Letting my computer edit out the “bad words”…

I get a sense of completion when I type “the end” on a first draft of a story, but at that point I’m only half  done. My manuscript goes through several rounds of revision and editing before I submit it. In my first “editing” iteration, I fix the big things: add scenes, beef up scenes, flesh out characters. I do more rewriting than editing. With the story set, on the second pass, I watch for flow, passive voice, inconsistencies, omissions, pacing.

At some point, possibly the third or fourth pass-through, I hand my manuscript over to my computer to edit by using the search/find function to catch word repetitions, fluff, and even more passive voice. Finding these words on my own after I’ve read my manuscript dozens of times is impossible. I don’t see them. That’s why I let my computer do it.

Replacing common words with more descriptive, concise verbs will, by itself, perk up a manuscript.  Sometimes all that’s required is to plug in a synonym, although sometimes reconfiguring sentences is necessary.

I also use search/find to “de-was” my manuscript. Nothing compares to seeing 491 “wases” lit up in yellow to highlight one’s shame. I’m not exaggerating about the number. That’s how many “was” usages my current 35K  WIP contained. *Hangs head* (In my defense, five or six of them came from words like wash and waste so they weren’t all  wases).

Search  for and destroy these words:

really – delete

just – delete

that – delete

totally – delete

Was – rewrite the sentence. Flip it around to make it active. I’ve read a lot of good stories that could have been great except for the overuse of “was.” If you do nothing else, rewrite the wases out of your manuscript.

Feel/felt – show the emotion, don’t state it. An example from my WIP:

Before:  He’d intercepted her hurt glances, and that made him feel even worse

After: He’d intercepted hurt glances that jabbed at his conscience.

Begin/began – often characters don’t need “to begin” anything. Have them do it.

Before: He began to get worried she’d been in an accident.

After: He worried she’d crashed the car.

Try/tried – the same as begin/began. Often unecessary

Before: She tried unsuccessfully to call her mother.

After: She called her mother, but no one answered.

Look – characters look a lot because authors use this verb as a tag to indicate who’s speaking. Find a more creative tag.

Walk – find a synonym. Did your character walk, or did she creep, inch, stride, skip, flounce, glide, race…see the difference? Maybe she didn’t need walk to at all.  Maybe she left.

Made/make – rewriting these words out of a sentence strengthens it

Turn – ditto

Take/took – ditto again

Think/thought – delete.

Before: “I think we should knock him out, tie him up and ransom him for a billion dollars.”

After “Let’s knock him out, tie him up and ransom him for a billion dollars.”

Yes, in real life people say, “think” a lot. But fiction isn’t real. It should be better than real.

Know – the same as think  “I know he’s a too-timing loser, but I love him.” Better: “He’s a two-timing loser, but I love him.” Or: “I love the two-timing loser.”

Want – find a more concise, descriptive term. Rewrite the sentences. Examples from my WIP:

Before: She wanted to be there for her friend, but she didn’t want to pry.

After: A fine line stretched between being a good friend and prying.

Not – Added to a verb, not makes the word negative. Find a single word that means the same thing. Most nots will be hidden in contractions: didn’t, don’t, won’t

Before:  I don’t want to hurt Chance.

After: I hate hurting Chance.

“Ly” words – these are adverbs that end in ly: quickly, slowly, quietly, softly, etc.  Instead of  tacking on a modifier to a lackluster verb, find a strong verb that means the same thing: spoke quietly = whispered; walked quickly = sprinted, hurried, rushed.

When used in moderation, these words are okay. But relying on them creates a lifeless story. Sometimes, yes, you will need to use want, walk, look, just, really and even, was. But reserve usage for when no other word will do.

What words do you delete from your manuscripts?



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34 Responses to Letting my computer edit out the “bad words”…

  1. That’s really helpful Cara and it’s left me “feeling” extremely paranoid lol. Just joking it’s made me think. Thanks 🙂

  2. Thanks, Cara. I will be coming back to this list for sure.

    Ah…the “was monster”. Makes me crazy.

  3. Sue Lyndon says:

    I have a list of words that I search and destroy while editing, but for some reason my biggest offenders are toward, forward, and between. I use those three words way too much! Gah!

    • Cara Bristol says:

      I repeat”random words.” For some reason, about every three or four paragraphs I will repeat some word. It could be anything: pick, sleep, laugh, drop. The words are always different, but they’re repeated. I know I do that, so I have to go through and search for them, but alas, I can’t use the computer because they’re all random.

  4. This is awesome, Cara! How do you use search/find to get the repetitive words if you don’t know what the repetitive words are? Or are the repetitive words the ones on the list above? I’m a little confused. And yes, it’s Monday morning, which doesn’t help. 😛

    • Cara Bristol says:

      The “standard” words listed above are the one’s that authors repeat. I know (I see them all the time in books I read). But beyond that, every author probably has their own list that they or their editor picks up on. I used to repeat carnal. I now avoid that word like the plague.

