I am infected by stars: a writer’s pet words

StarsPet words.  Otherwise known as words that writers unconsciously use too many times throughout the course of their novel.  Words that a writer loves the sound of, or the picture evoked by the word, or the fact that the word is ever so slightly obscure and thus show-offy in that ‘I’m such a clever writer’ kind of way.

The lovely proof-reader of What is Left Over, After pointed out that my two pet words in this novel were infect and stars. 

Constellations, starlight and starry nights were written about with abandon, a dozen times in fact, over 227 pages.  That may not sound like a lot but let’s imagine I’m using the image of a star to draw a comparison, for instance. If I do that multiple times then readers are going to start thinking I am incapable of imagining a simile that does not take place in the night sky. 

The repetition was completely accidental.  I had no idea.  If someone had asked me whether stars were mentioned in my novel I would have said yes, on two occasions. There are two lines that I specifically remember because I love them and they use a reference to stars.  Obviously I loved them a bit too much and tried to replicate my beautiful sentences here, there and everywhere throughout the book. Yes, light is an important metaphor in the novel and has been deliberately used because the main character of What is Left Over, After is a photographer but you’d think, being a writer, I’d have been able to come up with some other kinds of light.

As for infect, well I didn’t use that quite as many time – 7 in fact – but when you use such a strong word it really does stand out if you use it again.  And again.  And again.  The proof-reader very kindly described it as sounding like a ‘verbal tic’.  Thank goodness for the thesaurus.  I now have taint, contaminate, pollute, blight and several other variations of infect to provide the reader with a bit of variety.

After I read the proof-reader’s report and blushed at my ignorant repetition I spoke to other writers about their ‘verbal tics’.  And we all have them.  One dressed all her characters in crisp white shirts.  Another tended to describe everything as kaleidoscopic whenever she was going for heavy emotion.  Another did a Find/Replace in Word after we had this conversation and discovered that her manuscript was actually round, as she had circles rolling their way across many of her pages.

I also teach creative writing at uni in my spare time and think that screaming and sobbing are the pet words of all first year writers.  Perhaps this is because they know this is what I am reduced to after working my way through sixty odd short story assignments.  Last year, it was awesome.  Or in fact it wasn’t by the time I’d read the word in almost every single assignment of every student, not just once but multiple times.

I now have a post-it note on my computer listing my pet words.  It is supposed to be a reminder so that when I write, I will have the post-it in my periphery and filter out any infectious stars.  It is working.  When I was re-reading the first draft of my second novel Bodies I found a few stars, which have now become moons and suns and other heavenly bodies of light.  I’m just hoping that a post-it note will be big enough, that the more I write the more my list of pet words won’t grow until it is altogether too big to restrain with any kind of leash.


  1. Trin

    I immediately had to laugh as it rang true for me and I am clearly not a writer. In fact my Director and I have a laugh at each other every time one of us uses our own pet words. In my formal school observation report only 12 pages I always go to write …..at this point in time. It is totally unnecessary as it is a timed running recording method and quite clear that is is in fact at this point in time, but I just have this urge to write it. I now only allow it once per report if at all, and only for the odd occassion when the time isn’t clear. My verbal pet phrase to parents is … the reality is ……. I say it every review and cringe on the inside. So I too am off to look at the thesaurus.

  2. I’m glad to know it’s not just writers who have pet words. And now you’ve got me thinking about pet words that I say, rather than just the ones that I write. Hmmm, actually all I have to do is go and listen to my children playing Mummies and Babies and I hear all my words coming out of their mouths!

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