Ten Mistakes Writers Don’t See (But Can Easily Fix When They Do)
Like many editorial consultants, I’ve been concerned about the amount of time I’ve been spending on easy fixes that the author shouldn’t have to pay for.
Sometimes the question of where to put a comma, how to use a verb or why not to repeat a word can be important, even strategic. But most of the time the author either missed that day’s grammar lesson in elementary school or is too close to the manuscript to make corrections before I see it.
So the following is a list I’ll be referring to people *before* they submit anything in writing to anybody (me, agent, publisher, your mom, your boss). From email messages and front-page news in the New York Times to published books and magazine articles, the 10 ouchies listed here crop up everywhere. They’re so pernicious that even respected Internet columnists are not immune.
The list also could be called, “10 COMMON PROBLEMS THAT DISMISS YOU AS AN AMATEUR,” because these mistakes are obvious to literary agents and editors, who may start wording their decline letter by page 5. What a tragedy that would be.
So here we go:
Just about every writer unconsciously leans on a “crutch” word. Hillary
Clinton’s repeated word is “eager” (can you believe it? the committee
that wrote Living History should be ashamed). Cosmopolitan magazine
editor Kate White uses “quickly” over a dozen times in A Body To Die
For. Jack Kerouac’s crutch word in On the Road is “sad,” sometimes
doubly so - “sad, sad.” Ann Packer’s in The Dive from Clausen’s Pier
Crutch words are usually unremarkable. That’s why they slip under
editorial radar - they’re not even worth repeating, but there you have
it, pop, pop, pop, up they come. Readers, however, notice them, get
irked by them and are eventually distracted by them, and down goes your
book, never to be opened again.
But even if the word is unusual, and even if you use it differently when
you repeat it, don’t: Set a higher standard for yourself even if readers
won’t notice. In Jennifer Egan’s Look at me, the core word - a good
word, but because it’s good, you get *one* per book - is “abraded.”
Here’s the problem:
“Victoria’s blue gaze abraded me with the texture of ground glass.” page 202
“…(metal trucks abrading the concrete)…” page 217
“…he relished the abrasion of her skepticism…” page 256
“…since his abrasion with Z …” page 272
The same goes for repeats of several words together - a phrase or
sentence that may seem fresh at first, but, restated many times, draws
attention from the author’s strengths. Sheldon Siegel nearly bludgeons
us in his otherwise witty and articulate courtroom thriller, Final
Verdict, with a sentence construction that’s repeated throughout the
“His tone oozes self-righteousness when he says…” page 188
“His voice is barely audible when he says…” page 193
“His tone is unapologetic when he says…” page 199
“Rosie keeps her tone even when she says…” page 200
“His tone is even when he says…” page 205
“I switch to my lawyer voice when I say …” page 211
“He sounds like Grace when he says…” page 211
What a tragedy. I’m not saying all forms of this sentence should be
lopped off. Lawyers find their rhythm in the courtroom by phrasing
questions in the same or similar way. It’s just that you can’t do it too
often on the page. After the third or fourth or 16th time, readers
exclaim silently, “Where was the editor who shoulda caught this?” or
“What was the author thinking?
1. So if you are the author, don’t wait for the agent or house or even editorial consultant to catch this stuff *for* you. Attune your eye now. Vow to yourself, NO REPEATS.
And by the way, even deliberate repeats should always be questioned: “Here are the documents.” says one character. “If these are the documents, I’ll oppose you,” says another. A repeat like that just keeps us on the surface. Figure out a different word; or rewrite the exchange. Repeats rarely allow you to probe deeper.
2. FLAT WRITING
“He wanted to know but couldn’t understand what she had to say, so he waited until she was ready to tell him before asking what she meant.”
Something is conveyed in this sentence, but who cares? The writing is so flat, it just dies on the page. You can’t fix it with a few replacement words - you have to give it depth, texture, character. Here’s another:
“Bob looked at the clock and wondered if he would have time to stop for gas before driving to school to pick up his son after band practice.” True, this could be important - his wife might have hired a private investigator to document Bob’s inability to pick up his son on time - and it could be that making the sentence bland invests it with more tension. (This is the editorial consultant giving you the benefit of the doubt.) Most of the time, though, a sentence like this acts as filler. It gets us from A to B, all right, but not if we go to the kitchen to make a sandwich and find something else to read when we sit down.
Flat writing is a sign that you’ve lost interest or are intimidated by your own narrative. It shows that you’re veering toward mediocrity, that your brain is fatigued, that you’ve lost your inspiration. So use it as a lesson. When you see flat writing on the page, it’s time to rethink, refuel and rewrite.
3. EMPTY ADVERBS
Actually, totally, absolutely, completely, continually, constantly, continuously, literally, really, unfortunately, ironically, incredibly, hopefully, finally - these and others are words that promise emphasis, but too often they do the reverse. They suck the meaning out of every sentence.
