Tuesday, December 20, 2011


In thirty years as an editor, I've found the same words blight and bloat the style of many authors. One of them is 'sigh'.

In real life, people who constantly sigh soon get on our nerves. Few folks enjoy the company of sighers.  The same applies to fiction: readers don't like characters who sigh a lot.

Yet, sighs creep into fiction and multiply like vermin.  If you're not on your guard, your novel soon reads like this:

He sighed....She sighed deeply.... He heaved a deep sigh... A sigh escaped from her lips.... With a sigh, she did this... Sighing, she rose.... He looked at her and sighed...

Moreover, a character who sighs  at the slightest trigger comes across as a wuss.

One sigh is enough for the reader's subconscious to file that character as a wimp.  Two sighs make the character a wimpy wimp. By the time your heroine has heaved her third sigh, the reader has lost respect for her.

It's raining - sigh.
Aunt Agatha is coming - sigh.
Little Laura misbehaves - sigh.
The kitten scratches - sigh.
Work needs doing - sigh.
Another Monday - sigh.
Life goes on -  sigh.

Use your wordprocessor's Find&Replace tool to count how many times you've used 'sigh', and then cut most of them.

By cutting the sighs, you'll make your writing tighter and your characters spunkier.

I recommend keeping just one or two sighs in the whole book: one for a wimpy minor character, and one in the second half of the book where your protagonist has real reason to sigh.

I'd love to hear from you. When you've checked your WiP for 'look' and 'turn', post a comment to tell me how many you've found, and whether you're going to cut some of them.

What other 'wordy words' do you think writers can cut from from their word diet?

If you have questions about writing style, or need advice on how to tighten your writing, please ask. I'll be around for a week, and I enjoy answering questions.


If your writing style tends towards wordy waffling, if your critique partners urge you to tighten, and if editorial rejections point out dragging pace, this class may be the answer. It's perfect for toning your manuscript before submitting to editors and agents, or for whipping it into shape before indie publishing.

This is an interactive class with twelve lessons and twelve assignments, for writers who have a full or partial manuscript in need of professional polish. At the end of the class, you may submit a scene for individual critiques.

Dr Rayne's Word-Loss Diet is much more fun than depriving yourself of food, and you'll see real results fast.

The Word-Loss Diet, presented by Rayne Hall. 1-31 January 2012
Deadline: December 29, 2011. Fee: $25

'Author portrait by Kuoke; copyright Rayne Hall.'
Rayne Hall is the author of more than twenty books in different genres, published under several pen names with different publishers. Currently, she writes scary horror and outrageous fantasy fiction, and tries to regain the rights to her previously published works so she can re-publish them as e-books.

She has a college degree in publishing management and a masters degree in creative writing, and has worked for nearly three decades in the publishing industry in Britain, Germany, China, Mongolia and Nepal, mostly as an editor.

After writing and editing, her great love is teaching, and she teaches online classes for writers: 'Writing Fight  Scenes', 'Writing Scary Scenes', 'Writing about Magic and Magicians', 'Writing about Villains', 'Dr Rayne's Word-Loss Diet', 'SWOT for Writing Success' and more.


Misty Dietz said...

Oh man is this timely! Yes, the Find feature is my best friend. It works wonders, especially when you set it to find all the forms of the word. Here are some other words I tend to overuse: gut, knot, raked, eyebrow, heart, breath (a variation on sigh), deep, just, closed, feel, practically...need I go on? I never use the word "throb." A lot of Facebook friends have told me they *despise* that word. LOL. I've learned to enjoy editing...it really forces you to think of original ways to convey something that's already been said a million times. Great post!! :)

Jennifer Wilck said...

I love the "find and replace" feature and have a list of words that I search for every time. And still I find too many of them. You'd think I'd learn. I'll add these words to my list as well. I tend to use the word "sigh" when I'm trying to be funny on Facebook; hopefully not in my manuscript. I'll let you know! Thanks for the tips.

Rayne Hall said...

Hi Jennifer and Misty,

I think every writer has certain 'habit words'. They creep into our manuscripts through the back door when we're not looking.

Even great writers have them. Herman Melville overused 'silvery' in Moby-Dick, and some sections of Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings are riddled with 'sudden', 'grey' and 'swift' (as well as 'suddenly' and 'swiftly').

