“Smirk”, and other words to avoid

January 25th, 2010 • Kate

brucewillisOne of my authors just got a revision letter from her editor, and I was looking over it, and noticed the following comment:

Please avoid use/overuse of the word โ€œsmirk.โ€ This is a description I see in the work of many new writers and I firmly believe that smirking is less common in the world than it appears to be from reading manuscripts. This is one of those expressions that should be used rarely and only when it fits perfectly, such as in describing Bruce Willisโ€™s face.

I have to admit, I hadn’t noticed an overabundance of smirking when reading the novel myself, but that’s why I’m an agent and not an awesome, detail-oriented editor.

But “smirk” is just one of those words that gets used a lot, along with “shrugged” and “nodded”, at least as far as I’ve noticed. What other words have you found yourself overusing? They’re harder to find, I think — or at least not as obvious as bigger cliches that new writers often fall prey to, like starting a manuscript with a character waking up or looking in a mirror to describe him- or herself.

Let me know your favorite overused words in the comments!

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44 Responses to ““Smirk”, and other words to avoid”

  1. HWPetty Says:

    I am the queen of overusing words. Luckily I have an amazing crit partner who catches them all.

    My worst offenses are: Even and Just

  2. Holly Bodger Says:

    OH, I made a list after my last round of edits. My "over-used" words included that, was, smiled, laughed, nodded, sighed and frowned.

  3. Andrea Brokaw Says:

    Blink! I just went through what I thought was a decently edited manuscript and lost count of the number of times I removed people blinking in surprise or confusion. It was like the MC had something in her eye for the entire novel!

    I don't think smirking is a problem for me… Shrugging, nodding, head shaking, and sighing happen a heck of a lot though. My MCs also seem to be preoccupied with meeting people's eyes, gazes, looks, and stares…

  4. Jodi Meadows Says:

    Characters breathe a lot. Or hold their breath. They tend to be *very* aware of the exact motions of their eyeballs.

    I find that it's often shorthand body language being overused in order to avoid tell-y things like, "She was nervous." Instead, "Her palms were sweaty and her heart raced and she couldn't breathe evenly." At least in my experience, it's a workshop-induced problem where people say things like, "Don't say she's nervous. Show the physical symptoms." Which makes sense, but the physical symptoms end up meaningless when they're mentioned on every page.

    Writers are trying to be specific, like physical reactions instead of tell-y emotions and smirk instead of smile, but I think there's such a thing as too specific sometimes. ๐Ÿ™‚

  5. allreb Says:

    I think it's basically the small gestures people use to convey… whatever, especially in the course of breaking up dialogue. Smirking, shrugging, sighing, blinking (in confusion, mostly), nodding, head-shaking, gesturing vaguely are my major ones. Which is basically everything my protags do during the course of every conversation (except actually speak). Looks like I've got some editing to do (as if I didn't know). Sigh.

  6. Carrie Harris Says:

    I have a severe case of that-itis (overuse of the word "that"). I'm taking medication.

  7. Authoress Says:

    Current MS: "swallowed" I used it so often that it became a running joke between editor-hubby and me. I got rid of all but one "swallow" by the end.


    Shrugged. Sighed. Looked at.

    A couple manuscripts back, I actually overused the word "undulated." Not sure what my fixation was.

  8. Scott Says:

    Well, everyone seems to have covered my words!

    If characters aren't allowed to laugh, shrug, smirk, nod, shake, or whatever, then what to they do during a conversation? I mean, my sister couldn't have a complete conversation if you tied her hands behind her back. Come to think of it, neither could I. So, how are such things conveyed in a novel without consider such words (i.e., actions) as overused?

  9. Webmonkey Says:


    And, also, "ook."

  10. Susan Says:

    Smirked has crept into my writing, definitely. But grinned has been worse. I always cringe when I find myself in that smirked, grinned, "he just smiled" and "burst out laughing" place. There's nearly always a better way to capture this sort of thing. I try to reach a little.

  11. Rissa Watkins Says:

    that is my evil word. But I did notice a lot of laughed and shrugged.

    A friend recommended using a program called cliche cleaner you can download for free. It will tell you what cliches you have or phrases or words you use too often.

    I plan on running my book through it when I finish with this go round of edits.

  12. Sarah Saville Says:

    Nodded, definitely. It might be because my current male lead isn't much of a speaker. And smiled. My characters seem to be smiling throughout my novel.

  13. Shannon Says:

    Blushed. Flushed. Red, Pink, Crimson – pick your favorite shade.

    My MC needs to head to the doc to get her blood pressure taken. She's going to pass out from all of the blushing and flushing she is doing.

    Bummed to realize that I did a newbie no-no. I've got the MC looking in the mirror [the author says as she blushes]. Dangit.

