Habit words. That’s what I call them. Some editors lump them into the repetitive word category. Others include them in articles about adjectives and adverbs. I’ve dubbed them habit words because they flow into our writing in the same way they clutter up our speech. The little devils were probably hardwired into our brains when we were born.
Knowing that, let’s accept the truth. Our early drafts will be littered with these throwaways. Our brains think the words belong. We might not see them, no matter how many times we go through our manuscripts. Knowing that, how do we identify them, and how do we eliminate them?
1. Enlist the help of your critique group members, your first reader, or, if necessary, an experienced editor or proofreader. Once you’ve identified your habit words, keep a running list. You might occasionally find you’ve adopted a new one, but you’ll rarely stop using the old ones.
2. After your big story revisions are complete, and you’re ready to fine-tune your manuscript, open your manuscript file(s). If you have older versions of Microsoft Word:
Click on Edit
Click on Find
In the Find and Replace box that pops up, type your habit word
Click on Find Next
Case by case, decide whether to leave the word or delete it (or even rewrite the sentence).
Repeat the process for each word on your list. In newer versions of Word, the information will show up in a left sidebar which is easier to navigate and review item by item.
3. Since many of us have the same habit words, here are those I find most often in my own work and in the manuscripts I critique:
just, really, pretty, some, actually, so, well, back, up, oh, off, somehow, like, very, many, that, finally, real, rather, anyway (also smiled and shrugged).
All of these words are good words in the right places. When unconsciously sprinkled throughout our stories, however, they tell the agent or editor we’re not self-editing as thoroughly as we should.