Yesterday I was proofreading a novel I’ve been working on for the last six years. Needless to say, it’s seen many revisions and read-throughs. To my dismay, I ran into a paragraph with one of my favorite words, ‘had’. I’m joking, ‘had’ is not my favorite word, but it is my favorite overused word. I couldn’t believe it. I’d been around this block before and thought the ‘hads’ were under control.
It reminded me of a post I wrote about a year or so ago on my love affair with ‘had’. I decided I needed to revisit the blog and thought I would share it once again as a reminder to those who have been following me for a while. I also hoped it would help those who have recently joined me on this journey.
On more than one occasion I have declared my love affair with the word ‘had’. When you use a word so many times it jumps off the page, you have a problem. It doesn’t matter if the word is used correctly or not. You need to find another way to write the sentence without using ‘the word’. In my case, that word is ‘had’.
What’s wrong with using the word ‘had’ over and over, besides making it an awkward read?
- If you are using ‘had’ a lot, odds are you have a lot of backstory/info dumping going on, because ‘had’ specifically details things that happened before the current action. In some circumstances, that can seem dull, or like the focus is in the wrong place. Why spend so much time on something that’s not happening right now?
- Using ‘had’ too much can also indicate you are telling vs. showing.
- ‘Had’ is also rather formal. People rarely say ‘he had put on weight’- you say ‘he’d put on a bit of weight’ or ‘he was looking fatter’ something to that effect.
- If it’s overused to the point that it becomes noticeable to the reader. It is bad.
For this blog, I’m focusing on ‘had’ because it’s a problem word for me. Most of us have them. They could be words like but, although, because, however, that, and if you’re writing dialogue–so(another one of my favorites that I know to look out for 🙂
To a certain extent, this is a matter of style. A lot of writers have these little tics. You may find a turn of phrase that you fall in love with, or it may be a word that carries over from the way you speak. It becomes a problem when the word is used so often your reader notices.
Recognizing that you use a particular word frequently, is the first step to improving your writing. Make some adjustments, but don’t get bogged down for a half hour trying to decide if ‘your word’ is really necessary.
The best time to work on these tics is after you’ve written a chunk of prose. Go back through and look for your problem word. You can use the find feature on your computer (Usually ctrl-F or command-F). As you review, check to see if the ‘word’ is really necessary. Read the sentence leaving the ‘word’ out. I think you’ll be surprised at the number of times it actually reads better without the ‘word’. If you have to, rewrite the entire sentence and get rid of the overused word.
Food for thought. I bet I’m not alone in my love affair with certain words 🙂