March 15, 2018

Punch Up Our Writing with Word Lists

Magnifying glass searching words on a page

At some point in our editing process, we usually have to get nitpicky about our word choices. Maybe we…

  • used the word snapped twice on one page, or
  • named an emotion, such as happy, rather than showed what that emotion looked like, or
  • used a weak verb, like went, when a more active or precise verb would be stronger.

No matter the specifics, this step can be tedious but oh-so-important. Readers will notice (at least on a subconscious level) if our characters are nodding every other paragraph. Our writing will feel more juvenile and less alive if we’re not keeping our words, phrases, and sentences fresh.

Even something as simple as our verb choices can have an oversized effect on our story. Interesting, active verbs make our writing feel stronger. Verbs create much of the sense of narrative drive of our story, so stronger verbs improve our story’s pace.

I hate dealing with the tedious steps of editing, but I make myself go through this process because editing to use the right words improves our writing. My line editor has often commended my use of strong verbs, but that doesn’t happen naturally in the first draft. *smile*

How Can We Punch Up Our Writing?

We each might use a different process to check our word choices. Some writers might pick the strongest, best, freshest words while drafting, but most of us probably don’t.

Do you know what words you overuse or are weak? Click To TweetBecause of the tedious aspect, we’re likely to miss lots of potential for improvement if we just change words we notice during a read-through. After a while, the words will blur together, and we’ll only make changes if something stands out as “wrong.”

Instead, I try to break down the process by taking my ability to “spot opportunities for improvement” out of the equation as much as possible. In other words, I make my writing program search for the most common words that cause trouble with weak writing and/or repetition:

  • named emotions
  • telling words
  • gestures/body language crutches
  • weak verbs
  • useless/filler words

Editing Resources: Word Lists

Great! But how do we know what those troublesome words are? And what should we do if we find them?

I’ve collected several word lists over the years. Here are some of my favorite resources…

Named Emotions

I’ve gushed many times about the awesomeness of The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi of Writers Helping Writers. As I mentioned in my post about how the ET can help us avoid writing problems, the ET can help us show emotions rather than naming them in a “She was angry” way.

In fact, the ET‘s table of contents is a great start as a word list to catch named emotions. (Don’t have the ET? *gasp* Here’s the list of emotions included.) We might need to tweak the words to fit how we’d usually use them in a sentence like “She was…” For example, fear might become afraid, anxiety might become anxious, etc.

And with the ET in our grasp, we have the tool we need to fix those problems right in front of us too. *grin*

Telling Words

Marcy Kennedy’s Mastering Showing and Telling in Your Fiction is the best practical guide I’ve seen on showing vs. telling: how to recognize it, how to know when to show, and how to fix problems.

Even better for our discussion here, Chapter Five is stuffed with word lists. It includes word lists for more of those named emotions, for telling-style dialog tags like pouted, for telling-style thinking words like realized, for sensory filter words like saw, etc.

Marcy’s book includes a complete revision checklist too, so we know what to do with each of the issues we discover. *smile*

Gestures/Body Language Crutches

Jordan McCollum’s list of gesture crutches is a must-check for me with each story. Her list focuses on the cliché words that we tend to overuse (smile, nod, glance, sigh, etc.).

She includes body parts (lips, hand, eyes, chest, heart, etc.) on the list as well. With those, we can check how well we’re mixing up our body language and visceral reactions.

Are all our body language cues on a page above the neck? Switch some out to involve the rest of the body, perhaps by interacting with the setting so our characters aren’t just talking heads.

Are too many of our characters’ visceral reactions focused on “a bad feeling in their stomach/gut”? Find other ways to express their worry or dread (maybe with ideas from the Emotion Thesaurus).

On my personal list, I’ve also added: focus, attention, finger, palm, gasp, cheek, step, pull, and features. If you know what your gesture crutches are, you can start your own personalized list.

(In her post linked above, Jordan mentions her macro, which I’ll get into below.)

