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Style Blunders in Fiction

No, I’m not talking about the fashion police coming after you. I’m talking about those little errors and bad habits that creep into your manuscript, weaken your message, and add up to an overall feeling of amateurish writing. The good news is that, unlike the more critical creative flow of ideas for plot and characters, these little bad habits are easy to correct, resulting in a more polished, compelling manuscript.

1. Take out wishy-washy qualifiers such as quite, sort of, almost, kind of, a bit, pretty, somewhat, rather, usually, basically, generally, probably, mostly, really. Forget “He was quite brave,” or “She was pretty intelligent” or “It was almost scary.” These qualifiers dilute your message, reduce the impact, and make the imagery weaker. Take them out. Even very is to be avoided. It’s like you’re saying the word after it needs reinforcing. “She was beautiful” packs more punch than “She was very beautiful.”

2. Show us, don’t tell us how your characters are feeling. Avoid statements such as “He found that funny” or “The little girl felt sad.” Show these emotions by their actions, words, and body language: “Eyes downcast, shoulders slumped, head down, she refused to answer as she pushed her food around the plate.”

3. Avoid colorless, overused verbs such as walked, ran, went, saw, talked, ate, did, got, put, took. Get out your thesaurus (or use the MS Word one. Hint: look up the present tense: walk, run, eat, say) to find more expressive, powerful verbs instead: crept, loped, stumbled, stomped, glimpsed, noticed, observed, witnessed, spied, grunted, whimpered, devoured, consumed, gobbled, wolfed, munched, and bolted.

4. Avoid -ing verbs wherever possible. Use past tense verbs instead; they’re stronger and more immediate. “He was racing” is weaker than “He raced.” “They searched the house” is more immediate than “They were searching the house.” Rewrite -ing verbs whenever you can, and you’ll strengthen your writing and increase its power.

5. Keep adverbs to a minimum. Instead of propping up a boring, anemic verb with an adverb, look for strong, descriptive, powerful verbs. Instead of “He walked slowly,” go for “He plodded” or “He trudged” or “He dawdled.” Instead of “She ate hungrily,” say “She devoured the bag of chips” or “She wolfed down the pizza.” Instead of “They talked quickly,” say “They babbled.”

6. Use adjectives sparingly and consciously. Instead of stringing a bunch of adjectives in front of an ordinary, overused noun, find a more precise, expressive noun to show rather than tell. Overuse of adjectives can also turn your writing into purple prose that is melodramatic and flowery.

7. Use simple dialogue tags. Stick with the basic “he said” and “she said” (or asked) wherever possible, rather than “he emphasized” or “she reiterated” or “Mark uttered.” These phrases stand out, so they take the reader out of the story, whereas said is almost invisible. However, I like dialogue tags that describe how something is said, as in “he shouted,” “she murmured,” “he grumbled,” “she whispered.” You can often eliminate the dialogue tag altogether and just use an action beat instead: He picked up the phone. “That’s it. I’m calling the cops.”

8. Describe the stimulus, then the response. When writing an action scene, make sure your sentence structure mimics the order of the actions. The reader pictures the actions in the order that she reads them, so it’s confusing to read about the reaction before finding out what caused it. So describe the action first, then the reaction: Instead of “He yelled when the dog bit him,” write: “The dog bit him and he yelled.”

9. Avoid the passive voice. For greater impact, when describing an action, start with the doer, then describe what he did, rather than the other way around. Use the more direct active voice wherever possible. Instead of “The house was taped off by the police,” write “The police taped off the house.” Also, avoid empty phrases like “There is,” “There was,” “It’s,” “It was.” Jump right in with what you’re actually talking about.

10. Avoid negative constructions wherever possible. They can be confusing to the reader. Instead of “I didn’t disagree with him,” say “I agreed with him.”

11. Avoid frequent repetition of the same word or forms of the same word. If you’ve already used a certain noun or verb in a paragraph or section, go to your thesaurus to find a different way to express that idea when you mention it again. Also, avoid repetition of the same imagery. Whether you’re describing the setting, the weather, or the hero or heroine, vary your wording.

12. Avoid formal sentences and pretentious language. Rather than impressing your readers, fancy words can just end up alienating them. As Jessica Page Morrell says, “If a reader is constantly consulting a dictionary when reading your prose, you’re dragging him from the story. Words in manuscripts such as capacious, accretion, plangent, occluded, viridian, arboreal, sylvan, obdurant, luculent, longueur, rubescent, and mendacious always pull me from the story. Just say no to showing off.”

As Morrell points out, “Simple words are close to our hearts and easily understood…. simpler words are unpretentious, yet contain power and grace….Pompous words are alienating, boring, and outdated.”