My own habit words are 'actually' (for non-fiction), 'hand', 'face' and 'but').

But at least we're actually having individual habits words. For some mysterious reason, all beginner writers seem to overuse the same words. I wonder if this has to do with the Collective Unconscious?

'Deep' and 'breath' are quite commonly over-used words in beginner fiction as well. She breathed deeply. He took a deep breath. She took a deep breath to steady herself and exhaled slowly.

Other beginner words are: look, turn, slowly, suddenly, begin, start, could, that, all, nod, shrug, whisper, smile.

>She turned to look at him, took a deep breath, and sighed slowly.<
>Suddenly, he began to smile.< :-D

You may want to check if those are infesting your writing as well, and put them on your Search&Destroy list if necessary.


LRHunter said...

Oh, dear. Sometimes my heroines are quite wheezy! I've noticed that, even in books from famous authors & publishers, some gestures seem to call attention to themselves. One of my favorite authors has her characters raise ONE eyebrow a lot. I think maybe the reason she does so is that it annoys the POV character so much.

Rayne Hall said...

Yes, eyebrow-raises can be over-used. Other over-used body language: frowns, nods, shrugs, fist-clenches, lips pressed together, breaths/inhales/exhales.

A single eyebrow rising several times in a book can soon become tedious. At least the authors seems to have used it for the plot to annoy the PoV.

Many writers aren't aware how often their characters raise one or two brows.


If your heroines are wheezy with sighing, simply hunt and kill some of the sighs, and the gals will instantly come across as spunkier.

Nickie Asher said...

Ugh! I can't believe that crappy little sigh was in there five times. I thought I had stopped using that word years ago. To add insult to injury, lol, look reared it's ugly head 96 times and turn showed up 24 times. The ms with these little gems is 124k.

Nickie Asher said...

And apparently I don't know the difference between its and it's. LOLOL

Shawn said...

Both of my characters narrow their eyes a lot. Overused words, just, had, and want. One of my critique partners highlighted how many times I used had in a chapter. It was nauseating.

Rayne Hall said...

Hi Nickie,

Yes, those words are sneaky. Even when we've expelled them from our writing, they creep back in.

Do you use the Find&Replace function to hunt them down?

I wonder if someone could create a software for writers which flags up up commonly overused words, like 'sigh' and 'look'. Then we could just write our drafts without thinking about those things, and when we get to the revision, we would see our weaknesses at a glance.

Ideally such a programme should already contain all the commonly overused words, and also have a function to add a the author's individual habit words.

Rayne Hall said...

I think you know the difference between its and it's, Nickie. You just don't proofread your posts before hitting 'send'.

Neither do I.

These comments are meant to be spontaneous, not models of edited correctness. I'm sure that when you submit a piece of writing for publication, you'll have all the it's and its right.

PamelaTurner said...

Thanks, Rayne, for stopping by. :-) (Sorry I'm late. Life is weird today.) And thanks to our commenters/readers. Nice to see you all here!

Also guilty of the nodding, sighing, and eyebrow quirking too. LOL Every time I write such, I tell myself, "delete in next draft." Now if my characters would stop smoking and drinking. Just because they're immortal...

Nickie Asher said...

Yep. I use find and replace to hunt weasels.

Rayne Hall said...

Hi Shawn,

I know that feeling. It's embarrassing to realise just how often we've used a certain word, and it makes us cringe.

But that's what critique partners are for, bless them. They see the manuscript with fresh eyes and notice such things, while our own eyes don't notice them at all.

I'm very good at spotting word overuses in other people's writing - but not in my own.

Some years ago, a critiquer pointed out that I was using the word 'velvet' a lot: the nightsky was like dark sequin-studded velvet, the hero's voice was velvety, lots of things were velvet. It was really embarrassing, and until she pointed it out, I had no idea.

Rayne Hall said...

Hi Pam,

I think it's ok to use those words in the first draft, as long as we remember to take them out during the revision.

Living in the computer age, we find those words easily, and make the changes quickly. I feel sorry for the authors of the olden days who had to retype the whole manuscript.

Rayne Hall said...

