Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Things That Drive An Editor Crazy

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

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  1. "Excellent!" he exclaimed, loudly ;)

    Great post! Thanks for sharing :)

  2. The found thing drives me absolutely bonkers. He found himself thinking.... What IS that? Does he never think? He found himself doing.... You mean he didn't do it deliberately? And, like you noted, he was lost before he did it?

    Yea, definitely a pet peeve of mine.

    I'm actually revising my novel and picking up a lot of those redundancies you mention. Most aren't so blatant, but there's a few. lol

  3. Those type of examples can be part of a first draft when you want to get your story down. After that, it's time to edit and weed out all that stuff that doesn't need to be there.

    Morgan Mandel

  4. I'm laughing, nodding vigorously (adverb necessary because you can't see how I'm nodding), and just thinking, "You must feel so much better now that you've got that off your chest."

  5. LOL, Deb. I do feel so much better. When I was dealing with unprofessional writers when I edited a magazine, my hubby would get so tired of my rants. Now I rant on paper... er cyberspace.

  6. His heart beat in his chest. Where else would the heart be? :-) Loved the post. Exceedingly so ;-) LOL

  7. Your "rant" helped me. Thanks, Maryann.

  8. I make those mistakes on my first draft sometimes. Mostly when I'm exhausted. But, that's what editing is for. Great advice.

    "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." I loved this observation... I notice it too in the bookstores.


  9. Maryanne,
    I admire your making the point, but I have to say that writing has become so subjective it’s difficult to make a case either way. Another post commented, “His heart beat in his chest. Where else would the heart be?” If I can use this as an example and change the line to, “His heart was barely beating in his bullet-ridden chest,” it says a lot more, and descriptively. Or on the topic of Romances, to write “His heart beat in his chest, hidden from her the same as his feelings,” is saying more, but the lonely line “His heart beat in his chest” is awfully redundant. Great post!

    Frank Riganelli

  10. "Loved your post today", I ejaculated. hehehehe...SNORT! New favorite dialogue tag. :)

  11. Great advice but scary too. take it easy because dictionaries give examples like 'shrugged his shoulders' and 'grey eyes of his' says something about the observer of the grey eyes more than the observed grey eyes. In romance it feels good.

  12. I wanted to add my two cents about the use of found. When a person finds themselves doing something they are discovering that they are in a surprising or unexpected situation. If they are thinking of particular topic that is different than what they should be thinking about, they’d be surprised by it, ergo “they found themselves thinking…”

    “An hour of the movie had past, and as he sat alone in the back row of the full theater he found himself thinking of her, not the movie.”

    Granted, to simply say “He found himself thinking,” without much else, raises a lot of unanswered questions. It would depend on whether the writer has introduced a topic that the reader would associate the thinking with.

    Frank Riganelli

  13. Great examples, Maryann. And even though I know better, I still find those kinds of goofs in my first drafts. We must learn when to shift our focus from writing to revising, and again from revising to self-editing.

  14. Excellent post! I shall keep it in mind when I start to self-edit.


  15. Very good post, Maryann. And I bet you feel better now. ;-)

    I seem to read a lot of characters throwing their eyes around. Even if you have a glass eye, that's still a scary thing to do.

    Straight From Hel

  16. Great discussion going here. Thanks for all the input. Frank, regarding the issue of being found, your example is good. However, how about this: "Sitting in the dark theatre, his mind interjected pictures of her on the screen. He was no longer watching the movie, he was watching how her face looked that last night they were together."

    That way, he doesn't have to be found.

    I did like your examples of the heart beating in a bullet ridden chest.

  17. I disagree, Maryann. The way you've put it is awkward and wordy. The example Frank gives has flow and is descriptive. I'd go with his and ask you to reword yours.

  18. I may take this personally. It seems like you've been editing my manuscript without my permission and using my weaknesses to educate others ;-)

    Great post and illustrations! Thanks!

  19. I now am at the stage in my writing that I'm trying to avoid those overworked action beats and try some new ones without sounding writerly.

    This is one great post. Thanks!

