Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Have you ever read something and wondered “didn’t the writer edit this? At all?”

My job as editor means I read unedited writing. Most of the time, the writer has tried to self-edit, with varying success. I don’t mind that. Unfortunately, I have read a few novels lately that seem as if no one has even tried to correct the text, beyond using the spelling checker in the word processing software. It’s aggravating to read 300 pages filled with grammatical mistakes, clichés and unclear sentences.

Here are some of the worst offences:

Too much detail

This is a sin that I know I must watch for in my own writing. It’s not necessary to write “she put the envelope on the desk and slid it across to him.” Just tell us that “he” took, or better yet, opened the envelope.

And you don’t have to tell us everything a character ate for breakfast. Get to the action. If you want to emphasize that he or she is health-conscious, then describe the grapefruit, yogurt and peanut butter (or whatever) once. One of the more annoying aspects of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series is the number of times Stieg Larsson described his characters eating Billy’s Pan Pizza or liverwurst sandwiches. How does repeating that detail add to characterization or plot?

A few other examples from recent reading (titles and names withheld to protect the guilty):

— “nod in agreement” — Most readers will understand that “nodding” indicates agreement. You could just write “agreed,” but ask yourself if your story or message really needs this detail.
— “collapsed to the floor” — A floor is generally what people and things collapse to, unless it’s the bare ground. If you’ve established your setting already, your readers know what characters are collapsing to.
— “‘You’re going to have to leave,’ said the waitress as she came back to my table.” — If she did not come to the table, how would the customer hear her?

New clichés

You’ve read about all the standard clichés to avoid (like the plague ;)). But new clichés have emerged — phrases that sounded fresh once, but have had the life squeezed out of them through overuse by lazy writers.

— thin blue line, meaning the police force
— splitting headache
— fallen on deaf ears
— snapped like a whip
— peppered with gunfire
— master plan
— pushing the envelope
— out of the box
— going forward, meaning the future
— hit on
— tagged and bagged, meaning a dead body
— more than meets the eye — the writer’s job is to show the reader more than their eyes will see.

Think of new ways of getting these images across. No, it won’t be easy, but did you think the writer’s job would be easy?

Finally, the worst cliché of all, found in Hollywood scripts and beginners’ novels: everyone is attractive. Look around you: how many people do you see in your office or on your bus that are really that attractive? How many men are muscular and fit with washboard abs? How many women are beautiful?

Flawed characters are much more believable than perfect ones. Those flaws can be physical, as well as psychological, economic or moral.


In writing, using too many words to express an idea is a felony.

Read over your work carefully, and ask: can you delete these words or this phrase without reducing the amount of information in the document? Delete them!

Watch for phrases like these:

— mutual cooperation — all cooperation is mutual, or it’s not cooperation
— with a look of disappointment — try “she/he looked disappointed”
— with reluctance — “reluctantly”
— long drawn-out voyage — just “long” will do, or express this in a new way
— swirling vortex — all vortices swirl; it’s what vortices do
— rises up — I’ve never heard of anything “rising down” (although I remember upsydasium, the element that “fell up” from Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons)
— the colour of bronze
— the month of December — December is not anything BUT a month
— place of business — This can be anything. Be specific. Use “store,” “office,” “restaurant,” or whatever is the case.
— due to the fact that — write “because”
— dead corpse
— are in evidence — write “are.”


Finally, remember to keep it simple. Don’t try to impress the reader with literary flourishes, and don’t show off your vocabulary. A book, document or report is not about the writer, even when it’s an autobiography. It’s about telling a story or a message to an audience.

The following are a few examples I see mostly in science fiction and fantasy, but also in historical fiction and even in business reports:

Don’t write              use instead
  • countenance   face
  • assistance       help
  • perpetrator     attacker/invader/burglar — be specific
  • fatigued          tired 
  • attempting       trying 
  • sufficient         enough
  • regarding         about
Do you have any tips or pet peeves about needlessly complex, overblown or wordy writing? Leave a comment.


  1. Hi Scott! I really enjoyed this post. Most of us are guilty of some of these crimes if we're not careful! This is a fun reminder.

    My favorite point is about the mistake of making all the CHARACTERS attractive. I agree! It's the butt-ugly characters that make the story real and unique!



  2. Absolutely, Kate! If your novel does not have a few butt-ugly characters, how is anyone supposed to believe in your fictional world?

  3. My editor sent me to this post. Point. Taken.

  4. I was cautioned by an agent about my use of $5 words when $1 word will do. My name is Wendy, and I am an overwriter

  5. Sometimes the over usage is specific to your manuscript. We have a way of speaking and it seeps into our prose. I have a crit partner who is a fan of things 'waving' in wave of nausea, wave of relief, wave of anxiety. So we need to be aware of cliches we're creating within their voice as well as those we're picking up.

  6. Anonymous6:08 PM

    Great post. I'm totally with you on some of those annoying details in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. My personal peeve in that book was how they drank coffee umpteen times a day. Personally I love coffee but I got so annoyed with them drinking coffee in so many scenes I almost punched out my eReader :-(

  7. Anonymous7:25 AM

    Too much flowery language is bad. Breaks the smooth flow of text/reading being converted into a (hopefully) immersive inner movie. And I share your irritation at Larsson's endless lists of what his characters eat & drink, etc.