By the way, I've posted an article about another couple of overused words on this blog yesterday:


You may want to check it out - but brace yourself, because you may get another cringe-inducing insight. ;-)

That article has received nearly no comments yet, and it would be cool if you could leave one. (But feel free to just visit to get your cringe experience).


Anonymous said...

I'm quite afraid to Find and Replace, even though I'm guilty of overusing 'look', 'turn' (also fingers, skin, and assortment of other words.) Taking them out will result in massive rewrites that I'm not up to tackling...although supposedly my mother in law is getting me a thesaurus for Christmas.

I guess the question I should be asking is just how much is too much? One occurrence of the offending word in every two pages of text? Less? More?

PamelaTurner said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
PamelaTurner said...

Rayne, Tweeted and left comment on Moleti's blog post. :-)

Rayne Hall said...

Hi rubberducksofdoom,

>I guess the question I should be asking is just how much is too much? One occurrence of the offending word in every two pages of text? Less? More?<

It depends on the standards you are setting for your own writing. How good do you want your writing to be?

I've counted the number of 'look' in beginner manuscripts I receive among slush submissions, and I've counted them in NYT bestselling books.

The difference is interesting:

beginner slush:
4 'look' per 100 words
NYT bestseller:
4 'look' per 100,000 words.

It's up to you where you want to position your writing. I'm guessing it's currently somewhere between those two extremes. You may want to move it closer to the NYT bestseller.

>Taking them out will result in massive rewrites that I'm not up to tackling.<

It's not as much work as you may think. Rather than involving a real rewrite, it's about changes at micro level, and those are quick fixes.

If you use the 'find' function on your computer, you can quickly go to all the 'look' in your manuscript, and decide for each whether you can cut or replace it. Then you do the same with 'turn', and so on.

If any instance of 'look' or 'turn' is too difficult to replace, just keep it.

Of course, it still takes work. It's up to you to decide whether the resulting improvement is worth the time.

If 'look' and 'turn' are your problem words, you may have acquired the habit of telling us every time a character turns somewhere or looks at someone or something. That's not necessary.

People turn all the time; you don't need to say that they do.
E.g. instead of 'He turned and marched away' just write 'He marched away'.

People always look somewhere or at something or at someone; it's not necessary to tell us that they do. If you're writing in deep PoV, it's implied that anything you describe is what the PoV character looks at. Especially in dialogue, it's not necessary to tell the reader that character A looks at character B, because it's implied that people who talk with each other look at each other.

You'll find that once you put your mind to it, you can cut a lot of 'look' and 'turn'.

Dealing with the 'skin' and 'fingers' may take more thought; they probably need replacing with synonyms. For this, your mother-in-law's thesaurus gift will come in handy. :-)

Leslie Lynch said...

I've got some work ahead of me! I know I overuse 'that' - and catch some of them as I'm writing, but the seek & find helps a bunch. I have an awesome critique group that helps me get rid of a lot of my overused words (none of which come to mind at the moment - but wait! There's one! 'Moment'!) Off to run through the mss with seek & find for turn/look... Thanks for the nudge. :-)

Rayne Hall said...

Hi Leslie,

Critique groups are wonderful for catching word overuses.

'That' is often overused, but 'moment' is rare. I think overusing 'moment' is a Leslielynchism. ;-)

While you find&destroy 'turn' and 'look', don't forget the sighs.


Anonymous said...

I'm not a "sigher" but I sure can relate to overused words. Right now I have a lot of "hot faces" going on in WIPs that I need to snuff out. Great post.

Anonymous said...

I counted how many times I used 'sigh'..only 6 times of which I removed and added something else.

Now counting turn, I found 36. More revisions....

Rayne Hall said...

Hi Maggie

'Hot faces' is an unusual one to overuse. I haven't come across that one before, so it's probably your speciality. :-)

How are you doing with other overused words, such as turn, look, slowly, suddenly, could, that, begin to?


Rayne Hall said...

Hi Mary,
Six 'sigh' in a novel isn't bad, though it's probably good that you removed some of them.
36 'turn'... hm... spread over the whole novel, that's not drastic overuse, and most readers won't notice. But your writing voice will probably be stronger if you use fewer 'turn'.
How are you doing with other overused words - any epidemics of 'begin to' or 'could', perhaps? :)