  14. Amy L. Sonnichsen Says:

    Lip biting.

    It's an epidemic, apparently, among teenaged girls.

  15. Larissa Says:

    LOL – Mine shrugs a lot. One trick I learned to see these more clearly is to paste the whole MS into Wordle. http://www.wordle.net/

  16. Abby Stevens Says:

    I use 'laughed' and 'smiled' a lot, and in earlier drafts my characters were always 'was thinking/was doing/was verb-ing.' I now use Wordle (www.wordle.net) to make a word cloud of each chapter. This helps me see if any one word is used too much. In one chapter I used 'eyes' waaaay too much, for instance.

    My MCs also tend to exchange glances/looks way too much.

    I think words like 'laughed' and 'nodded' can become somewhat invisible/unconsciously processed the way 'said' is if you employ them correctly.

    And Rissa, that Cliche Cleaner program looks awesome – I will have to check it out!

  17. Krista G. Says:

    Mine's not a word (although I use those words a lot, too)–mine's the long dash. See, I used it again! Yes, I have a long dash fetish. And I think–it's getting worse!

  18. Erin S Says:

    "LOOK"! A Manuscript Makeover reference book calls "look" and "walk" dead words. Couldn't be more right! When I went back through my manuscript I found my characters "looking" at each other a lot. Sometimes I could change the word, other times I realized it's not even necessary to include this action/non-action. Oh, I seem to use "realize" a lot too… LOL

    Let's just say that thesaurus.com is now on my web-browser's tool bar!

  19. callie Says:

    I swear, I've done all of these at one time or another. Except the eyebrow one. ๐Ÿ™‚ Lip biting. Shrugging. Nodding. Smiling. Grinning. Blushing. My character blushes a lot as well.

    I like rules. Even if I end up bending them, I like them. Wouldn't it be awesome to have some kind of guideline? Like, for every ten thousand words you should only use the word smile a set amount of times. The guidelines would have all the top words listed. That would be awesome.

    I have to say, I agree with the smirked thing. I haven't done that particular one. I noticed it in one particular book in general. (A published book) I was surprised at how much it was in there. Especially given the fact that it seemed to have been used as a synonym for smile. Which it really isn't. Smirking has more of a sarcastic/negative connotation. It was strange. Not one of your books here at KT Literary. ๐Ÿ™‚ By the end of the book it really bugged me.

  20. Karen Says:

    Wow, I just went through my wip and did a ctrl+F for the word smirk…glad to see I only had two in the over 100 pages. Then for shrug…I had four so I changed two of them. But nod…I had like seven of them!

    I love that posts like this remind me to check for my overused words. In my last ms, I think people glared a lot and grinned and quirked eyebrows.

    I just recently read a book where the main character was constantly "pressing her lips together"…guess not all editors are sticklers for overused words and phrases.

  21. Shannon Says:

    thesaurus.com is my best friend Erin!

  22. Kristi Says:

    That and just. My crit partner starting marking my ms whenever I used the word 'that' — um, there were a lot of marks! Now I use the Find function to see how many times I've used a specific word.

  23. Kate Says:

    Larissa – thanks for mentioning Wordle! I was going to suggest it as a great way to figure out what your personal overused words are.

  24. Shannon Says:

    OK I wasn't going to post a 3rd time in the same thread, but here's what helped me with over using words. Wordle is awesome and I found that I was using a lot of adverbs (big no no) and the word 'said'. My book was starting to feel a little Magic Tree House (not knocking MTH – awesome starter chapter books for kids).

    So I googled "words to replace said" and got some fantastic lists. The words helped me with other parts of my book as well. Now, the only adverbs I have are there for a reason and 'said' is very very small on my Worlde list. IMO, it's a good thing when your top words on Wordle are the names of your characters.

    Anyway, I have the list and can email it to you Kate, if you would like to put it on your blog.

    Just let me know.

    Off subject a tad – but the list has served me well.

  25. Stina Says:

    Yep, I'm guilty of all the above as well. Plus I have a background in physiology–especially respirology and cardiology–which tends to show in my ms. Oops!

  26. Wendy Prior Says:

    Grin, blink, fade and still. *sigh* Oh, and sigh. ๐Ÿ˜€

  27. Anne B. Says:

    My characters tend to "look at" and "turn to" each other a lot.

  28. Abby Stevens Says:


    Kate can confirm this, but I believe it's generally considered good writing to use 'said' instead of 'interjected,' 'hissed,' 'growled,' 'etc'.

    The word 'said' sort of becomes invisible, while using synonyms for said tend to slow the manuscript down.

    Then again, JK Rowling uses just about every synonym for the word there is, and look at her success. So I suppose it can be a matter of opinion.

    Do you have a particular opinion on this, Kate?