  20. Great entry! I try to watch for those things but I know I mess up all the time!

  21. I find myself extremely guilty of catching my eyes rolling across the page and inexplicably discovering a plethora of similar mistakes.

    Oh woe is me. I must revise and edit all over again.

    My least favorite and I see it ALL the time in romances (I read them and write them tho' still not published) is "his hands did X to her." Really? Did they disembody from the owner and roam all by themselves? Or did he just do it?

    *grin* Another post to share with my writing friends.

  22. What a thread, so much discussion. It gives me more to help the hecklers understand that writing isn't a simple thing.

  23. More things I find myself doing wrong. More things to think about while I edit. Thank you.

  24. A keeper to post next to my compuer as I edit my WIP. Thanks for reminder.

  25. I'm with Frank on the "found" issue. There are times my character's not paying attention or thinking or whatever... You asked if the character was lost--well, yes, he was lost in his thoughts. LOL

    Granted, many authors use it way too much. But I think there are times "found" is appropriate and necessary.

  26. What a great discussion this has been and there are opinions and ideas that will make me take a different look at some of my peeves.

    I really like what Ane said about looking for the overworked action beats in a story. The same goes for the overworked, ordinary wordage.

  27. Good stuff! Should be required reading for all newbie writers!
    Donald James Parker
    Author of Love Waits

  28. Way to take creative out of writing.

  29. Honestly I think it can be important to have descriptors like adverbs in speaking. Much of communication is in signals and tone, not just the words so I think describing how the words are said can add a lot sometimes.
    Though it's true that it can certainly be overdone.

  30. She found his hands roaming unbridled and desperate over the hills and dales of her body. "By gum!" she finally spat out, intensely, and blinked her eyelids rapidly in succession. Love was here.

  31. It seems editors feel they MUST be picky or they're not doing their job. The things you bring up are a matter of opinion. Some readers might enjoy flowery language and some don't have great imaginations and need things spelled out for them. Should we just ignore all those people and only write for the extremely literate? Should we only write to the level of editors? Finding one's self is a common figure of speech. "I found myself an hour late for my Dr's appt, after gossiping so long at lunch." She didn't realize she was late, so she found herself there. Haven't you ever driven down the road, your mind wandering? You come to your senses and "find" you've gone a mile without seeing any of the landmarks along the way.

    "Fred walked out, taking the file with him." You say leave off the "with him." Ok, fine. But Fred could have taken his file and thrown it in the trash on the way out or to his secretary to file. To just say, "taking the file" doesn't give enough info. "Fred walked out, taking the file." sounds incomplete. Your second example is "Fred grabbed the file and walked out." Walked out of what? The conversation? The room? Does one usually "grab" a file and then "walk" out? "Grab" doesn't really go with "walk."

    "Those gray eyes of his" is also a very familiar usage of speech. It's not unlike, "That picky-editor nature of yours..." If you're the only other person there, of course it's yours, but it sounds incomplete without it.

    I'm a strong believer in writing the way people speak. Most people don't speak like most editors want us to write. To say "Sally shrugged" sounds strange. Adding "her shoulders" helps paint the picture. I can shrug with a tilt of my head and twist of my mouth. If you said, Eric shrugged, how would the person know what my shrug looked like? But it is true that it could be worded other ways. "Sally shrugged her shoulders so apathetically, I didn't know if she wanted me to go or not." I can shrug apathetically with my head. (cont.)

  32. "It was a picture of Madeline Smith, herself." OK, alone it's kind of silly. But what if it was well-known that the old maid Madeline Smith was known to never have had a photo taken of her. Then, one day while looking through a pile of old photographs, Jake stumbled upon a photo of Madeline Smith, herself? Adding "herself" emphasizes the great surprise of finding something that everyone thought didn't exist. "...Jake stumbled upon a photo of Madeline Smith." Oh, really? That's nice. Wait a minute...you mean Madeline Smith, herself?! There are no known photographs of her!

    "You are one ugly girl," Aunt Bee snorted. That's very descriptive and tells me what Aunt Bee sounded like when she said it. If you edited it to say, "Aunt Bee said," well, what did it sound like?! Why would one just "say" "you are one ugly girl?"

