Wednesday, March 19, 2008


© Marta Stephens 2007 all rights reserved

When I began to write fiction, I sponged up all I could about the craft as quickly others were willing to impart their knowledge. Since then, I’ve weeded through the do’s and the don’ts and picked up a few other tips that have helped to strengthen my prose. I’m no expert. For me, learning is a life-long adventure, but here's what I know so far:

Nothing done to excess is good. We can't take all the "had," "that," and "ing" words out of our writing and expect it to make sense or flow well. Certain words should and can be avoided, but to arbitrarily cut all of the “no-no” words is just as bad as their over-use. The same goes for long stretches of narration or dialogue. If you over-do either of these, you’ll either exhaust your reader or put them to sleep.

Pace: Dialogue speeds the action, narration slows it. Tense scenes call for short/abrupt, snappy dialogue. After such a scene, give the reader a breather by slowing things down with some brief narration.

Passive: the subject of the sentence is acted upon by something else. “The bread was made by the baker.”

Active revision: “The baker made the bread.”

Past tense: when an action or occurrence happened in the past. “He went to the store three hours ago.”

The use of the word “had.”

After reading up on the subject and talking to several informed sources (including English professors) I’ve concluded that, aside from the grammatical use of “had/has” in perfect past tense, my ear must judge how often to use “had” in a sentence before switching to an active past tense.

Example #1: "When Tom was young, he had overheard unsettling talk of the war. His father had served, but he had never admitted or denied killing another."

Granted, this is exaggerated, but technically there's nothing wrong with this sentence. All the events mentioned took place in the past. It is, however, cumbersome and all the "hads" make it redundant.

Revised Example #1: "When Tom was young, he overheard unsettling talk of the war. His father had served, but he never admitted or denied killing another."

So here's the unspoken “had” rule:

1. If the sentence makes it clear that the event happened in the past without using the word “had,” remove it.

2. Leave “had” in if its removal changes the meaning of the sentence.

Example #2: She reached for the small clay bowl from the kitchen table containing a mix of local herbs and other untold ingredients she had crushed into a near-powder consistency.
In this sentence, “she had” indicates an action taken by the character.

Edited Example #2: She reached for the small clay bowl from the kitchen table containing a mix of local herbs and other untold ingredients crushed into a near-powder consistency.
To remove “she had” from the sentences makes it clear the herbs were crushed, but it doesn’t show who crushed them. Since the character isn’t involved in the action, the reader would have to assume the herbs and other untold ingredients were 1) previously crusted by someone, or 2) purchased in the crushed form.

Both examples #2s are technically correct. However, this sentence is from my work in progress and the woman is a healer and engages in voodoo. For the sake of the scene, it's critical for the reader to understand that she is the one who made the concoction. In this case, #1 is the better choice.

Good Grammar Links:

“The” in front of a noun: Eliminate “the” when it precedes a noun that could stand alone. Example: “The beams of portable spotlights shone like beacons on the beach below.” Can be changed to: “Beams of portable spotlights shone like beacons on the beach below.”

Tags & Beats
Stick to “said” and always place the tag after the noun or pronoun. To use anything other than “said” distracts the reader (“said” is invisible). Words such as growled, barked, scoffed tell the reader how the character spoke rather than show it through the dialogue and action.
Example #1: “What difference does it make that she’s gone?” John growled.
Example #2: “What difference does it make that she’s gone?” John said as he slammed the door.

Beats: Beats are a great alternative to tags. They show action and emotion. Here’s the same sentence using a beat instead of a tag.
Example: “What difference does it make that she’s gone?” John yanked open her closet door, grabbed her clothes, and threw them out the window.

The “it” word. If not used correctly, “it” can lose the reader’s focus.
Be certain “it” refers back to a noun just previously mentioned. If another noun is used between “it” and the noun it refers to, you'll lose your reader.
Example: “The dog chased after a ball into the street. It was hit by a car.”

What did the car hit? The dog or the ball?