Resources: Thanks, But This Isn’t For Us, by Jessica Page Morrell; Manuscript Makeover, by Elizabeth Lyon; How NOT to Write a Novel, by Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman.

Jodie Renner is a former English teacher and librarian with a master’s degree and a lifelong passion for reading, especially fiction. For the past several years, Jodie has been running her own freelance manuscript editing business, specializing in fiction. She is also the copy editor for two magazines. To find out more about Jodie and her business, please visit her website at

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  1. Each one of these points could have been its own post. This is a huge wealth of information, readers, that Jodie has pulled together for you and put all in one place. Print it out, save, and apply liberally!

  2. Great post! I'm going to star it to refer back to when I begin that level of revision.

    The only one I quibble with is #4 -ing verbs. Verbs ending in -ing are progressive tense, and there are times that tense is both correct and necessary -- and not weak. I think it would be helpful to readers to explain when it's correct and when it isn't.

  3. Love this post. I know all of these things, but it's very helpful to have them all clearly described in one place, then I can go over my ms and check for them. Also glad to see someone pointing out that there are exceptions to 'said' - sometimes characters have to shout!

  4. Good advice and worth saving. Thanks Jodie.

  5. Thanks for your comments, Kathryn, Melissa, Girl Friday and Ginger.

    Melissa, you make a very good point about at times needing 'ing verbs, to show an action that is going on while something else is happening. An example off the top of my head would be, "As he was searching the office, the phone rang."

  6. Great post. One more word to add to the wishy-washy list: just. I have a bad habit of slipping that one in. I just thought I'd mention it. ;-)

  7. Great post. I agree that each one of these points could be it's own post.

  8. Great information, Jodie, and I agree that each point could have been a separate post -- well, some of them for sure. That way you could have explained both sides of the point you were making as Melissa suggested.

    On the other hand, it is great to have this all in one place for future reference. Thanks.

  9. Good post! I keep a whole list of items that I need to search for in final edits (like my favorite overused word, "back"), so I use Word's Find function to track them down.

  10. Great post, Jodie.
    I'm going to save this the archaic way and print it out for the bulletin board that is on the wall near my computer. Thanks.
    Emily Wright.

  11. Excellent--the basics we should all tape above our computers!

  12. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  13. I agree. This is a great post and a lot of information compressed into a small space. I'm guilty of several of these errors.

    I'm just glad that #6 dealt with adjectives and not adverbs.

    Excellent info that should be printed out and reviewed from time to time.

  14. All great advice!

    Morgan Mandel

  15. Thanks for all your positive comments, everyone. I think if I can help writers get their books noticed by agents and published, we all benefit!

  16. This is all very good advice. These are the fundamentals and foundations of an enjoyable book.Definitely going to put it into use on my next editing.

  17. Just a note that the comment deleted was just a duplicate, but with a typo, so we still have the comment posted. Thanks for pointing that out, Michael!

  18. Great job Jodie. All important points...

  19. Good points, but I'd be careful with #3. "Ran" has its place just as "said" has its place. Replacing all the colourless verbs can change the tone of a piece entirely, or even make it feel like the writer is trying too hard to add thesaurus words -- after all, there's a difference between reading casually while eating Wheaties, and poring over a book while consuming shredded wheat cereal.

  20. Hi Heidi,

    I'd go with whichever word makes the story most vivid and compelling, and brings the scene to life for the readers.

    And definitely stay away from pretentious, fancy-schmancy, over-the-top words, as mentioned in point #12.

    Keep on writing, all of you!

  21. What a great and generous list, Jodie. Thank you for all you do for the craft.

    Peace and continued good things for you.


  22. Frank Forchione said...
    These tips are so helpful. Especially remebering to "show" and "not tell". Let the characters tell you the story, not the reader.

  23. Thanks, Diane and Frank. Good point, Frank - let the characters reveal the story and how they're feeling, rather than having the author tell the reader about it/them.

  24. I'm editing a client's first novel. I could have just sent her your post, "Style Blunders in Fiction," instead.

    On second thought, I'll send it to her anyway.

    Thank you for this superb post!

  25. P.S. I tweeted your post, too, to share with more writers.

  26. Hey, thanks a lot, Lynette! Glad to be of assistance!

  27. This is such a wonderful post.
    It's one of those things that, as you read, you find yourself saying "Well of course!", but that doesn't stop you from making all of these mistakes easily while writing.

    Thanks so much for your incite!

  28. Thanks for the 12 great points, Jodie. I'm in 'story revision' mode
    and these astute points are very timely for me.
    I especially like Numbers 3, 4 & 9.

  29. Great post, Jodie.
    Show don't tell. Yes!
    Thanks for adding appropriate examples on most every item of your list. They make the points stand-out clear.
    I'll be printing up this post for my bulletin board.


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