    The whole Tell/Show thing that editors and publishers lord over us all is so tiring. Some stories are meant to be told. Movies are shown. Have you ever heard a child say, "Mommy, show me a story?"

    When we have to worry so much about all this crap, it takes the joy out of writing. What one editor finds annoying, won't bother another. It's all a matter of opinion...it's not law. I think that's why so many people are turning to self-publishing, e-books and the like. It's just too annoying dealing with editors who lord themselves over novice writers. It reminds me of a taste-test I saw once on TV with a famous chef. The same recipe was prepared two different ways and presented to the chef for tasting. One recipe was his verbatim. Real butter, fresh herbs, etc. The other used margarine, dried herbs, etc. Amazingly he picked the recipe that was not his own.

    So calm down and enjoy life. Don't be so perturbed by such insignificant things. If you don't like it, someone else will. That's what makes the world go 'round.

  33. I would not say, "She shrugged her shoulders" or, "He nodded his head" in speech. I'd just say, "She shrugged" and, "He nodded." so writing out "her shoulders" for me would not be writing the way people speak (well, going only by this "people.")

  34. Interesting post. When I self-edit my work I have tons of V-8 moments, times when I want to smack my forehead in frustration. When I catch a particularly egregious mistake, like floating body parts (His eyes followed her around the room, for example.) I'm tempted to wonder if I have a weak prose gremlin who sneaks in and muddies up my stories. Surely it wasn't me!

    Thanks for the reminders,

  35. In speech you probably wouldn't say it at all. Why would you tell someone "she shrugged?" If you're telling it in a story, then you're telling a story and you have to give more information, otherwise your story is incomplete. She shrugged what? Shrugging can also be a verbal indication of something: "She shrugged off the fact that her child continued to scream in the library, knowing that there was nothing she could do to quiet him." That doesn't mean she raised her shoulders. So would you say, "She shrugged." and leave the rest off?!

    Further, "He nodded." What? His head? He nodded OFF? What's wrong with adding these words in. Since when did writing become about speaking in shorthand? There's a lot of writing that is extraneous.

    For instance, in the original post she says, "I've been editing for a ong time and am still amazed at how I see common mistakes repeated over and over again." STILL amazed? When was she amazed the first time? She should have just said "...and am amazed at how often..." What point is it in telling us she was amazed at some point in the past? Further, "over and OVER" again. Isn't that redundant? Doesn't the first "over" cover it? If you often see mistakes repeated over again, that covers the second over. But "over and over" again is a common figure of speech, which I talked about in my original post, making people feel familiar and comfortable with a passage.

    She also says, "And don't EVEN get me started on all those dialogue attibutives." While I would use "And" to start a sentence, it seems highly comical that an editor would use it in a gripe about writing! "Even" is totally not necessary in the sentence. "...don't get me started" is plenty enough to get the point across. But again, I would use the "even" as well because that's how people speak. But it's no different than adding "with him" or "gray eyes of his" or "shrugging shoulders;" all common figures of speech.

  36. Why can't eyes follow someone around a room. What are they doing instead? "My eyes moved in their sockets as they watched the person move around the room?" When you go to the optometrist, he says, "follow my finger. He doesn't mean take your eyes out and drag them in the air behind his fingers.

    This is what I mean about taking the joy out of writing. This poor person is worried about something that is very common in speech and I don't have a problem with it at all. There's lots of things you can read literally that would make no sense. "My heart goes out to you." Eeeew....put it back in!
    When someone dies, people say, "I'm sorry." Why? Did they kill them? "I'm keeping my eye on you." No! Get your eyeball off of me! "I saw her out of the corner of my eye." Does she have square eyes? "I give my love to you." Well, then you won't have any left, will you?

  37. Thanks for this informative article.

  38. These are interesting points, but never forget that authors also must have a 'voice' and sometimes that voice is more important than efficient prose.