I defer to People Magazine for larding its articles with empty adverbs. A recent issue refers to an “incredibly popular, groundbreakingly racy sitcom.” That’s tough to say even when your lips aren’t moving.
In Still Life with Crows, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child describe a mysterious row of corn in the middle of a field: “It was, in fact, the only row that actually opened onto the creek.” Here are two attempts at emphasis (”in fact,” “actually”), but they just junk up the sentence. Remove them both and the word “only” carries the burden of the sentence with efficiency and precision.
(When in doubt, try this mantra: Precise and spare; precise and spare; precise and spare.)
In dialogue, empty adverbs may sound appropriate, even authentic, but that’s because they’ve crept into American conversation in a trendy way. If you’re not watchful, they’ll make your characters sound wordy, infantile and dated.
In Julia Glass’s Three Junes, a character named Stavros is a forthright and matter-of-fact guy who talks to his lover without pretense or affectation. But when he mentions an offbeat tourist souvenir, he says, “It’s absolutely wild. I love it.” Now he sounds fey, spoiled, superficial.. (Granted, “wild” nearly does him in; but “absolutely” is the killer.)
The word “actually” seems to emerge most frequently, I find. Ann Packer’s narrator recalls running in the rain with her boyfriend, “his hand clasping mine as if he could actually make me go fast.” Delete “actually” and the sentence is more powerful without it.
The same holds true when the protagonist named Miles hears some information in Empire Falls by Richard Russo. “Actually, Miles had no doubt of it,” we’re told. Well, if he had no doubt, remove “actually” - it’s cleaner, clearer that way. “Actually” mushes up sentence after sentence; it gets in the way every time. I now think it should *never* be used.
Another problem with empty adverbs: You can’t just stick them at the beginning of a sentence to introduce a general idea or wishful thinking, as in “Hopefully, the clock will run out.” Adverbs have to modify a verb or other adverb, and in this sentence, “run out” ain’t it.
Look at this hilarious clunker from The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown: “Almost inconceivably, the gun into which she was now staring was clutched in the pale hand of an enormous albino.”
Ack, “almost inconceivably” - that’s like being a little bit infertile! Hopefully, that “enormous albino” will ironically go back to actually flogging himself while incredibly saying his prayers continually.
4. PHONY DIALOGUE
Be careful of using dialogue to advance the plot. Readers can tell when characters talk about things they already know, or when the speakers appear to be having a conversation for our benefit. You never want one character to imply or say to the other, “Tell me again, Bruce: What are we doing next?”
Avoid words that are fashionable in conversation. Ann Packer’s characters are so trendy the reader recoils. ” ‘What’s up with that?’ I said. ‘Is this a thing [love affair]?’ ” “We both smiled. ” ‘What is it with him?’ I said. ‘I mean, really.’ ” Her book is only a few years old, and already it’s dated.
Dialogue offers glimpses into character the author can’t provide through description. Hidden wit, thoughtful observations, a shy revelation, a charming aside all come out in dialogue, so the characters *show* us what the author can’t *tell* us. But if dialogue helps the author distinguish each character, it also nails the culprit who’s promoting a hidden agenda by speaking out of character.
An unfortunate pattern within the dialogue in Three Junes, by the way, is that all the male characters begin to sound like the author’s version of Noel Coward - fey, acerbic, witty, superior, puckish, diffident. Pretty soon the credibility of the entire novel is shot. You owe it to each character’s unique nature to make every one of them an original.
Now don’t tell me that because Julia Glass won the National Book Award, you can get away with lack of credibility in dialogue. Setting your own high standards and sticking to them - being proud of *having* them - is the mark of a pro. Be one, write like one, and don’t cheat.
5. NO-GOOD SUFFIXES
Don’t take a perfectly good word and give it a new backside so it functions as something else. The New York Times does this all the time. Instead of saying, “as a director, she is meticulous,” the reviewer will write, “as a director, she is known for her meticulousness.” Until she is known for her obtuseness.
The “ness” words cause the eye to stumble, come back, reread: Mindlessness, characterlessness, courageousness, statuesqueness, preciousness - you get the idea. You might as well pour marbles into your readers’ mouths. Not all “ness” words are bad - goodness, no - but they are all suspect.
The “ize” words are no better - finalize, conceptualize, fantasize, categorize. The “ize” hooks itself onto words as a short-cut but stays there like a parasite. Cops now say to each other about witnesses they’ve interrogated, “Did you statementize him?” Some shortcut. Not all “ize” words are bad, either, but they do have the ring of the vulgate to them - “he was brutalized by his father,” “she finalized her report.” Just try to use them rarely.