    On the other hand, 300 pages of basic or even pidgin english would be just as unbearable as 300 pages of bloated prose. Like reading 300 pages of SMS prose. Or like reading a text by one of those unfortunate writers (guilty myself!) who have removed ALL adjectives - that's like drinking VERY dry wine ;o)

  8. I agree with all of them though with simplifying words, I can see a need to use more complex words if you are naming the noun constantly in one scene - though that's a whole other pet peeve. What about passive and active voice? Any rants there?

  9. Nice Post, Scott. I agree with what you say here. I tell my students many of the same things in regards to their writing. These days, people find t too easy to write something, hit Spellcheck, and print - as fast as they can.

    Will Granger

  10. Great post, and a good reminder as I finish my latest novel. I've worked with my editors for years and they are great at uncovering things like you do for your authors. Mine also go over structural content, which a lot of indie authors desperately need as well :) I write a lot on my blog about ways to improve writing. In one, I covered cliches and I actually had some people disagree, saying that cliches worked before for a reason and so they can work still. Maybe, but fresh is better and your readers will thank you for it.
    Thanks for sharing your insights.
    Renee Pawlish (author of Nephilim Genesis of Evil and the Reed Ferguson mystery series)

    1. Thanks for the support. What new writers need to develop is that confidence to use their own ideas and their own words, not just repeat what they read in other books.

  11. good points! I find the information dump, especially in dialogue, particularly grating. "Have you seen Gary Parker, my ex-lover? Beth Brannigan asked Jane Halloway, her best friend of ten years. "You mean the guy in law enforcement, who used to be a private eye? With sky-blue eyes and silvery hair? No I haven't," Jane answered, tellingly. :-)

  12. Anonymous3:31 PM

    I think that the don't write/write is very subjective. My golden rule is never to use flourishes, like you said. But if I think assistance is better than help in that particular sentence I'll use.
    Just don't use it because it's longer or less common.

  13. A great post, but faulting "the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" for doing something isn't necessarily going to sell me. I mean...that book has been a phenomenal success. I think any writer would love to duplicate that.

  14. Oh, I love this. I have been re-writing all day and cutting out all this crap - it's so easy, when you're writing away in first draft, to let a cliche or two slip in. Am constantly looking for more concise ways to express stuff. So often I read novel excerpts and think to myself, this person needs to learn to write, before they attempt a novel. I've also discovered (just today) how the word 'said' is all you need when writing dialogue - not 'grumbled', 'moaned', or 'said, softly', etc etc. If the piece of dialogue itself doesn't convey the mood, then it needs re-writing. Great article.

  15. Awesome!! Great advice for us all.

  16. Excellent article! I've definitely made some of these mistakes in my manuscript and am working hard to clean them up (based on my editor's comments/changes.)

    I do have one question for do you feel about adverbs? My editor seems OK with them, but I've met some editors who think they should not be used--that there's usually a better way or that it's best to avoid them. Would love to know your thoughts.

    1. I know - one of Elmore Leonard's 10 rules is "never use an adverb to modify the word 'said.'" But what if someone is speaking quickly?

      On the other hand, I remember reading in Grade 8 about someone describing adverbs as "Tom Swifties," because, I guess, there were a lot of adverbs in Tom Swift books. So, if you don't want to be compared to those books, maybe you should restrict your use of adverbs. He advised ironically.

      The current trend in writing seems to be to "show, not tell." I think that if you use active verbs, you don't need as many adverbs, and the sentences end up shorter. With our current fast-paced environment and audiences with short attention spans, getting the message across with fewer words probably leaves the reader feeling more disposed to reading more words from you.

  17. Great article! I'm reading a popular kids' book with my son, and the overuse of adverbs is driving me batty! At least 2-3 sentences per page have the form "phrase-comma-adverb-period":

    "He stared at the floor, sadly."

    "She smiled at him, happily."

    "She threw the crappy book across the room, angrily."

    I keep thinking, kids' books have editors, right? Why weren't these edited out? We'll finish this one off (the story's still good even if the writing style annoys me), but doubt I'll be in a hurry to pick up the next installment.

  18. Excellent post...bloggers, also, should pay close attention....not you, of course! :)

  19. Anonymous10:49 PM

    Good reminders here! Thanks.

  20. Great post. Good points throughout. I may need to look up your services.

  21. Great piece Scott and a salutary lesson to us all.

  22. Enjoyed the post. I'm happy to see that I follow most of these now, although didn't at the beginning of my writing. The key is to remember we are all always learning. I have read so many books recently, traditionally published ones, where I ask myself, was this edited? Repeated words only a few sentences apart is my bugbear!

  23. Some good stuff here, but I couldn't help but be turned off when there's an obvious misspelling in the intro. "Offences"... should be offenses. Yes, I'm one of "those" people where spelling errors JUMP off the page.

  24. Maybe that's a personal choice. "Offences" with a is the main entry in my Oxford Canadian dictionary, with "offenses" listed as a variation. So I guess either is good.