24 October, 2012

It's Like So Totally Unnecessary...

In my last post, I gave you a glimpse into my little world of overwriting, by displaying a word cloud of my novel Thousand-Word Things, before the final edit.

One notable thing about this cloud, was the size of the word 'like'. It was big. One of the biggest - and therefore most commonly-used - five words in my entire novel. And this was after I thought I'd been really careful about using it. As I did my final pre-submission read-through of the novel, I managed to cut out a good number of 'like's and I was struck as I did so by how many different ways we use such a small word.

Here are some of the ways I spotted...

  • to show a preference for something - "I like your novel," said the literary agent
  • to make a simile - the novel was like a refreshing drink on a hot day
  • to consider two things as being similar (this point is like the one above) - the book was like another by the same writer
  • to replace 'as if' - it's not like the author was already a best-seller
  • to replace 'as' - the editor was unhappy with the sales figures, just like you thought she would be

Have I missed any from my list? What other ways can you use the word 'like'?

For me, these final two points were my downfall. I must have written 'like' instead of 'as if' a couple of dozen times at least. I should point out that the novel is written in multiple first-person voices so the tone is informal, though I don't usually have that excuse! In many cases I replaced the 'like', but in many other cases I left it. People don't talk with perfect grammar and when trying to differentiate between five voices, it's useful to have one or two subtle verbal tics or quirks to help identify a character.

It's easy to get paranoid about word frequency once you start analysing it. Sure, we don't want flabby sentences, but we also don't need to cut to the bone all the time. I'm pretty sure nobody would really notice 'like' as it appears in my novel (well, they will if they read this post!). There are so many other unnecessary words and phrases we use that create an amateur impression - unusual physiology (his eyes darted across the room), unnecessary directions (he looked down at his feet), double-action overwrites (she reached over and picked it up) - 'like' is probably the least of our problems.

Anyway, hasn't Facebook made 'Like' the coolest word in like the whole world now? That's what I've heard.

Is there anything you find distracting if an author uses it too much in a book or short story? (I personally find  over-used ellipsis distracting). Any words becoming a bit too popular for you? (It doesn't annoy me, but I find it amusing how many novels are named 'The _____'s Daughter', and 'The _______'s Wife'!)


  1. I suppose you could argue that "like" is developing an additional use, as a colloquial stand-in for describing speech: She was all like, "Have you read this novel, babes?" and I was like, "Yah, it's totes amazeballs!"

    I realise I may well get drummed out of town for that.

    Regarding your last point, it is strange how popular that particular construction seems to be at the moment. There doesn't appear to be a male equivalent, which is telling - is the world not ready for "The Pathologist's Husband" or "The English Teacher's Son"?

    Actually, those both sound terrible.

    1. That made me laugh :) I think you should definitely write a novel entitled, "The Pathologist's Husband"!

      You're definitely right about the additional useage for 'like'. I try not to do it myself, but I like so totally do sometimes. However, I have no intention of ever using the word 'amazeballs'. I am also resisting the urge to reduce 'totally' to 'totes'.

  2. Oh, oh. You'd better not read my work. I love ellipses. I don't think I overuse them though.

    I've gotten good at catching like/as if WHEN I'm writing. Usually I'll change it to as if, unless it's in dialogue. And I'm not good at writing similies, so I don't overuse them there. But I use like all the other ways you do too.

    Here's another one for you, straight from my WIP.
    "Hey guys, I’d like you to meet, Chloe." (And yes, if you didn't notice, Chloe is my main character.)

    So here, I used "would like" for "I want."

    Wow, now that I did a search of my WIP and found I'm using it this way, I think I'll add that to my list of things to change. Not that I need to get rid of it, but for voice. I'll pick one character to use would like and the others will use want.

    Thanks, once again.

    1. I actually quite like ellipsis too, but some writers seem to use them as a way to never have to end a sentnece properly!

      I hadn't thought of like vs. want. That's another very common useage. Perhaps I'll have to check my MS too!

  3. I noticed the prevalence of Daughters and Wives in titles. I suppose one success encourages others. Perhaps we need a competition for the most incongruous title we can come up with. The Vegetarian's Wife's Daughter's Nut-Cutlets? Or The Midwife's Son?

    I think you're right that the use of 'like' as an alternative to 'as if' can suggest character. Like any technique, it needs to be used sparingly. However, at this point you're probably too close to your own work to see individual elements in a wider context. You already know the story end-to-end, so you're pressed up close against the glass. That's how it tends to be for me anyway.

    So, what are you going to do next?

    1. We should definitely have that competition. It'll be just like the Bulwer-Lytton competition (for the worst first line). Hmmmm... The Bank Manager's Uncle's False Teeth?

      I am going to spend a couple of months editing some old stories and articles to see if I can actual sell anything. Then I already have an idea for another novel lurking at the doorway to 2013...

  4. You mentioned the risk of paranoia, and I wonder if that's one of the risks of using something like the Word Cloud. To me, 'like' is a common, uesful word that I'd expect to see crop up lots of times, so other than in cases of repetition within a sentence (which applies to all words anyway) I don't think it would worry me too much.

    However, call me an old fogey but in general conversation I hate it when I hear young people saying:

    He was like "Are you going out tonight?" And I'm like "Well I might", So I'm like "Make your mind up!"....


  5. it always peeved my dad listening to his daughters talk. we overused the word "like". it wasn't because we don't know another word, sometimes when we talked fast, it just came out... a lot! :)~
    new follower, great blog!

    1. Thank-you very much (and welcome!). That's just it - when you're talking casually and quickly 'like' falls in naturally - I do it too, all the time. I wonder when that started - probably only about 10-15 years ago?


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