Teachers may have favorite students, but we writers have our favorite words. In one sense, I guess you could argue that this does less damage—after all, it’s not as if you’re going to be hurting the other words’ feelings.
Jokes aside (if that’s possible), this is something that happens to everybody. It might be a word. It might be a phrase. It could even be an action. I’ve been known to default to pacing when I need characters to think. I also like the word ‘yet.’
In my defense, how many words start with ‘y’ and are easily applicable in writing? Not every story can have a yak in it, and yodeling is weird.
To deal with these pet words, there are a number of solutions. In the case of ‘yet’ and other beautiful conjunctions, it’s probably best to simply limit the use of them. Too many (like most things, including homework assignments, chocolate bars, and stampeding buffalo) is always too much.
Aaaand, before we stop to consider how redundant that sounds, let’s continue, okay?
There’s always the option of finding a poetic way of saying what you want to get across. You know, the whole ‘show-don’t-tell’ thing. Sometimes, it’s easy with description to revert back to a word that fits a character. You might have a really grumpy character, but, if he’s sneering everything he says, there’s a problem. After all, he doesn’t have to sneer everything he says; or, if he does, then at a certain point your readers will come to intuitively know that’s exactly what he’s doing without being told. You might obliterate the word entirely where you can, but it can also be replaced with a descriptive word or phrase (i.e. ‘menacingly’ or ‘as if he was about to make a meal out of them’). Maybe not the best examples, but keep in mind I’m trying to pull these out of thin air here.
Now, showing rather than telling is great, but it’s not always the answer; neither is replacing words. After all, switching the word ‘red’ to ‘a color not unlike that of a tomato’ would only work well in the right circumstances, and replacing ‘said’ with ‘promulgated’ is probably just a bad idea.
There are also Ye Olde Synonyms. I like them (and it’s comforting to know that thesauruses actually exist for a reason). Synonyms can be a bit of a Band-Aid on the problem if overused, but the same can be said for anything (refer to redundant remark above). However, they have their uses. Sometimes, when characters talk, you can go without the ‘he said’ or ‘she said,’ but, for clarity’s sake, those descriptives are often necessary. To use ‘said’ over and over and over and over again would become repetitive, much like my use of ‘and over’ was right here. Synonyms like ‘replied’ and ‘remarked,’ as well as more vivid words like ‘retorted,’ ‘inquired,’ and (of course) ‘sneered,’ enliven writing and make it more interesting to read.
Everyone has pet words, and they’re really impossible to avoid, but there is a lot we can do to lessen their impact on our writing. I hope that these suggestions were helpful or at least mildly entertaining. Just for curiosity’s sake, would anyone else like to share their pet words?