Monday, February 23, 2009

Let Tom Swift Inform Your Writing

© Carolyn Howard-Johnson 2009 all rights reserved

Ever heard of Tom Swifties?

Maybe you're too young to be familiar with the classic Tom Swift adventures for boys. Or maybe you're a girl who never read a Tom Swift book nor cares to.

Tom Swifties are one-line jokes lampooning the style of Victor Appleton, the author of the original Tom Swift books. People started making jokes about his overuse of adverbs and the unnecessary taglines he wrote into his dialogue. Like the Polish jokes, they were so much fun that a whole series of them became available for pun aficionados. The author of these classics, of course, laughed all the way to the bank. But that's a lesson for one of my marketing seminars, not this article on writing.

Tom Swifties were then. This is now. I haven't dared to go to the new books in the series but I assume that this outdated writing has been eliminated from them.

You'll want to minimize tags and adverbs in your writing, too!

An example from one of the Swift books will suffice to let you know what to watch for. (Thank you to Roy Peter Clark for the example.)

"'Look!' suddenly exclaimed Ned. 'There's the agent now!...I'm going to speak to him!' impulsively declared Ned.'"

Even authors who swear that adverbs are always very, very good things to use and are reluctant to give up their clever taglines can see how, well . . . .awful this is. In fact, I have to reassure people the quotation is real! Some of the writing that comes to the desks of agents and editors looks almost as bad. Here's how you can make sure yours doesn't:

1. Use taglines only when one is necessary for the reader to know who is speaking.
2. Almost always choose "he said" or "she said" over anything too cute, exuberant or wordy like "declared" and "exclaimed."
3. Cut the "ly" words ruthlessly, not only in dialogue tags but everywhere.

You will find specific techniques for strengthening your writing in the process of eliminating adverbs in The Frugal Editor: Put Your Best Book Forward to Avoid Humiliation and Ensure Success This book will also give you some computer tricks for making these edits easy. Until then, take Nike's advice and "Just do it!"

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Carolyn Howard-Johnson, award-winning author of The Frugal Book Promoter: How to Do What Your Publisher Won't and The Frugal Editor: Put Your Best Book Forward to Avoid Humiliation and Ensure Success. The former is the winner of USA Book News "Best Professional Book" award and the Book Publicists of Southern California's coveted Irwin Award. The Frugal Editor is both a USA Book News winner and a Reader Views Literary Award winner and won the New Generation Marketing Award. Learn more at Learn more about editing at


Marta Stephens said...

Carolyn, hmmm, Tom Swift is new to me. Thanks so much for this entertaining post!

s.w. vaughn said...

Ah, good old Tom Swifties. :-) So hilariously painful to read!

I can't tell you how many times I used this type of thing in my very first (and very buried) novel. Everyone listen to Carolyn. This is excellent advice!

BT said...

Hi Carolyn,

Can you clarify something for me please?

Point 1. Use tag lines only when one is necessary for the reader to know who is speaking.

I also heard/read the other day somewhere (apologies for not being able to provide a link), (paraphrased) two pieces of dialogue should never be next to each other without a descriptor or a tag line present, because it allows the reader to see the two characters involved as if they were just standing and staring at each other and saying the lines.

I agree Swifties need to be eliminated, but what about narrative descriptors to bring the characters alive while talking?

Or is this another topic?

Carolyn Howard-Johnson said...

Yeah, BT. Well, not really another topic but a longer article. And, I'm not sure Swift was guilty of that doing that to excess. (-: I'd have to check.

Tom Chiarella's book ON DIALOGUE covers that narrator thing very well. YOu'll love it. I wish I had written it!

Marta, you don't remember because you're too young.

Thank you for letting me be part of this blog. I'm off to tweet a bit about it! (-:

Carolyn Howard-Johnson
Blogging at Writer's Digest 101 Best Websites pick,

Aaron Paul Lazar said...

Amen, Carolyn. Well said. ;o) Thanks for being our guest today.