      • *musing* I don’t think I’ve ever used carnal in an MS… I try to be conscious of repeating words, phrases, sentence structure, etc while I’m actually writing, but when you get going that becomes harder. Thanks for the list! I have a couple of “search and destroy” lists from different places. I’ll add this one. 🙂

        • Cara Bristol says:

          I always tell myself when I start a MS that I will watch what I write as I write it so there won’t be so much editing at the end, but as you say, once you get going, that flies out the window!

  5. My go-to word is “as”. I don’t delete them all but limit “as” much “as” possible. LOL

    Great list, Cara. I’m bookmarking this page!

  6. Karla Doyle says:

    Great post, Cara. My guilty pleasure while writing is “just”. I just love using it!

  7. Excellent post, Cara. Thanks so much! This is exactly what I need to be doing! Alas, my laptop will have a field day with the “ly”‘s

  8. Great list – thanks so much. I just was’d my 60K ms. and came up with 1035 wases. Holy crap!

  9. Pooky says:

    I love this post, so helpful. These are things I notice and try to fix in my books as well, however- sometimes, I am so anxious and excited to get my book out, I am afraid I might not be as thorough as I should in this stage of edits. Thank you for sharing this post. I needed to be reminded to take the time to do this.

  10. I have a list too, but I also have a method of not writing them in the first place. I set up MS Word to bold and color words like “then” and “just” (and others) as I type them. When I see the color + bold pop up, I change the sentence immediately. My style guide is extensive and I rely on the find/replace function for many abused words at the end, exactly like you do, Cara.

    • Cara Bristol says:

      That’s a good idea about setting it up beforehand. On my initial draft, I try not to get hung up on words. I could spend 15 minutes trying to come up with the perfect word, so I power through it, and fix it later. It all depends on when you want to spend your editing time — on the front end or the back end.

    • Thianna D says:

      ooh there’s something new. How do you set up Word to bold/italicize certain words as you type them? That would be helpful for my ‘had’s.

  11. S. J. Maylee says:

    Fabulous post, Cara. My first draft is full of weak verbs, stall phrases (started to, tried to), passive starts (there was), telling words, and then there’s as (the simultaneous one). I’m getting better with “that” and “just” thankfully. So yes, if I didn’t allowing myself to simply power through the first draft, I may never finish a WIP.

  12. Oooh, thank you for the gift of this post. Yes, I abuse most of the words on your list! When I edit others’ work, an easy delete is “very” – I doubt there is a weaker word in the English language. My other standard is to delete “the”, in my work and others’. We overuse it, and deleting it almost always make the language tighter and more powerful. It also has the advantage that unlike some “bad words”, it usually suffices to simply delete it without requiring a rewrite to “fix” it. Oh, look, an example: Yes, I abuse most of the words on your list!

    • Cara Bristol says:

      Going to have to add “the” and “very” to my list. Don’t think I’ll use the find command for “the” though. Gonna wing it for that one.

  13. I’m going to print this out and hang it in front of my laptop.
    This little over view of words is invaluable!
    Thank you, Cara. 🙂

  14. Excellent and very timely. I am saving this and showing the blog to others as I write.

  15. YOU ARE BRILLIANT and just listed all my foibles. Let me rephrase, 5% of my foibles. I make all these and more.

  16. Amber Skyze says:

    This is a perfect reminder, since I’m starting self-edits on my current WIP. Thanks so much! 🙂

  17. Hehe, so true, so true. “Just” is on my list of no-no words too! Another one I always search for and usually destroy: “little”.

  18. Thianna D says:

    Thanks Cara! Now I have a few more words to look through on my next pass through editing… *covers eyes and hits enter*

  19. Jade Cary says:

    THEN is my big bad word. Awful. Talk about hanging the head in shame.

  20. Laurie P says:

    Oh boy, now I’m really paranoid about my WIP. Is there a rule for how many times it is okay to use a word?

    • Cara Bristol says:

      No hard and fast rules. It depends on the length of the manuscript and the uniqueness of the words. Common words will be used more often. It would be impossible to write a book without ever using the word “was” or “look” or “know.” Write in active voice and avoid repetition within sentences. My opinion is if you have three sentences in a row that use “was” as the verb, that’s too many. If your character “looks” or “smiles” or “walks” in two consecutive paragraphs — too many.

      Watch for the repetition of uncommon words. If you were to describe a noisy room as cacophonous only two or three time within an entire manuscript, that would stand out.

  21. houston_switch says:

    Most interesting…things you learn on a blog about spanking fiction. Maybe someday I’ll read a F/m spanking novel… have any titles?
    houston_switch (at)yahoo (dot)com

  22. Cara Bristol says:

    Off the top of my head, The Dominatrix Fantasy Trilogy by Shoshanna Evers. But if you search for it on Amazon, and then scroll down to “Customers Who Bought This Book Also Bought” you see other F/m titles.

    (BTW Body Politics has a one F/m spanking scene. But it’s only a small one and it’s really an M/f spanking book).

  23. Renee Rose says:

    I totally overuse “feel” or “felt”. I definitely try to search and replace those too (hangs head)

  24. LA Cloutier says:

    Very helpful post Cara, I too will be bookmarking this page 🙂 Now I just need to figure out how to tell MS Word how to search for those ‘bad’ words you mentioned in order to highlight them all. Word is such an extensive, yet helpful program. I learn more about it’s features all the time.

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