Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Things That Drive an Editor Crazy

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, journalist, screenwriter and editor. You can check out her work and her editing fees at her Web site

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  1. The use of dialogue attributes was discussed in depth on the Dorothy L list recently. Many readers/writers said they like to see an occasional change from "said." They just don't like it to be overdone.
    But I'm with you on the adverbs, and I'm surprised when I see heavy usage in books I read. You even see adverbs in titles sometimes!

  2. I have discovered that as my novel in progress ages, the easier it is for me to get out the red pencil (figuratively) and perform manuscript surgery. I seem to have less emotional investment in every little word. And the real clunky sentences leap off the page. (Did I write that?)Whether it will get me to the promised land of publication, who knows? At least it will be a work that has become readable.

  3. Sometimes writers read someone else's work and they think, this author's writing is beautiful (or powerful or provocative). Then they try to recreate that writing in their own work, but instead overuse adverbs and adjectives. What they need to do is go back to that original work and study what the author did. What words did they use? What were their power verbs, adverbs and adjectives? How did they construct their sentences? Their paragraphs? How often did they use tags to identify characters?

    Use what you learn from other writers to create your own style -- and your own memorable book. Some day a reader will finish your novel and wonder how you wrote such a great book. And they will begin to analyze your writing.

  4. I agree with L.J., that sometimes you just need to put in a dialogue attribute that's a little more fun. At the same time, I probably do overuse them. Will have to check that on my next read-through.

    Also, Maryann, I know this is unrelated, but what do you do when you can't stand a book you've been asked to review? I was asked to review a book, and the author sent me a copy to read. I think that I will like this one, but I would feel terrible writing a bad review or no review at all after all that effort!

  5. Emma, when I am sent a book that I don't consider worthy of a review, I simply don't. There is nothing that says we have to review every book that is submitted. All the review places I sent my books to didn't do a review. :-)

    I usually avoid accepting books from friends I have met online and at cons. Mostly because if I don't like the book, I don't want to have to come right out and tell them that.

    I review for ForeWord magazine, and their policy is that if the book is not worthy of a positive review, then don't write one. On Bloggernews.net, I have a little more flexibility, and if I want to pan a book, I can. I don't often do that, however. But there have been a few cases where I thought the review should be posted.

  6. Maryann, Maryann, Maryann - all I can say is AMEN. Great post.

    Recently, errors like these annoyed me as an editor; it was hard for me to figure out why writers were still making these types of errors.

    But it dawned on me that every day there is a new batch of writers, many that are just picking up the pen, who have NO idea "how" to write, but they know they have a story they want to tell.

    They don't venture to places like this blog to learn as they write.

  7. The Story Circle Network has a book review site, too, and have a similar mandate - no reviews that aren't positive. Also books for and about women, as the group's focus is lifewriting for women. There link is http://www.storycirclebookreviews.com

    Another good post. Which begs the question - is there a particular genre most guilty of bad writing?


  8. I read your post with my eyes and found myself agreeing vigorously with my mind.

    I find myself overusing 'that' when it's not necessary...

  9. Thanks Maryann! Maybe some of the Exalted Editors can tutor me in the skill of saying "No!"

  10. "They don't venture to places like this blog to learn as they write."

    I think quite a few of us (we would-be published writers, that is) do but many definitely don't. I am doing my part to make this less true. I have been following (and loving) Blood Red and this post I loved so much I just had to write a post on it. I know there are quite a few people who read my blog who claim to be would-be writers (as I am) so hopefully they will take my advice!

    Thanks for the great site!

  11. Maryann,

    Loved the post so much that I quoted you at http://charsbookreviews.blogspot.com/ (and of course twittered)

    Emma, I know you didn't ask me, but since I review books on my blog, I thought I'd answer. I have a policy - stated at the top of the blog - of only publishing reviews of books that I enjoy well enough to recommend to others.

    If someone I don't know asks for a review and sends a book, I give it a shot. If I enjoy the book, I publish a review. If I don't, I offer the writer some constructive critism. (I don't just send it, I offer to send it. Some want to see it, others do not.)

    When people I do know request reviews, I explain, honestly, that my committment pile is quite tall and it could be a very long while until I get their book. I also tell them that I rarely review a book for people I know to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest - that such a book would have to be outstanding to gain a public review. I suggest they might get faster results elsewhere.

    Some people don't take no for answer, though. When this happens, I accept the book and give it a shot. If I like it, I publish the review. If I don't, it gets burried in the stack. On the one occaision when someone followed up, I told the truth and offered to return the book. To my great relief, she asked me to simply tell here where I stopped reading and why. Then she asked for some suggestions what she could do to improve. It's easy when people are genuinely interested in improving.


  12. Thanks for all the positive comments about my post. I appreciate them all. Maybe I should rant some more. :-)

    As far as the question about whether the weak writing is more in one genre than another, I would have to say no. Just from my experience. But I have noticed that some of the recent authors I have panned on BloggerNews.net, did come from a background in writing romance.

    I almost hated to write that, as I have read many wonderful romance novels, but I have also read some awful ones.

  13. For some reason the links to all of you who left comments is not working from here. What a bummer. I wanted to hop over and read some of the blogs. From what I have been reading, Blogger has been having trouble with links not working.

    But I do want you all to know I appreciate the kind words about my post. And I will try to get over to your blogs when I have time to find them all on Google. Got to go right now and take hubby to see eye doctor.


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