by Rachael Phillips
The week my first grandchild was born, I stayed a week with my daughter and her family. Looking back, even her husband, a Dr. Doolittle clone, admits they owned too many pets. The birth of their beautiful baby girl constituted enough drama. The addition of a large, needy dog, whom I privately nicknamed Droolius Rex, and eight cats (a total of 148 kitty claws) in the house detracted from the main event, rather than adding to it.
In a similar way, pet words and phrases can diminish, rather than enhance a story. Like my daughter’s cats, 148 “suddenlys” leave 148 claw marks that puncture a suspense novel and drain it of its potency. Suddenly, readers fall asleep.
The overuse of another pet word, “literally,” and its cousin, “actually,” jumps on readers the way Droolius jumped on me at his dinnertime. Instead of being convinced by such adverbs, readers feel an urge to back away. Or chain them outdoors. Excess “verys” and “reallys,” even in dialogue, can produce a similar effect.
All pets exhibit a sneaky side, and words are no exception. Some, however, possess exceptional covert abilities. Words such as “it,” and “there” can take over a story before an author realizes they have slipped en masse through the back door. Before we know it, litters of “the” and “that” increase exponentially. Pronouns, too, can overpopulate a manuscript if preventive measures are not taken.
Perhaps you, like me, cherish particular words for your own reasons. I like the word “angst” because it sounds like its meaning. When I crunch the word between gritted teeth, I feel my character’s fear and frustration—expressed in streamlined five-letter form. However, my critique partner pounced on its overuse in my romance as telling rather than showing. Some people just don’t understand pet lovers . . . and in my case, that’s a good thing.
How about you? Have you made a watch-list of your pet words to keep them under control?