Weak Verbs

As I mentioned above, one of the easiest things I do (tedious, to be sure, but still “easy”) to improve the pacing and narrative drive of my story is use stronger verbs. The best list I’ve found of weak and frequently overused verbs with suggested alternatives is from Writers Helping Writers.

Many lists of weak verbs are organized alphabetically. With the Writers Helping Writers list, I can search for a weak or overused verb—such as get, push, or turn—and find other options directly below.

  • For some words, like get, we might want to eliminate the vast majority of occurrences.
  • For other words, like push or turn, we might just check for overuse and mix in other words for the same concept (like shove, poke, and thrust, or twist, pivot, and twirl).

Useless/Filler Words

Here are a couple of links with lists of other “crutch” words for us to watch out for:

I also collect word list images on my Pinterest account. I have pins for color words, texture words, how to avoid very, good/bad, big/small, went, etc.

How Do We Use Word Lists?

As we learn our habits and weaknesses, we could create a master list of words—whether named emotions, telling words, gesture/body language crutches, weak verbs, or filler words—that we tend to use or overuse.

But what do we do with those word lists?

  • We can search our story for words to avoid and see if we’ve used them at all. (Or some words might be inappropriate to use for all but certain situations.)
  • We can search our story for the words on our lists and check for overuse. The “Highlight All” option in Microsoft Word’s Find function will give us the total number of times we’ve used each word. Or we could highlight and check for repetition of words used too close together.
  • If we find overuse, we can tweak the sentences of some instances to choose a different word or to express the idea a different way.

In my stories, I try to limit a weak verb, such as turn, to only a few instances total. I’ll usually save those few remaining occurrences for when other options don’t fit or flow well.

Is There an Easier Way to Search for Words?

Doing all those searches can get old real fast. And I’m not a fan of tedium. *smile*

There’s an easier way to dig into our story with these word lists, but it requires a bit of technical hocus-pocus. Several years ago, I wrote about how we can use Microsoft Word macros to help us edit our story.

What are macros? At their simplest, macros are recordings of keystrokes and mouse clicks to automate tasks and settings within MS Word. We can save ourselves hundreds of steps by playing a macro with a few clicks.

Macros can be intimidating at first, but in my previous posts, I shared information to get us started:

If you’re comfortable with macros, my favorite one to work with is Jordan’s. And as I mentioned above, it’s possible to modify hers to add whatever words you tend to overuse.

I like Jordan’s macro the best because rather than just highlighting the trouble words, it creates a new document listing the full sentence and page number for every occurrence of each word in the macro.

That page number listing makes it easy to check for too-close of repetition as well as general overuse. The full sentence for each occurrence makes it possible to see cliché or repetitive wordings or where some places will be easier to change than others.

No doubt that my level of perfectionism isn’t for everyone. But even doing a bit of this nitpicky editing will help our showing vs. telling, our narrative drive, etc. Sometimes “good” is “good enough” without analyzing (or over-analyzing) every word.

But whether we check every single word or not, if we make sure our writing is as purposeful as possible—specifically chosen to get our thoughts across to readers—our writing will be stronger, more emotional, and more compelling. *smile*

How much do you edit for word choice? Do you have a process that works for you? (Want to share your process?) Do you know what words you overuse, or do you use word lists to check for common problems? Do you use general searches or macros or something else to find problem words?

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Jay Hicks
Jay Hicks

Jami, There’s a few GOLD writing craft purveyors out there, but yours is exceptional. Today’s post was just what I needed (as are most of yours!) and your masterlists are pretty much the answer to everything. You generously refer us to other brilliant minds and, to me, that makes you a super special person. Thank you. ❤️ x Jay


Awesome and so useful! My next step was already going to be checking my word usage, but now I can’t wait to play with macros. I also have a program called Little Red Notebook that I used for medical transcription. I hadn’t thought of using it in my writing. Thanks so much!

Clare O'Beara
Clare O'Beara

Thanks! I will use different words to suit the narrator.


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