Adding “ly” to “ing” words has a little history to it. Remember the old Tom Swifties? “I hate that incision,” the surgeon said cuttingly. “I got first prize!” the boy said winningly. But the point to a good Tom Swiftie is to make a punchline out of the last adverb. If you do that in your book, the reader is unnecessarily distracted. Serious writing suffers from such antics.
Some “ingly” words do have their place. I can accept “swimmingly,” “annoyingly,” “surprisingly” as descriptive if overlong “ingly” words. But not “startlingly,” “harrowingly” or “angeringly,” “careeningly” - all hell to pronounce, even in silence, like the “groundbreakingly” used by People magazine above. Try to use all “ingly” words (can’t help it) sparingly.
6. THE “TO BE” WORDS
Once your eye is attuned to the frequent use of the “to be” words - “am,” “is,” “are,” “was,” “were,” “be,” “being,” “been” and others - you’ll be appalled at how quickly they flatten prose and slow your pace to a crawl.
The “to be” words represent the existence of things - “I am here. You are there.” Think of Hamlet’s query, “to be, or not to be.” To exist is not to act, so the “to be” words pretty much just there sit on the page. “I am the maid.” “It was cold.” “You were away.”
I blame mystery writers for turning the “to be” words into a trend: Look how much burden is placed on the word “was” in this sentence: “Around the corner, behind the stove, under the linoleum, was the gun.” All the suspense of finding the gun dissipates. The “to be” word is not fair to the gun, which gets lost in a sea of prepositions.
Sometimes, “to be” words do earn a place in writing: “In a frenzy by now, he pushed the stove away from the wall and ripped up the linoleum. Cold metal glinted from under the floorboards. He peered closer. Sure enough, it was the gun.” Okay, I’m lousy at this, but you get the point: Don’t squander the “to be” words - save them for special moments.
Not so long ago, “it was” *defined* emphasis. Even now, if you want to say, “It was Margaret who found the gun,” meaning nobody else but Margaret, fine. But watch out - “it was” can be habitual: “It was Jack who joined the Million Man March. It was Bob who said he would go, too. But it was Bill who went with them.” Flat, flat, flat.
Try also to reserve the use of “there was” or “there is” for special occasions. If used too often, this crutch also bogs down sentence after sentence. “He couldn’t believe there was furniture in the room. There was an open dresser drawer. There was a sock on the bed. There was a stack of laundry in the corner. There was a handkerchief on the floor….” By this time, we’re dozing off, and you haven’t even gotten to the kitchen.
One finds the dreaded “there was/is” in jacket copy all the time. “Smith’s book offers a range of lively characters: There is Jim, the puzzle-loving dad. There is Winky, the mom who sits on the 9th Court of Appeals. There is Barbie, brain surgeon to the stars….”
Attune your eye to the “to be” words and you’ll see them everywhere. When in doubt, replace them with active, vivid, engaging verbs. Muscle up that prose.
“She was entranced by the roses, hyacinths, impatiens, mums, carnations, pansies, irises, peonies, hollyhocks, daylillies, morning glories, larkspur…” Well, she may be entranced, but our eyes are glazing over.
If you’re going to describe a number of items, jack up the visuals. Lay out the the scene as the eye sees it, with emphasis and emotion in unlikely places. When you list the items as though we’re checking them off with a clipboard, the internal eye will shut.
It doesn’t matter what you list - nouns, adjectives, verbs - the result is always static. “He drove, he sighed, he swallowed, he yawned in impatience.” So do we. Dunk the whole thing. Rethink and rewrite. If you’ve got many ingredients and we aren’t transported, you’ve got a list.
8. SHOW, DON’T TELL
If you say, “she was stunning and powerful,” you’re *telling* us. But if you say, “I was stunned by her elegant carriage as she strode past the jury - shoulders erect, elbows back, her eyes wide and watchful,” you’re *showing* us. The moment we can visualize the picture you’re trying to paint, you’re showing us, not telling us what we *should* see..
Handsome, attractive, momentous, embarrassing, fabulous, powerful, hilarious, stupid, fascinating are all words that “tell” us in an arbitrary way what to think. They don’t reveal, don’t open up, don’t describe in specifics what is unique to the person or event described. Often they begin with cliches.
Here is Gail Sheehy’s depiction of a former “surfer girl” from the New Jersey shore in Middletown, America:
“This was a tall blond tomboy who grew up with all guy friends. A natural beauty who still had age on her side, being thirty; she didn’t give a thought to taming her flyaway hair or painting makeup on her smooth Swedish skin.”
Here I *think* I know what Sheehy means, but I’m not sure. Don’t let the reader make such assumptions. You’re the author; it’s your charge to show us what you mean with authentic detail. Don’t pretend the job is accomplished by cliches such as “smooth Swedish skin,” “flyaway hair,” “tall blond tomboy,” “the surfer girl” - how smooth? how tall? how blond?
