Sunday, November 8, 2009

How Much is Too Much?

Like most writers, I can get stuck on a word or a phrase and use it multiple times without recognizing what I'm doing.

I'm not talking about "ick" words: that, just, only, it, as, was, had, been . . . you know which ones.

"Fisted" is a cool word that is unusual enough that one use in a book is brilliant. Use it twice and I begin to take a closer look at the author's ability to evolve.

"Sigh" I'm not so sure about. It's almost a word I glance over without it registering. One of my writing partners suggested I do a search and find out how many times I use it. True, I'd used it twice in the two chapters I'd just submitted for critique, but I'd only used it five times in the entire manuscript.

A friend of mine discovered, after her book was on the shelves, that she'd used the phrase "bear of a man" way too often.

How much is too much?

As a writer, have you caught yourself (or more likely been caught) using a word or phrase more than you should?

As a reader, are there words that make you cringe?

CR: I'll be cracking the cover of Urgent Care by CJ Lyons tonight.

It's all better with friends.


  1. Oh sure....and when a reader tells me I am committing this sin, I avoid said word or phrase to no end. Hopefully this is the editor prior to publicaiton but sometimes no, such as Tarmack....started using it for any paved surface until a knowledgeable person set me straight. You cannot land a plane for instance on tarmac and Tarmac is in fact a brand name and not the same as concrete or pavement. But the worst was in romantics scenes with the use of "the corded muscles of his chest" Lord save me.

  2. I'm not sure I would've caught tarmac, but I'll be looking for it now!

    Oh my . . . corded muscles and heaving bosoms. Close my eyes!

  3. Well, I don't like when characters sigh, laugh, or grin their dialogue, but that is slightly off topic.

    Fisted is a great example. Any unusual expression that the writer is so psyched to come up with--when repeated a few times--starts to wear on the reader. I think the reason is that this is the author being happy with herself/her writing, versus just telling the story.

  4. I think I understand what you mean about laughing through dialogue (did I get you right?) and it really can be a distraction. Especially if overused. I may have used " sigh" five times in my manuscript, but I promise you, none of my characters—not one—has ever "heaved a sigh." Or sighed words.

    As usual, you shed new insight by ascribing the overuse of unusual expressions to the author being happy with herself. That's not likely to happen with me. *grin*

  5. I plead guilty to using "fisted" - mea culpa. Thought it was original. "Off with her head!" And I think I'd better look for "heaved" with my sighs (which I have a feeling I use too much as well. Sighs, that is.)

    As to what I find annoying in reading is this phrase, or variants thereof:
    "S/he released a breath s/he didn't realize s/he'd been holding." I see it way too many times & multiple times in the same ms, AND from some of our best authors, no less!

  6. I went to a workshop presented by Chris Roerden (DON'T MURDER YOUR MYSTERY) and she handed out colorful pieces of paper with dreaded phrases on them, most having to do with breathing. Then she asked people to attempt to perform what was written on the paper. Too funny!

    I'm getting some comments on the DorothyL loop on this topic as well . . . one author says he'd tired of people who always "shrug" off their coats. Another is put off by those who "pad barefoot" (and btw, was actively seeking alternatives since she couldn't come up with anything better), and another found that the protagonist who "housed" her feelings . . . in shoes? . . . in almost every book in a series got to be just a bit too much.

  7. Right, I was talking about: "I don't think I can do this," she sighed. Versus: She sighed. "I don't think I can do this." I see that a lot.

    I do like fisted...once. And I can't come up with a single good alternative to pad barefoot!

  8. The ones that turn me off are "locked eyes" and "cupped her chin in his hand." Locked eyes? Can't you just visualize the padlocks? And if, while courting, I'd cupped my future wife's chin in my hand, she'd have bitten it off up to the elbow. Ah, the cliche's of romance writing!! And "tarmac"? Heck, I thought that was some kind of fish.

  9. I will forever give credit in my mind to the first author I read who used the word "fisted" in her book. But once is quite enough.

    I liked a comment Rhys Bowen left about padding barefoot. She said something to the effect that her characters would never pad because they'd be stubbing their toes instead. LOL.

    Okay, Donn. I have to admit, I can dig a few floating body parts from time to time, but locking eyes and cupping chins sounds a bit more violent than the writer probably intended. As suspense writers though, I'm sure we have our fair share of unintended cliche's and overused phrases.