the late George Plimpton did with Ernest Hemingway in the Paris Review. It went something like this:

Paris Review: How much rewriting do you do?

Hemingway: It depends. I rewrote the ending of A Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, thirty-nine times.

Paris Review: Was there some technical problem there? What was it that stumped you?

Hemingway: Getting the words right.

I love that quote. It’s so profound and so simple at the same time.

In choosing the right words in a manuscript, sometimes the wrong ones jump out at you. (“Do I really mean ‘shuffle’ here, or ‘scamper’?”) Other times the right word is ever-elusive, and you keep resorting to some terrible word like “assessment” because it’s really the only word that even comes close to what you mean (even though you used “assessment” about two paragraphs ago, and you can’t think of a replacement for that one, either. Grrrr.)

Other times you know you use a certain word excessively, and you end up doing a search for something like “looked” because you know you passed your “looked” quota about twenty-seven looks ago. You get out your trusty Thesaurus and try to think of alternatives: He gazed. He¬†glanced. He studied. He regarded. He eyed. … Ayeee. … It never sounds right, and you end up spending an hour on a single, poorly described “look.”

And most writers know what words they overuse. We’re all guilty of it. I was chatting on Twitter the other day with one writer who said that she constantly overused “shrugged.” All of her characters were shrugging, she said. (Sometimes you find that all of your characters are nodding incessantly, too.)

What about you? Writers, do you have certain words you constantly overuse? And readers, who are your favorite authors for always “getting the words right”?

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0 thoughts on “Getting the Words Right

  1. In about two weeks when I start picking SILVER apart word-by-word I’ll have to do a serious look-up of the word ‘just’. I use that one a ton, and while I haven’t been so bad about it in novel-writing I’m horrible with the word ‘also’ in comments and blogs. I almost always have an ‘also’ to tack on. It’s just how I am. *grin*


    P.S. Also.

  2. My problem is, I never see it until someone else points it out. I’m trying to get better.
    I have everyone GRINNING. smiles, grins, smirks, they walk around with big cheesy grins all.the.time.

  3. Amethyst (beautiful name!) — Yes, those filler words are weird when someone points them out to you, aren’t they? So yours is “just”? Interesting. I found out that I use the filler word “little” an awful lot. I had to have a critique partner point it out to me, but then when I did a search I was stunned at how often I used it! Strange. Thanks for sharing. We’ll look forward to SILVER.

    December (another beautiful name!) — So true about someone else having to point it out. (Thank goodness for critique partners, eh?!!) “Grinning” is a great one — I can imagine how easy it is to overuse that. I noticed in TWILIGHT that Stephanie Meyers used “laughing” or “laugh” constantly. I haven’t read her later books, but I hope someone pointed it out to her so she could look for it in later writing. When someone points it out, it helps us become so much better.

  4. Ack. I’m a big one on the smiles, too. It just seems like my characters are always teasing each other.

    Meanwhile, thanks for the name compliment (I’m rather proud of my dad’s creativity there) and for–um, ‘looking forward’ to SILVER.


  5. I over use gaze. Walked. stared, regarded. Anything for looking. I hate the word look and never use it, hardly ever, but gaze is every other sentence. I need to get over it. My MIL pointed out I use the word Rake alot. I did in my first book. This one, not so much. So if anyone has words for looking look, let me know.

  6. Hi, Patti! Thanks for coming by! Ah, yes, another “gaze” and “look” person. I think I do it (not sure if same for you?) because what people look at — or which direction their “gaze” goes — can show a lot about them. If they look away, or focus on a tabletop while they’re talking, or study their conversational partner — all of those really show a lot. A “look” can show embarrassment, evasiveness, confrontation, fear, bravery, etc. It’s so revealing. So my characters end up doing a lot of it! I need to find some other revealing actions, though. …

    Hmmm … That’s another good post: Involuntary actions.

  7. Crystal — Ah, so you’re with Amethyst on the the “just” (must be an affliction for those with gem names! ha, ha. …) “Which” is a word that introduces a complex phrase, which I love too. <—- See???

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