When someone or something is missing, authorities will set up a search pattern or search grid in an effort to systematically comb an area for that missing person or thing, clues to their whereabouts, and so on. You can and should do the same with your first draft.

I’ve made a list of words or phrases to look for, and before you start to panic, realizing this is going to take a long time, I urge you not to panic, and reinforce that, yes, this might take a long time. If you’ve written a short story, it will be much less time than if you’ve written a 250,000-word epic fantasy novel, but this once again falls under the header of “no one told you this was going to be easy.” This is as important a step in your own revision process as anything else.

It starts simple. Just search for the word or words from the list below. When (if) you find that word in your manuscript, stop and read around it so you can see it in context. Next, think about it. Is it okay? It very well may be. Or maybe you groan and say, “Ugh, I can’t believe I did that.” Next, think about how to change it for the better.

But in any case, do not set up a search-and-replace routine. This is not a blind, fast process, this is an eyes-wide-open, careful process that requires your attention, creativity, and honesty.

And when I say honesty, I mean, be honest with yourself about your own “tweaks” as I call them. We all have words we over-use, things that drop in without our being conscious of them. I’ll share a few of my own here. If you’ve heard from an editor or beta reader that you tend to use, like me, “just” over and over again, just (see what I did there?) add it to your list, search for it, and force yourself to see the word in the sentence. If you’re reading through, you probably won’t notice it at all, any more than you noticed it while you were writing in the first place. The point of this is to confront yourself with over-used words, passive constructs, lazy writing, and so on.

I’ll separate these into sections and refer back to previous posts that will get deeper into certain concepts, starting with my writing tweaks



seemed to

sort of

Why do I use these words or phrases too much? I have no idea. And the “why” doesn’t even matter. They just seemed to show up and I just sort of have to actually find them and make them go away, or leave them when they’re correct and say what I want to say how I want to say it. Next: The Hobgoblins of Genre Writing:





These are perfectly “legal” words that still should be used sparingly if at all. Don’t believe me? Read this post and I hope you will. If you read this instantly you will immediately get it and suddenly you’ll want to abruptly stop using these words. These can often be handled by simply deleting the offending word, letting the relative suddenness of an action or event be conveyed by context. Another slightly less challenging search result will look for this passive construction:

was (-ing)

This will likely be a laborious search, especially if your novel is written in third person, but painful as it may be, do it anyway! What you’re looking for here is what I call “someone was verbing.” Though you’ll have to flip through a lot of perfectly correct instances of “was” to find these, once you get to “Galen was firing arrows into the ogre horde,” the change to “Galen fired arrows into the ogre horde,” is easy to complete. You might have a slightly more difficult time with the passive constructs:

could feel

could hear

could see

could smell

could taste

These are also perfectly correct phrases, but they often have a tendency to push your readers back from your story in that you are describing the POV character smelling something instead of showing him smell something. Not the easiest distinction to grab, but find more on that here. Like “was verbing,” once you find these, the edit is usually as easy as turning “Bronwyn could hear the banshee scream,” to “Bronwyn heard the banshee scream.” Voila!

The next one can be tough as well, which is the search for the word “that,” particularly:

that were

that was

But look at all instances of “that.” Like “was” you’ll find “that” all over the place and most of the time it will be exactly the right word in that context. But start by reading my full rant on “that”, then think about it in more or less the same terms as “something was verbing.” Can you say what you’re trying to say more directly, thereby showing this thing in the POV character’s direct experience rather than as an after-the-fact report of the POV character’s experience?

And lastly, a couple of bonus search items…


There are editors who will try to remove any and every instance of the word “very” from your manuscript and though I’m not one of those editors, more and more I’m starting to think they might be onto something. Have you described something as “very quiet”? Could that be “barely audible” instead? Chances are there is an existing adjective that means the “very” state of another adjective. Could “very large” turn into “huge”? 

And speaking of large:


Search for that. Take it out. I don’t know why but it just reads as awful to me. “There was a large door at the end of the hallway.” Okay, that’s fair, but read my anti-large diatribe and maybe join me as a member of the Anti-Large League of America.

And there are more. Please replace “nodded his head” with “nodded.” You’ll also have to search for “nodded her head,” and “maybe nodded their heads,” but really, what else but your head do you nod? What else but your eyes do you blink? And so on. This was actually the subject of one of the very first Fantasy Author’s Handbook posts.

I know this sounds like a lot of passes through—all of them as individual searches and none of them easily handled by the same replacement, but spend this time. Your writing deserves it, you deserve it, your editor and your readers deserve it. Do the work!

—Philip Athans

Follow me on Twitter @PhilAthans

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Or contact me for editing, coaching, ghostwriting, and more at Athans & Associates Creative Consulting.

About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, ( is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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  1. Dawn Ross says:

    I love how you used the overused words in your explanations! 😀 I struggled with was -ing words for a while, but I’ve learned to catch them as I write. I continue to struggle with filler words like actually and just. Other filler words I tend to overuse include only, really, and still.

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  3. Great list! My personal downfall is “and then”. I don’t know why it won’t stick in my head that using both is redundant.

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