  39. You are an editor of online magazines. The point of online reading as well as magazines is to keep the story short to captivate the reader's attention, and not lose it before the end of the story. Books are hundreds of pages long; magazine stories are a few paragraphs at most. Sometimes, you need those idioms to captivate your reader throughout an entire story. It's also a great way to include descriptive language, albeit not make the story efficient. If efficiency is what you want, write in an online magazine.

  40. "I’ve been editing for a long time and am still amazed at how often I see common mistakes repeated over and over again."

    I was going to mention the tautology here.

  41. Okay, Miss High-and-Mighty Editor, are you saying there is only one way of saying everything? If that were the case, writing would be very boring. If someone wrote something a certain way, there was probably a reason.
    I'm not very experienced, but it seems the only thing that makes people think that their thoughts are right is that other people taught them that those things were right.
    Writing, as anything else that is creative, is far too subjective for these to be considered mistakes.

  42. I’ve been editing for a long time and am still amazed at how often I see common mistakes repeated over and over again."

    Was "over and over again" necessary after "how often I see common mistakes repeated"

    I mean, isn't seeing something "over and over" required to say that it is "repeated often?"

  43. wuhuuuu Thank you for your article. It is inspiring :)

  44. Oh and I'm so in love with 'simplybroadway' comments. I couldn't agree more.

  45. "Excellente," says me to myself :)
    Seriously, this really helps...continuously

    Thanks a bunch !!!

  46. I hear that problem in one comercial we have on the radio here.
    "If his ring is stuck on his finger, we'll cut it off while he waits."
    It would be hard to cut it off if he didn't wait.

  47. I enjoyed the comments as much as the article. Okay, I'm deleting all the "shrugging his shoulders" from my manuscript as we speak, eh, I mean, write. But I do like an occasional "snort" (sorry!). LOL. Good points!
    Author of Love of a Stonemason

  48. Christa. I like a snort now and then, too. LOL

    Seriously, though. A character can snort when appropriate, but it is hard to snort and speak at the same time. Our fearless leader here at BRP often makes a snide comment in an e-mail then includes "snort" to show she is doing that in fun.

    Not sure how to do that in fiction, which is why I don't have my characters snort.

  49. I notice the editor with the strict, overly-fussy rulebook doesn't reply to the brilliant observations from SimplyBroadway.

    It's so easy to preach from an editor's pulpit.....but the readers of popular and literary fiction are NOT editors, and thank God for that. (Editorial arrogance makes me roll my eyes and shrug my shoulders in desperate despair ha!!)

  50. ...one of my characters can only make cat noises, so sometimes, she does purr her lines ;)

    Otherwise, I'm in agreement with a lot of what you say and will happily put it to use.

  51. I love editor rants. They validate my own, and remind me why I love editing: you get to rant. Lol, anyway, most of the points I agree with here. I agree with Frank's comment, too, though. This is a fun discussion.

  52. Hmm. You sound a little jaded. Trouble is, everything we writers come up with these days has been used a thousand times, and is now cliche`.

    I wrote my novel, only to find later that my opening scene is something that editors cringe at, but my fans love it. I think a bit of cliche` is okay. Not heaving bosoms or anything, but mirror looking, if it's a common action for your charter, isn't the worst thing you can find.

    As for Harry nodding his head. I have one thing to say...lol. (excuse the net jargon) It's true, but we all do it. Now that I know that it sin't necessary, I will have to go through a few more painfully boring hours of editing to fix it. Why can't we have a borrow an editor exchange group?

    I'm glad that I already knew half of this stuff, just through reading what other's write in their books that made me cringe.

    When will this trying-to-get-published nightmare ever end?

  53. I agree with the comments that 'SimplyBroadway' has written here. I am English. We have a tradition of descriptive writing. Nowadays writing is shortened so much as to lose all descriptive and poetical significance. I don't like it that way. I do not agree with your post M. I want to read all the details and enjoy the pictures that the words bring to my mind. Yes, I am capable of filling in the blanks but I don't want to.
    Your post is interesting but for me, it doesn't hold up.

  54. I am in agreement with Simply Broadway. As much as I have learnt from my editors, especially lone body parts, I loathe this idea that we all have to conform to one style of writing.