A few words to avoid in narration:
That, just, however, therefore, thus, thusly, very, really, suddenly, obviously (if it is obvious, don’t tell--show it).

Anything goes in dialogue: A character can say anything he or she wants including all the words we avoid in the narrative and clichés as long as the author establishes those words in the character’s speech as part of his characterization. The same goes for speech patterns and odd words.

Don’t state the obvious: Near-miss and mid-air collision. If it’s a “near-miss” it didn’t happen. And where else would airplanes in flight collide? Another thing that falls under this category is to not summarize the action. If the scene is written properly and effectively shows the action, don’t summarize what just happened in a subsequent narrative. Doing so talks down to the reader.

Repetition of words or phrases: Look for repeated words within the same sentence, paragraph or in close proximity to one another on a page. Use your thesaurus to find unique words that will add spark to your writing.

Ellipsis: Shows a pause. Use three periods with a space after the word it follows and the word it proceeds to show a pause or hesitation.
“I can’t remember what … I’ll have to think about it.”

Use three periods with a space after the word it follows to show a pause or hesitation at the end of a sentence.
“I can’t remember what …”

Em Dashes: Shows an interruption or show emphasis. Construct the em dash by striking the hyphen key twice with no space between the hyphens and no space before or after the words the em dash separates.

To show interrupted speech:
“You can’t pin the murder on me. You have no—”
“I have your fingerprints.”

For emphasis: “You must attend the meeting on time—no exceptions.”

Advice from Browne & King’s, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers.

Show don't tell: How to catch yourself telling. (Page 16)

“...telling your readers about your characters’ emotions is not the best way to get your readers involved. Far better to show why your characters feel the way they do. Instead of saying, "Amanda took one look at the hotel room and recoiled in disgust." describe the room in such a way that the readers feel that disgust for themselves."

The “as” and “ing” construction:

Browne & King (Page 193): "One easy way to make your writing seem more sophisticated is to avoid two stylistic constructions that are common to hack writers, namely:
'Pulling off her gloves, she turned to face him.' and

'As she pulled off her gloves, she turned to face him.’

Both the “as” construction and the “-ing” construction as used above are grammatically correct and express the action clearly and unambiguously. But notice that both of these constructions take a bit of action ("She pulled off her gloves") and tuck it away into a dependent clause (Pulling off her gloves...") tends to place some of your action at one removed from your reader, to make the actions seem incidental, unimportant. If you use these constructions often, you weaken your writing.

Another reason to avoid the “as” and “-ing” construction is that they can give rise to physical impossibilities." (i.e.: "Disappearing into my tent, I changed into fresh jeans." The ing construction forced simultaneity on two actions that can't be simultaneous."

Words ending in “ly”
Replace “ly” verb with action verbs. Instead of: “He angrily punched the pillow.” which tells the reader how he punched it (but in my opinion not to what degree of anger), try: “He slammed a fist into the pillow.”

Self-Editing... (Page 196)
"Chances are, as you bang out your first draft, you use the first verbs that come to mind--verbs that are commonplace and comfortable, verbs you don't have to dig too deep to find. Set, for instance, as in:

"She set the cup and saucer on the kitchen table."

Then, since set doesn't really convey what you want, you find the extra nuance you need in an adjective, tack on an -ly to make an adverb, and hook it to the verb. ...when you use a weak verb and an adverb to do the work of one strong verb, you dilute your writing and rob it of its potential power."

I’m sure I’ll keep adding to this list, but it’s a start.


s.w. vaughn said...

Excellent list! This is all amazingly good advice.

Since the question was raised concerning additions to the list, I'll throw this in:

Directional words (up, down, over, across, etc.) - like other "no-no" words, they shouldn't be banned from your writing, but should definitely be used sparingly.

Example: "She sat down on the couch." Here, 'down' adds excess to the sentence, and it would read better as: "She sat on the couch."

While the second is more acceptable, this sentence can be made even better with a stronger verb:

She plopped on the couch.

She slumped on the couch.

