This post first ran here on October 7, 2008 and remains one of our most popular and most commented on posts.
I’ve been editing for a long time and am still amazed at how often I see common mistakes repeated over and over again. For instance:
Fred walked out, taking the file with him. You don’t need ‘with him’. If he took the file, it’s with him, DUH!! Or the sentence could be rewritten to make it a little more visual. Fred grabbed the file and walked out.
Those gray eyes of his stared right at her. This is an incredibly popular phraseology used in romance novels, and I wince every time I read it. As if he would be looking at her with anyone else’s eyes.
Please note that I am not denigrating romance novels. I have read many that are wonderful, well-crafted stories. Unfortunately, I have also received many to review that I can’t even read past the first chapter because the writing relies on tired, worn out wordage. How I long for some fresh, clever word usage.
Sally shrugged her shoulders. What else would she shrug?
Harry nodded his head. As opposed to his elbow?
Sam found himself standing in the middle of… Was Sam lost? Much stronger to write: Sam stood in the middle of….
It was a picture of Madeline Smith, herself. Could it not just be a picture of Madeline Smith, period? Even my husband asked if the use of the reflexive pronoun was necessary, and he’s not an editor.
And don’t even get me started on all those dialogue attributives. Characters say their lines. They don’t cluck, snort, retort, purr, snigger, interject, bark, and my all time favorite, ejaculate. Most of the time the intent is in the dialogue itself, so there is no need to TELL the reader how the character spoke. Let the dialogue SHOW the reader. And if it doesn’t, the dialogue needs to be reworked until it does.
Also high on the list of things that make me pound my head on my keyboard is the overuse of adverbs. Again, that is often connected to dialogue and TELLS the reader how the person was speaking as opposed to SHOWING them, which doesn’t mean that adverbs should be avoided entirely. A well-placed adverb can be very effective, but they lose their punch when every other line has one.
Sometimes I will have a client say, “But I see that all the time in books I read.”
Weak writing is weak writing no matter who is getting published. Some people don’t care. They just dash off a piece of work, grab the money and run. But I believe we owe our readers more than that. Developing the story and getting it down on paper – or stored on your hard drive – is only the first step in writing a book. The next couple of steps are crucial and infinitely more difficult – at least I think so. Rewriting and editing to find just the right words and phrases can lift an average book into the realm of good and maybe even great.
Maryann Miller is an author and freelance editor. She also is the Managing Editor of WinnsboroToday.com, an online community magazine. Check out her books and editing services on her Web site