Several years ago while reading a favorite author I found him using the same phrase in a dialogue tag. I can't even remember what it was now, but it kept popping up, enough to be distracting. By the end of the book I found myself wondering why he or an editor had not caught that. It was so obvious and he was a best selling author too.
It didn't keep me from buying his next book, but it did bother me when I remembered what I had noticed in the last book and here it was again -- the same word. Surely he would have found something else to use. Or not use anything at all. Yes, we all use "said," but that is natural and it is one of those words we don't notice. If we say a character "grinned" on the other hand every time a character says something we are probably going to notice. Again, it is time to have the character do something else or don't write it at all.
As writers we probably all have crutch words we find ourselves using over and over. I have to watch out for things like "just" or "nearly." I'm not sure why but I keep throwing them in. I even put in "sure" more often than I should. I've learned now to go through and look for my crutch words and remove them or rewrite the sentence.
This is a long way around getting to the point that we need to pay attention to the words we use. I am teaching a class on short story writing and one of the points I keep trying to make is that when a writer is involved in short story writing you must be more precise with your words. Last year at the Tony Hillerman Conference in Santa Fe, a friend and I had a chance to chat with best selling author David Morrell about writing short stories. He told us he like writing short stories because they made him learn to be more precise in his words. They made him look for different, simpler ways to say things. And most importantly they made him look for just the right word to use to make a point.
This weekend my sister and I played a game with our ten year old niece, where we have to say a word that starts with the letter of the last word given. It's a simple game, of course, but when you have to come up with a bunch of words starting with "e" or "k" or "h," it makes you start thinking. And just as when I'm writing, I found myself coming up with the same words (and getting shouted down -- "you already used that") so I had to be creative.
And I will remember that exercise next time I sit down to write. Look for different words, remember different words, celebrate new words and look up things you don't know or search for just the right word, as David Morrell suggested.
But at the same time, I must issue a warning to be careful of the words you chose. I remember a book once where an author used the word "thrummed." Wow, I thought the first time I saw it. What a unique way to say what a woman is feeling inside. Then I found it again, a little later in the book. By the third time I found it, I was no longer thinking, wow, I was thinking lazy or confused. The word was no longer unique. It wasn't a normal word and while I might skip over "said" and maybe even one too many grins, I was going to remember something as different as "thrummed."
Words can be your friends or they can be your worse enemies when they aren't coming. But keep looking for the best ones. They are out there!
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