She threw herself on the couch.

Each conveys a different attitude for the character (cheerful, depressed, angry), and follows that most difficult of maxims for writers: show, don't tell.

Kim Smith said...

thats. oh man. those words kill me. i have to go through and delete all my overused thats in every piece of work i do. also, some people use that instead of who or which- easily confused but still worth checking in your work.

James Goodman said...

That is a fantastic list. I can't think of anything else to add, but I'll definately take a few things away with me. :D

pat said...

What a wonderful teacher you are, Marta! I have saved this list and will refer back often as I self have simmered a course in writing down to these wonderful basics...I'm off to edit my work!

Marta Stephens said...

Thanks all for checking in. :) Glad you found it helpful.

As hard as some of these there were to remember (show, don't tell was always a hurdle for me), however, I find the more I write, the more these types of instructions become automatic for me.

I keep this list next to my other reference books. It never hurts to refresh my memory.

Julie Ann Shapiro said...

Great tips. Of course, I cringe reading this. That last final edit can be so grueling. The good news is the list does become intuitive after a while.

One tip I'll add is to never edit backwards. A professional editor said at one of the writers conferences to edit backwards. It sounded like a fresh way to see one of my novels when I couldn't look at it anymore. It caused all sorts of other problems...way too many ing words instead of ed words. It became a huge headache to fix. I remember my agent said after that mess..."kill 80% of the gerunds...(ing) words and I had to chuckle as to have they ran amuck.

Marta Stephens said...

I too have been told to edit backwards but personally, I can't see doing it. If it works for some ... great, but as I stated in this article -- you can't -- shouldn't delete all of them, some “forbidden” words are essential depending on the sentence structure.

Julie Ann Shapiro said...

Oh yeah...absolutely. Certain phrases and things fit a story no matter what the rule is or the grammaterian says.

Karen Harrington said...

Great post, Marta. I've printed it out for future reference.


Deborah J Ledford said...

These are all great examples of what we should be aware of in our writing, Marta. A great list to print out and keep by my elbow as a reminder, especially for the polish draft.

I've attended numerous writers conferences and must say, the pet peve agents/editors have is the overuse of passives (especially "was").

And your concise explination of ellipsis, em dashes and interruptions are a must for beginning writers to be aware of. These elements scream out to professionals in the industry: NEWBIE.

Excellent article. Thank you so much for sharing your expertise.

Pat Bertram said...

I enjoyed your article and the list of constructions to avoid. Good reminders for all of us.

Dana King said...

Great post. I re-read King and Browne prior to the final edit of every manuscript I've prepared. I always find something I thought I knew, but hadn't done as well as I should.

Marta Stephens said...

Wow so many great comments and items to add to the list.

Another thing to look for are contractions or rather, the correct form of the word. When I’m working on a scene, I’m thinking plot and dialogue, not necessarily spelling. One trick I've found helpful when I get to the proofreading stage is when I use contractions, I don't read the contraction but the actual words. That way, if I accidentally use "it’s" instead of "its" the mistake jumps out at me.

The passive is a tough one ... rates up there with the "show don't tell" thing. I don’t know that I’ll ever stop working on getting these right only because they’re so easy to slip into.

Absolutely, SW on the action verbs! Dropping your weight into a chair creates a much more vivid picture than sitting down. ;)

Aaron Paul Lazar said...

I have two giant lists, too, and will compare with yours and add anything that isn't in the comments or original list. Might be a few days, but I'll get there! Wonderful job, Marta!

Anonymous said...

Great list, very usefull for self editing any type of writen material
thank you for all the help

-James Cleariver

Unknown said...

Thank you! This helps me so much. I am an extremely young novice in the writing realm (on my way to high school). This is something that definitely refer back to. Although I will ask about a problem of mine. I often try use ... or ; to imply that:
Ex:The blood was AB negative to be exact…my favorite.
Side note: For some reason I feel the need to use this. Also when I use this in my essays my teacher never says anything to me about it.