Clenched Fists in My Knotted Stomach

Lest you think that veteran (i.e., experienced, tempered, refined—don’t say old!) writers are immune to beginning writer mistakes, all I can say is, think again. It’s confession time here in the Star Rigger foundries, where we labor 24/7 converting raw words into story for our ravenous audience. I’m going to share some revealing facts.

My editor, in the course of a long email full of editorial suggestions, helpfully provided me with a list of words and phrases I used too often. Now, all writers have verbal tics—that is to say words and expressions that they use habitually, without even noticing. Turns out, I have my fair share. And with my editor’s list in hand, I used the Find functions in Scrivener and Word to, er, find them and see if I could root some out. Turns out I could—by deleting, by using other words, by recrafting sentences (usually making them stronger in the process). Here’s part of the list, followed by the number of times I used the expression initially (in the 268,000-word book), and then the number after I’d gone through and cleaned things up:

  • indeed 50 / 14
  • very 323 / 96
  • draw(n, ing) 68 / 28
  • drew 89 / 29
  • further 76 / 27
  • farther 31 / 43 (some furthers got corrected to farthers)
  • clench(ed) 27 / 7
  • knot(ted) 25 / 9
  • . And 546 / 209

Did I really use “very” that many times?? Turns out I did. Usually in phrases like “very much want to…” And the last one, in case it’s not clear, is sentences starting with “And”—not unlike this one. Sometimes that’s a very—um, an effective usage. Other times, it’s just lazy habit. I still haven’t gone through and looked for excessive em-dashes—or ellipses… but I will.

I spent literally days of the most tedious editing imaginable doing this. But it was necessary, and you will all be happier for it when you read the story, though if I did my job right, you will never notice.

Most of this happened while I was out of town helping with a family matter. I was intending on my flight home to sprinkle all the deleted very’s and And’s and clenched fists out the window as bread crumbs for the birds and the fish below; but alas, I did not get a window seat. I’ll sell them to you for cheap.


About Jeffrey A. Carver

Jeffrey A. Carver grew up on the Lake Erie shores of Huron, Ohio, but eventually settled in the Boston area, where he lives with his family. Currently he's writing a new volume in his popular series The Chaos Chronicles. Another of his favorite places to spin tales is his Star Rigger universe; one story in that world, Eternity's End, was a finalist for the Nebula Award. Among his stand-alone works are The Rapture Effect, and Battlestar Galactica, a novelization of the SciFi Channel's miniseries. By many accounts, his work is hard science fiction, but his greatest love remains character, story, and a healthy sense of wonder. His short work is collected in Going Alien and Reality and Other Fictions. As a teacher, Carver once hosted an educational TV series on the writing of SF and fantasy. A course that grew out of that is online, free to all, at In person, he's taught at MIT, Odyssey, and the New England Young Writer's Conference; and he is cofounder of the Ultimate SF Writing Workshop, in the Boston area. Visit his website and blog to learn more about his work.


Clenched Fists in My Knotted Stomach — 6 Comments

  1. In the pre-Cretaceous days, somebody wrote a program for me, for the Osborne I, that sought out words and computed the distance between them. Quite useful for determining if I’d used the same word more than once (without meaning to) in a paragraph. Only trouble was that it took forever to run, even on the floppies that held only about 30 pp. (A whole chapter!)

    Go you for not having “seem” on your too-often-used list. When I read a book with various versions of “seem” two or three or four times per paragraph, one paragraph after another, I want to fling the book across the room. (Not recommended when book is on the Droid.) I have a hypothesis about why this happens, but that’s another discussion.


  2. We are pattern beings, and so much of our language is actually phrases, not discrete words. This is the kind of fine-tuning that I think we’ll have to do all our lives.

    (And kudos to you for only one ‘literally’ in the post–and it seems to be used in its real meaning!)

  3. I too am guilty of repeated words and weasel words (just, very, seem, could, should, would, etc.) And repeated weasel words. I know this and try to weed them out in 2nd, 3rd, and 4th draft. But some always linger.

    I highly recommend to beginning writers, and some of us more experienced writers, “The 10% Solution” by Ken Rand. It’s a great guide to self editing. I skim through it before I start 2nd draft now. Helps a lot in tightening and strengthening my prose.