Or try this from Faye Kellerman in Street Dreams:
Well, that’s it for Louise, poor thing. Can you see the character in front of you? A previous sentence tells us that Louise has “blunt-cut hair” framing an “oval face,” which helps, but not much - millions of women have a face like that. What makes Louise distinctive? Again, we may think we know what Kellerman means by “pretty” and “handsome” (good luck), but the inexcusable word here is “regular,” as in “her features were regular.” What *are* “regular” features?
“[Louise's] features were regular, and once she had been pretty. Now she was handsome in her black skirt, suit, and crisp, white blouse.”
The difference between telling and showing usually boils down to the physical senses. Visual, aural aromatic words take us out of our skin and place us in the scene you’ve created. In conventional narrative it’s fine to use a “to be” word to talk us into the distinctive word, such as “wandered” in this brief, easily imagined sentence by John Steinbeck in East of Eden. “His eyes were very blue, and when he was tired, one of them wandered outward a little.” We don’t care if he is “handsome” or “regular.”
Granted, context is everything, as writing experts say, and certainly that’s true of the sweltering West African heat in Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter: “Her face had the ivory tinge of atabrine; her hair which had once been the color of bottled honey was dark and stringy with sweat.” Except for “atabrine” (a medicine for malaria), the words aren’t all that distinctive, but they quietly do the job - they don’t tell us; they show us.
Commercial novels sometimes abound with the most revealing examples of this problem. The boss in Linda Lael Miller’s Don’t Look Now is “drop-dead gorgeous”; a former boyfriend is “seriously fine to look at: 35, half Irish and half Hispanic, his hair almost black, his eyes brown.” A friend, Betsy, is “a gorgeous, leggy blonde, thin as a model.” Careful of that word “gorgeous” - used too many times, it might lose its meaning.
9. AWKWARD PHRASING
“Mrs. Fletcher’s face pinkened slightly.” Whoa. This is an author trying too hard. “I sat down and ran a finger up the bottom of his foot, and he startled so dramatically …. ” Egad, “he startled”? You mean “he started”?
Awkward phrasing makes the reader stop in the midst of reading and ponder the meaning of a word or phrase. This you never want as an author. A rule of thumb - always give your work a little percolatin’ time before you come back to it. Never write right up to deadline. Return to it with fresh eyes. You’ll spot those overworked tangles of prose and know exactly how to fix them.
Compound sentences, most modifying clauses and many phrases *require* commas. You may find it necessary to break the rules from time to time, but you can’t delete commas just because you don’t like the pause they bring to a sentence or just because you want to add tension.
“Bob ran up the stairs and looking down he realized his shoelace was untied but he couldn’t stop because they were after him so he decided to get to the roof where he’d retie it.” This is what happens when an author believes that omitting commas can make the narrative sound breathless and racy. Instead it sounds the reverse - it’s heavy and garbled.
The Graham Greene quote above is dying for commas, which I’ll insert here: “Her face had the ivory tinge of atabrine; her hair, which had once been the color of bottled honey, was dark and stringy with sweat.” This makes the sentence accessible to the reader, an image one needs to slow down and absorb.
Entire books have been written about punctuation. Get one. “The Chicago Manual of Style” shows why punctuation is necessary in specific instances. If you don’t know what the rules are for, your writing will show it.
The point to the List above is that even the best writers make these mistakes, but you can’t afford to. The way manuscripts are thrown into the Rejection pile on the basis of early mistakes is a crime. Don’t be a victim.
Pat Holt began her publishing career in the New York office of Houghton Mifflin Company in 1969 and was later promoted to the Boston office, where she was named publicity manager. In the mid-1970s she was senior editor and publicity director for the San Francisco Book Company, and in 1978 she became Publishers Weekly's first full-time Western Correspondent, where her territory ranged from the Rockies to Australia and Mexico to Alaska.
She was book editor and critic at The San Francisco Chronicle for 16 years (1982-1998) and was named a board member of The Center for the Book at the Library of Congress in 1984. Increasingly concerned about the plight of independent bookstores in their struggle to survive wave after wave of chain bookstores, price clubs, discounters and Internet suppliers, Pat Holt resigned from The Chronicle in 1998 to create "Holt Uncensored," an email book column launched by the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association. Now published from the Holt Uncensored website, the column is available free for online subscribers.
Ms. Holt is a founder of the Bay Area Book Reviewers Association, where she originated the idea for an annual BABRA Awards presentation to Northern California authors and publishers (now in its 15th year). In 1990 she became the first nonlibrarian in 40 years to receive the American Library Association's prestigious Grolier Foundation Award. Elected to the board of directors of the National Book Critics Circle in 1991, she became Vice President in charge of membership in 1992-96.
Patricia Holt is the author of a biography of San Francisco private detective Hal Lipset called "The Bug in the Martini Olive," published in 1991 by Little, Brown and reprinted in 1994 as "The Good Detective" by Pocket Books.