  55. don't forget reached. he reached out to touch her face. he reached out to--I see that over and over. He touched her face. He touched her face is boring and reads abrupt. but he touched her face, hoping she didn't slap him. oh, yes, and how about his eyes opened wide. talk about redundant. great post. doesn't hurt for old or new writers to read it.

  56. lol "This is an old post, with 2 recent posts, but..." I trail off. (and no, i didn't get off a trail. my words did.)

    i agree with both the post and simplybroadway's comments. sometimes sometimes it goes the way Maryann says, sometimes simply's way, and sometimes neither or just not. (lots of repeats right there)
    "A character can snort when appropriate, but it is hard to snort and speak at the same time." --what if it's a half snort? or maybe the person snorts toward the ending of the statement? i can do that. i've done it in the past when i wanted to show my disbelief.

    another point would be the title. "Things That Drive An Editor Crazy" --is it "an" editor, as in one editor, or is it simply Maryann, an editor? this title implies all editors, but it doesn't say "Things That Drive All Editors Crazy". we all know not all editors are driven crazy by what drives Maryann crazy.

  57. oops, i added one extra, spare "sometimes" at the beginning of one of the sentences. lol

  58. This is an absolutely amazing post and comment thread that I only just discovered. It is almost a condensed-books course in writing that succinctly captures the eternal dialectic between familiarity and originality. And it highlights the ongoing struggle between writers who know and editors who know better.

    For me, there were many good pointers throughout that can help me improve my writing. At the same time, I appreciate being reminded that I am the writer, that it is my voice as a writer that makes me an author. Thank you all for your time and effort and intelligence.

    --Larry Constantine
    Lior Samson Author Page

  59. "He walked to the door."

    As opposed to taking a train?

  60. These are great comments. I am learning so much from this site. I wish I had found it before I began writing!

  61. Great information, really makes you think!

  62. The problem seems to be that these blog posts are so short there isn't enough room to give examples in context. Sentences and phrases out of context may seem to contain redundancies. In context, however, these supposedly extraneous words may be essential for emphasis ("herself"), rhythm ("with him"), or achieving deep POV ("gray eyes of his").

    I recommend Self Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King. It makes many of the same points Maryann is trying to make here, but the book's examples are longer and, with more context, it's easier to see when these turns of phrase may be extraneous, redundant, or cliched.

  63. I've just discovered your blog and this entry hit on many of my pet peeves, in particular: "And don’t even get me started on all those dialogue attributives. Characters say their lines." I am forever trying to get this message across. You can't breathe, smile, laugh, manage or shudder (etc) dialogue. I usually ask the writer to try it out loud. Of course, they can't.
    Thanks for a great blog entry! I'm passing it on.

  64. Great advice - I use the 'found himself' thing too often but I'm learning. I've subscribed so I can learn more. Thanks so much for the list.

  65. While all of your points are valid, writing is more than merely adhering to rules. Human language, in all of it's variations, is spoken with great imperfection.

    Yes, I could have said "imperfection", but I wanted to emphasize the degree of imperfection.

    My point being...should I have used being?

    If we all write with perfection, if we remove every single "flaw" then the humanity disappears. I'd rather read a story that sounds like a normal human conversation, as opposed to a robotic presentation of grammatical perfection.

    I'm just say'n...should I have said, "Just say'n?" Since it's obvious that I'm the voice?

  66. I have not visited this post in quite a while. Interesting comments here. I do agree with Adrian about the book Self Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King. It is a great resource, and not just because it validates much of what I said in the original post.

    I don't respond to some comments that disagree with me, as everyone is entitled to their own opinion. The point here is not to say that one is right and the other wrong. A good discussion holds forth both sides and lets other readers chose for themselves.

  67. I grew up in Pittsburg, TX. Do you still live in Winnsboro?

  68. I agree with Maryann nearly 100 percent. SimplyBroadway is, in my opinion, simply too sensitive. Professional writers have all had their work ripped, stripped and flipped by editors. One has to learn to take it not as a personal attack, but as a sincere attempt to help you present your best and clearest writing. I love to help writers bring their imaginings and research to full clarity through careful editing. I learn as much as I teach.


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