Wednesday, March 14, 2012


I imagine we all have pet peeves when it comes to fiction. Those niggling habits writers have that trip us up, waste words, and mince meanings. If enough of them distract, we are tempted to repurpose the book for kindling.

When editing my clients' work, I tend to run into certain bugaboos quite often.

Some of them require an ear for Tense (and manipulating it as needed for backstory), Point of View (the blinders that keep that horse from seeing what’s behind him), underuse of contractions, telling when showing would be more powerful, etc.

Luckily, others are less nuanced and can be addressed easily with our word programs’ search/find features.

Search and destroy:

When you‘ve placed these two words -- and then (side by side). Pick one or the other. You don’t need both.

Qualifiers deflate prose. Examples: began to, begin, started to, start, a bit of, a little of, seemed to, what appeared to be, maybe, almost, decided to, plan to, any (as in: Note any changes you make.), all of (as in: I'm too old for all of this.)

Frequently used throwaway words that weaken the prose such as: just, oh, anyway, well, fairly, seems, though, very, really, many, a lot, so, and of these (as in: several of the boys)

Passive construction: watch for forms of “to be” paired with gerunds. Simple past tense is better, more active, more engaging. “She is holding” versus “She holds”

Vague and less vivid words like:
sit (how about “plop” or “eased down into” or “collapsed into”)
walked (strolled, marched, traipsed, sauntered) and run, went down, went over, moved, laugh, look…

!!!!!! Use exclamation marks only when absolutely necessary. Good dialogue or narrative already conveys the urgency or excitement

Suddenly and immediately. Most of the time they aren’t necessary. Let the thing happen, the context will let us know it happened suddenly.

Unnecessary qualifiers weaken the prose. Let them be or do instead of “start to be” or “begin to do” something: watch for “began” and “started”

Unnecessary wordiness (like redundancies and phrases that can be simplified without changing meaning) Ex: "down below" becomes "below"

Unnecessary attributions of thoughts, beliefs, etc. If we are solidly in POV we assume those thoughts etc. are those of the POV character. Ex: I thought, He felt, I believed

“THAT” can often be eliminated. If a sentence can read just fine without it, take it out.

Fancy dialogue tags. “Said” is typically the best dialogue tag – others like hissed, addressed formally, argued, etc. call attention to themselves and slow the read. Good dialogue doesn’t need description – unless it is unclear in context that something is said sarcastically. Even "said" can be replaced with an action of the character. "Don't you dare." John grabbed his beer can and sqeezed it into a crumple of aluminum.

Make use of the FIND feature and you’ll clean up many editors’ pet peeves and will help your reader continue moving forward.

Inkpot wishes you good editing.


  1. Thanks Karen, for this quick-cleanup list.

    I seem to use "seemed to" too often. It's good to recognize these lazy phrases while writing, but when they slip in, it's great to have the search 'n destroy keyboard options.

  2. Great list! You can also eliminate "he said" when there's an action immediately following.

    "I'm going to the store," Jared said. He walked toward his truck.


    "I'm going to the store." Jared walked toward his truck.

  3. I have held the hand of the devil. It burned in the night. I was cold as the stone. But I still...cannot FIND...what I'm looking for. ;)


  4. Very important information, Inkpot. Thanks!

  5. Such good tips to keep in mind!! Thanks

  6. Great reminders, thanks! I also find Browne and King's book Self-Editing for Fiction Writers useful for similar tips.

  7. After reading your post I got right to work cleaning "and thens" out of my creative nonfiction manuscript. Can you believe I've been an editor for 25 years and hadn't been alerted to them? Like most rules, this one serves the writer best when followed loosely rather than strictly. Which means, I cleaned about 70% of them out and left the rest. Thanks for that 70%!

  8. These are all things I seek-and-destroy in later drafts of my work. I tend to let them pass in the rough drafts, mainly because paying attention disrupts the creative flow, but no matter how many times I think I've done better at avoiding them, they crop up in the drafts like dandelions after a spring rain - and it's time to pull them out again.

    Great list. Definitely something every writer should read and use!

  9. I sometimes get caught up in using unnecessary conditional language: could, should, would. Those can usually be eliminated.

    I'm always catching myself using the began, started, etc. Such a tough habit to break.

    Thanks for the fabulous tips!

  10. Thanks for these tips, I'm bookmarking them. I've recently started screening submissions for a lit mag, and I'm finding that probably 90 percent of stories I receive don't follow the rules above. The ones that follow them so so almost to the tee--and those are the really great stories that have a better chance of winning contests or getting published.

    It becomes really obvious, when you read enough stories, that standout pieces incorporate the techniques you mentioned. The more I learn about fiction--I've been successfully writing non-fiction for about seven years now--the more I realize that good fiction requires a very specific and unique skill set. These skills take some time to master, and tips like yours really help. I look forward to reading more from Sisters of the Quill (this was my first visit).

  11. I'd comment on this post but I'm afraid to after reading it....