  29. Rissa Watkins Says:

    Shannon- I have read in several agent blogs, Nathan Brandsford comes to mind, that said is okay to use. It is one of those words that are invisible to readers. If you start replacing them with things like: shrieked, muttered etc some agents hate that.

  30. Tami Says:

    My characters frown. A lot. There are times when I’m searching for a way to indicate that a character’s frown has reached third-stage frownage when I realize that maybe (MAYBE) second-stage frowning should set off alarm bells.

    As far as writing in general goes – it’s not a word, but it’s rampant (RAMPANT, I tell you!)

    Caterpillar eyebrows.


    I have read scenes where eyebrows are doing ALL the talking. They’re up! They’re down! They’re quirked, they’re wiggling, they’re dancing, they’re taking over the WORLD!

    I think if I were in the room with them, I’d constantly interrupt because I’d be swatting their foreheads with a flyswatter. *SLAP* Don’t move! It’s still alive! *SLAP!*

  31. Shannon LC Cate Says:

    My characters frown, blush and raise their eyebrows an awful lot. I'm going to have do sweeps of those three to reduce each by about half, I'm guessing.

  32. Susan Says:

    I'm confused about shrugging and nodding. At this moment, I am shrugging to convey that, though perplexed, I'm willing to be persuaded. One of my coworkers is nodding as he talks on the phone to the boss to indicate that he is willing to do as he's told. How else would you describe these actions?

    My MC does blush all the time, but she has red hair and incipient rosascea.

  33. Patience Says:

    I wish Stephenie Meyer's editor had been so fastidious about the overuse of "chagrin".

  34. Shannon Says:

    Abby and Rissa,

    Thanks for the info. I've read those posts on blogs and other websites as well. I found that the words helped me find the places that needed more life in my book. I am finding that where I might write "I don't know if I will ever understand my mother." She sighed. – that I can find better ways to describe the sigh, or better words to describe "sigh."

    No worries. I am happy to share the list with anyone who is interested. ๐Ÿ™‚

  35. Ria Says:

    You know, I nod a lot in conversation. I shrug, I smile, I duck my head, I cross my arms, and yes, I smirk…I mean, this is important nonverbal stuff that goes on. I appreciate the concept behind scrubbing them out of your narration, but for heaven's sake, what else are we supposed to do? Employ Harlequin-purple prose and start saying "he lowered his chin to his chest and raised it again sharply to indicate agreement"? People nod! Can I not let them do it in fiction?

  36. Julia Says:

    *reads comments*

    *slinks back to computer to do major word replacements*

  37. Rachel Says:

    After reading this post, I went home and searched for the above mentioned words in my manuscript. I had some version of "look" 300 times! I was able to remove 250. I only had smirk 5 times, so my characters do a lot of staring at each other with little sarcastic grinning. Thanks for the tips!

  38. Alicia Says:

    My characters are forever rolling their eyes and heaving sighs at each other. How annoying!

    This post and all the comments were awesome – I now have a whole list to search for when I get to the polishing stage. Thanks!

  39. Stephanie Says:

    My lead male character does an awful lot of shrugging! I'll have to go work on that.

    Also, Rissa, can you please display the link for the cliche cleaner you spoke of? I am very interested in trying it out. I Googled (naturally), but only found one, and it isn't free. I will take the other suggestions and use Wordle. I'm eagerly trying to condense my novel at the moment.

  40. Abby Stevens Says:

    I agree, Ria. I think the trick is just not overusing anything to the point it becomes distracting. Then again, whoever that editor is could just be very picky. I am not entirely certain that the author would have to comply with the editor's note (?).

  41. Mary Says:

    I laughed when I saw this because I have a good friend I beta for who uses that word in relation to her protagonist. I've tried persuading her that the word is best left for the evil characters, if she simply must use it. As soon as I read about her strong, handsome mc smirking, I want to slap him. Blech! Good guys should never smirk!

    As far as overusing words, I noticed that my characters nod a lot. They are very agreeable, apparently.

  42. Suzanne Casamento Says:

    One of the writers in my critique group pointed out that my main character "bolted" a lot. She bolted up in bed, down the hall, across the lawn, to the front door. I used the find function in Word and found (and replaced) it 19 times!

    Thank goodness for critique groups.

  43. Kate Says:

    The key to remember with these words isn't that they ALL have to go — to respond to Ria, sometimes the simplest word is the best, and you can have your characters "nod", "Smirk", and "shrug". But it's when they're OVERUSED that you need to be wary. Not every find-and-replace needs to result in changing the word, but it gives you something to consider changing, if you need to.

  44. Rissa Watkins Says:

    Sorry wasn't thinking when I mentioned it.

    Here is the link. I used the demo version so it's free- but you only get 20 chances to use it I think.