Thursday, September 10, 2009

Self-Editing One Step at a Time: Identifying and Eliminating Your Habit Words

Habit words. That’s what I call them. Some editors lump them into the repetitive word category. Others include them in articles about adjectives and adverbs. I’ve dubbed them habit words because they flow into our writing in the same way they clutter up our speech. The little devils were probably hard-wired into our brains when we were born.

Knowing that, let’s accept the truth. Our early drafts will be littered with these throwaways. Our brains (and our keyboards) think the words belong. We might not see them, no matter how many times we go through our manuscripts. Knowing that, how do we identify them, and how do we eliminate them?

1. Enlist the help of your critique group members, your first reader, or, if necessary, an experienced editor or proofreader. Once you’ve identified your habit words, keep a running list. You might occasionally find you’ve adopted a new one.

2. After your big story revisions are complete, and you’re ready to fine-tune your manuscript, open your manuscript file(s). If you have Microsoft Word:

Click on "Edit"
Click on "Find"
In the "Find and Replace" box, type your habit word to the right of “Find what:”
Click on "Find Next"
Case by case, decide whether to leave the word in your manuscript or delete it.

Repeat the process for each word on your list.

3. Since many of us have the same habit words, here are those I find most often in my own work and in the manuscripts I critique:

just, really, pretty, some, actually, so, well, back, up, oh, off, somehow, like, very, many, that, finally, real, rather, anyway

All of these words are good words in the right places. When unconsciously sprinkled throughout our story, however, they might lead an agent or editor to think we didn’t do a good job of proofreading our manuscripts.

Pat (Patricia) Stoltey is the author of four novels published by Five Star/Cengage: two amateur sleuth, one thriller that was a finalist for a Colorado Book Award in 2015, and the historical mystery Wishing Caswell Dead (December 20, 2017).

Pat lives in Northern Colorado with her husband Bill, Scottish Terrier Sassy (aka Doggity), and brown tabby Katie (aka Kitty Cat).

You can learn more about Pat at her website/blog, on Facebook, and Twitter. She was recently interviewed for a Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers podcast that you can find at the RMFW website.


  1. Excellent advice, as always. Oops.

  2. FINALLY. I'm going to link to this post at Flash Fiction Chronicles because really, it's just that some authors are pretty, well, you know, blind to these very words and always somehow use them. Oh, and "that" too. Many "thats" are really unnecessary if you actually read the sentence outloud. So anyway, I'm off.

  3. Well, thanks, Gay. We just love having folks link to our posts. It's really much appreciated.

    And it's always just an extra pleasure to run into you, too, Karen.

    Once we get a handle on the words we overuse, it should be easier to notice them, even as we write. At least, that's the plan.


  4. Very good points, Patricia.

    And thanks for the chuckle, Gay. Sometimes humor can really underscore a point.

  5. So. Yes, that's my one. With And a close second.

  6. I would add "but" to the list. Starting a sentence off with "but" makes it really stand out. (Cut the word "really" in that sentence, since I see it's on your list.)

    Straight From Hel

  7. Mine is 'that'. It's a hard habit to break.

  8. Just and that are my favorites. It's amazing how easy it is to fall into a habit when writing.


  9. Great points! I went through this with my revisions, and found my habit words were "realized," "thought," "clutched," "hands," and "gasped." It's bizarre what we repeat!

  10. I am SO there. In other words, I TOTALLY know what you mean. Honestly. That last one is my favorite. (If I didn't say it, would you assume I was lying a little?) The first two just drive me crazy when I read them all over the Internet.

    I honestly do ;) love the self-editing tips you all are offering, especially the ones that help us use our stinkin' computer programs better. Thanks!


  11. Did I mention the big advantage to doing a top-notch job of self-editing? You''ll experience less torture when you publisher's editor gets her hands on your work. It's really worth the time.

  12. "Just" for me too. I use it all over the place. And I use "really" too much too. The word "actually" stands out for me whenever I read it; it's an irritating word for me. I need to develop the same irritation for words I overuse.

  13. I TOTALLY recommend using the AutoCrit Editing Wizard. It finds all the words that everyone is mentioning and lets you know when you have overused them.

    The Wizard also helps with cliches, redundancies, pacing, etc, etc. I love it!

  14. I'm always using "began to". When I revise, I'm amazed to see how often my characters begin to do something. I find myself yelling "stop beginning to do it and do it already!" Funny how knowing what to look for in my revision does not stop my penchant for using it in rough draft.

  15. Guilty as charged of all the above infractions in the comments. BUT I have read excellent published fiction with all the echoes and modifiers mentioned. THAT being said, I do keep a list of my "echo" frequently used word tics on an index card as I work through my revisions. Two words I have the worst time with: THERE and IT....

    Great post. Gotta love the SEARCH/FIND/REPLACE WITH... and I love my automatic thesaurus on my MAC dashboard. OH I also used autocrit, BUT IT doesn't take into account writing voice.

  16. You, and this fine panel of editors, have been awarded the "Kreativ Blogger Award." Click to see!

  17. I have no complaints about this one. I spend my life getting rid of those words and I appreciate the list.

  18. If you've got a computer with the RAM to do this (older ones may not):

    1. Create a whole separate copy of your ready-to-edit ms

    2. In that copy, change all spaces to para breaks

    3. Select the whole ms and apply the SORT function (this will put all the a's together, all the the's, etc.)

    4. Copy and paste to a spreadsheet, use the COUNT function (or various forms of it) to get a frequency breakdown

    5. The hundred or so most frequent words will be the hundred or so most frequent in english -- articles, prepositions, conjunctions, said, forms of get, have, and be, etc.

    6. Below about the hundred most common, extending down 2-300 words there will be a mixture of words that apply strongly to this book (main character names, locations, some technical terms like sixgun, spaceship, or Mafia) and your habit words. You'll be surprised at some of what you discover -- that all your shots are ringing out, that everyone who falls over is flailing, that everything is tender or gentle or bodacious.

    In general if it's not story related, it's not basic English, and it's occurring more than once in 10,000 words, you probably have yourself a habit word there. Whenever I've used this method I've been astonished at the words that turned out to turn up too often -- like "turn."


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