Writing Tips: Find and Kill Your Pet Words

All writers have certain “pet words” that they use too much. Your job, when you put on your editing hat, is to find ’em and kill ’em.

Andrew Timothy Post scifi writer pet words

If you’re a writer, then you know that writing is only half the battle. The real blood is shed when the manuscript is done, the last word of the story has been typed, and the manuscript has sat in a drawer, ignored and forgotten, for at least six weeks (as Stephen King advises in his book On Writing).

That’s right, folks: the proof of the book is in the editing.

Volumes have been written about how to edit a manuscript. There are hundreds of lists of editing tips on the web. They all say mostly the same thing. Tighten up the prose. Ditch the adverbs. Chop out any sentence, paragraph, or chapter which doesn’t advance the story or define character. Use simple words. (And if you hate that rule, just remember that Ernest Hemingway won a Pulitzer for the short, declarative writing style he used in The Old Man and the Sea.)

But there’s one editing tip that writers often forget, and it’s this: find your pet words and destroy them.

Andrew Timothy Post writer USS Missouri science fiction pet words
…with extreme prejudice.

I could tell you what pet words are, but The New Yorker has done that admirably. In case you’re of the TL;DR persuasion, however, I’ll give it to you short and sweet:

Pet words, despite the name, are not synonyms for our furry friends. They’re the words certain authors like to use over and over again. I’m not talking about words like “very” or “so,” or cliché phrases and colloquialisms. I’m talking about words, single words, rare or common, that a certain writer will use over and over again in their stories. All writers have a toolbox, and some writers seem to have a preference for a certain tool above all others. They like it so much that they keep dropping it into every other chapter (or every other paragraph). It’s their favorite word. The word that seems to be their go-to word in any situation.

Cinnamon Andrew Timothy Post writer sci-fi
This article calls them “cinnamon words,” so…yeah.

If you read certain writers enough, you’ll begin to spot their pet words. As it says in that New Yorker article I linked to:

  • The word “sweet” appears no fewer than 840 times in Shakespeare’s plays.
  • The poet E.E. Cummings (excuse me…I meant e.e. cummings) mentions flowers more than a hundred times in his poems.
  • The word “tranquil” and its various forms was one of Wordsworth’s favorites: he used it about fifty times.
  • Joseph Conrad, who frequently wrote about the limits of human mental and emotional endurance, and whose novels often took place at the ends of the earth, really liked the word “impenetrable.” It was an odd day in Conrad’s world when one of his characters didn’t butt up against something impenetrable, be it a jungle, a desert, or another human soul.

I’ve noticed this myself in my own readings. If you’ve got a weekend to yourself and plenty of whiskey on hand, sit down and read through an anthology of H.P. Lovecraft stories. Take a shot every time he describes ancient ruins or alien architecture as “cyclopean.”

Cyclopean Andrew Timothy Post H.P. Lovecraft pet words
“Cyclopean” here having the meaning of “having no depth perception whatsoever.”

Pet words can tell you a lot about a writer. Unfortunately, if you’re a reader, they can also get old, fast. As writers, we are called upon not only to tell stories, but to tell them in an interesting way which holds the reader’s interest. Lazy writing can easily ruin a story. That’s why authors and editors tell you to seek out and eliminate your pet words.

I wish I could tell you there’s an easy way to do this, but there isn’t. The easiest way, in fact, is to not do it at all. Hand your manuscript off to someone else (not your mother, not your bestie, not your coworker, but a complete stranger, and preferably one with exacting tastes in literary style) and have them do it. A fresh pair of eyes will spot those pesky, overused pet words like you wouldn’t believe. CLICHÉ, CONSIDER REVISING

“But Andy,” I hear you say, “where do I find someone to edit my work? I’m an antisocial, introverted writer. I don’t have an Internet connection or a telephone. In fact, I live in a drafty wooden hut in the middle of the Atacama Desert so nobody bothers me while I’m writing. I survive by licking the dew off cactus plants and occasionally writing a press release for the Argentinian government.”

Andrew Timothy Post writer sci-fi blog pet words

Well, you little cactus-licker, I’ve got good news for you. I recently discovered a website called Fiverr.com. You can find proofreaders, freelance editors, and beta readers there, many of them available at dirt-cheap prices. (I just bought a developmental edit for a 100,000-word manuscript for the low-low price of $63. By contrast, the professional editors I met at the San Francisco Writer’s Conference would have charged me anywhere from $800 to $6,000 to edit that same manuscript.)

You’ll have to keep your wits about you, of course—caveat emptor and all that. Not all freelancers are created equal. But if you play your cards right you can get some much-needed feedback on your prose—not just line-edits but real, deep, profound feedback on your story, plot, characterization, pacing, the works.

So that’s your homework, my fellow writers. Find (or hire) a beta reader, have them hunt up and red-pen all your pet words, and then expunge them from your manuscript like the merciless prose-tightening beast that you are.

Andy Post, over and out.

Author: Andrew T. Post

Andrew T. Post is a science fiction writer, journalist, traveler, thinker, and blogger based in the Central Valley of California.

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