Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Pet Words

Today’s topic: pet words. A pet word is a word that a writer tends to use in his writing to the distraction of the reader. A pet word could be anything, such as just, so, was, inconceivable (I couldn’t resist paying homage to The Princess Bride with that last one). There’s a guy that used to work where I do whose pet word is really. He says it loudly and with a question mark at the end as if whatever someone said is utterly surprising. It gets irritating. We don’t want to irritate our readers.

Our brains are wired to use pet words. When someone asks us something, we answer in practically the same way every time. Only when we take time to think about the answer do we say things differently. Because we are talking to different people throughout the day, no one notices that we said the same thing as we said before. Also, different people have different pet words, so a person listening to several conversations may not pick up on the pet words. In a book, we magnify our pet words because we have one reader and the work of weeks is compressed into hours of reading. As we write, we might not remember that we used the same word several times in a few pages, but the reader will see the word in quick succession and every character is using it.

The time to remove pet words is in the third draft. If you try reducing your use of pet words in the first draft you’ll find yourself second guessing yourself rather than just letting the words flow. The second draft is about moving big chunks around, so you may not be reading enough of the story to find the pet words. When you get to the third draft, read through it at a fairly normal pace and see what words pop out at you. If you find yourself using the same word or phrase repeatedly, rewrite those sentences. Search for the words that you notice and see where else they’re used. Write those as well.