Meredith Efken

Meredith Efken is the owner of the Fiction Fix-It Shop, exclusively serving writers of adult and YA fiction. A multi-published novelist as well as freelance editor and writing coach, she is passionate about great stories and about empowering other writers to reach their full potential. Actively pursuing that desire, she started Fiction Fix-It Shop in 2006 where she has helped many fiction writers achieve their personal and professional goals. Her clients include award-winning Christian fiction authors such as Deborah Raney and Randall Ingermanson. She is also a member of the American Christian Fiction Writers as well as Word Sowers Christian Writers – a local group she has cofounded. Meredith currently lives in Omaha, Nebraska with her husband, Jason and 2 lively daughters.

Bomb the Barnacles

How to Rid Your Prose of Pet Words

Susan Meissner

Susan Meissner is Meredith's guest columnist this month. She is a multipublished author, writing workshop leader, and consultant for the Fiction Fix-It Shop. She has vowed never to have a character rake his hands through his hair more than once every 100,000 words.

Spend a good amount of time writing a full-length novel and you will most likely arrive at the end of it surrounded by a handful of nouns and verbs that have mistletoed their way into your prose, replicating like parasites, teasing you into thinking they are lovely, need to stay, and are part of the romance of your craft.

I’m talking about words and phrases you use again and again because you like them and they obviously like you. These are words that are quite serviceable if they show up only every 25,000 words but when left unfettered, pepper your story with bunny-like multiplicity, and you often don’t even know it.

A few years back, I had characters who simply could not seem to stop biting their lips and nodding their heads. Every scene, every chapter, every few pages they resorted to lip-biting and bobble-head-nodding. I didn’t know it, of course. I had been wooed by their comfy familiarity. My editor had to point out their obnoxious overuse to me.

I was aghast. It couldn’t be that bad, could it? Surely my editor was mistaken. Count ’em up, he said. Well, okay, then. Yikes, yikes, yikes. He was right. Not only was he right, but every time I reused these barnacle words, I robbed my story of punch. It was pitiful.

But, oh, so fixable.

A person who bites her lips is nervous, anxious, unsure, apprehensive, hesitant, fearful, uneasy. People in this state do many other things besides clamp their teeth onto their lower lips. They pace, they blink, they swallow even though they are not drinking, they look about themselves, they start breathing erratically, they massage their temples, they rub the back of their necks, they screw their eyes shut, they cross and uncross their legs, they run their fingers through their hair, they break out into a sweat. And these are just the obvious responses. A growing writer looks for unobvious ways to show human emotion. Likewise, a person in agreement often shows it by not saying and doing anything that indicates disagreement. Which is often nothing. Most of my nodding heads were erased because they had only not to show disagreement to communicate agreement. Which sometimes is just silently doing or not doing what another person has asked of them.

So hallelujah, that this is an easy problem to fix. But my word, how do you alert yourself to your barnacle words? How do you become aware of your pet words and phrases? One way is to let someone else read your manuscript with this problem in mind. Ask them to be on the lookout for repetitive uses of the same word or phrase. Another way is to make a list of the words—especially verbs—that you think of first when you want to describe one of the many human emotions. If the first word you think of for someone in pain is grimace, then do a word search for that. If it’s winced, search for that. If you think of shock as eyes widened, search that.

The best way to make an accounting of your barnacle words is first, “Save” your document. Then use Find and Replace to search for, say, nodded and replace it with barnacle. I’m not kidding. Do it. You aren’t going to save it like this. When Word tells you it found fifty-six uses of nodded, you know you have a big, fixable problem. Finally, go to all the uses of barnacle and replace it with appropriate action. Or close the document unsaved, reopen it, search for all the uses of nodded, and keep only the few that are absolutely essential. Fix or delete the rest.

Keep in mind, too, that when you use the same phrase over and over again, you are probably revealing an area in your characterization or descriptive skills that needs tutoring. If you always have your protagonist “raking a hand through his hair” every time he’s frustrated, then you need to stretch your familiarity with how people—especially men—handle frustration. Not only that, but always relying on raking fingers through hair to show frustration means you will never grow as a writer in your understanding of people and their reactions to negative stimuli, nor will you learn new ways to show anger that don’t involve body language.

Going on a barnacle hunt means you will have to work ahead to remove them. But the great thing is at the end of the search-and-destroy mission, you will have a better book. And greater still? You will be a better writer.

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