Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Little Fixes to Improve Your Book

There are so many little fixes we can do to a manuscript so we don't insult our reader's intelligence. Consider the following:

"Perfect," he said to himself.  If the character is the only one in the scene it is obvious that he is speaking to himself.

When you have internal dialogue in italics, then the character says something out loud, what they say is put in quotes, so you don't have to write "he said aloud".

Instead of writing: She stood up, simply write: She stood. When a person stands, it is always up, unless a drill sergeant says, "Stand down, soldier."

Could we be a little less awkward? These are examples from published books:

1. Fred drove down the palm tree-lined street

      Fred drove down a street lined with palm trees swaying in a gentle breeze.

Not only is the second try at this more visual it gets rid of that awkward punctuation dilemma of where to put the hyphen.

2. My favorite item on that list: positive attitude: arguably the most important item on the list.

      My favorite item on that list, a positive attitude, was arguably the most important item.

Again, some weird punctuation that is fixed with this change. Plus, the reader already knows the item is on the list so that last phrase can be cut.

3. I picked up the glass gratefully, it slipped down easily.

       I picked up the glass, grateful to have another drink to still my pounding heart. The booze slid down easily, maybe too easily.

The fix gets rid of two clunky adverbs, as well as establishes that the character was not swallowing the glass.

This I just discovered in my own work and realized that by changing the placement of one word I could make it stronger. First effort:  But she wasn't going to give their baby away. Second effort:  But she wasn't going to give away their baby.

Give the reader something better than the same old same old.

Instead of saying a character is nervous, how about something clever like "tense as a second hand jerking its way through time." 

Instead of writing "Leslie felt a chill invade her stomach." How about, "Leslie's stomach convulsed as if she'd been sucker-punched."

And to end on a lighter note. This was sent to me by a good friend: No English dictionary has been able to explain the difference between the two words complete and finished, in a way that's easy to understand.

Some people say there is no difference between COMPLETE and FINISHED. I beg to differ because, there is :

When you marry the right woman, you are "complete".
And when you marry the wrong one, you are "finished".
And when the right one catches you with the wrong one, you are .... "completely finished".


Maryann Miller is an author and freelance editor. Information about her books, her editing services, and her blogs can be found on her Web site at Follow her on Twitter and Facebook

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  1. That last bit has me LOL!! Great advice and good examples to illustrate.

  2. Thanks for stopping by Lauri and Traci. Glad I could make you chuckle, Traci. I have found that using some humor now and then helps keep tensions at bay when I am editing for a client. Helps us both to relax and try to enjoy the process, as much as one can enjoy rewriting.

  3. Love these Maryann. Such small changes with such huge ripple effects as concerns reader confidence.

    But I like even better:

    "My favorite item on that list, a positive attitude, was arguably the most important."

  4. Completely finished? Oh, yeah!

    Great examples are akin to those pictures that are worth a thousand words. And yours are definitely great, Maryann.

  5. Good stuff, Maryann ... but I never got off that street lined with palm trees swaying in a gentle breeze ... aaaaahhh.

  6. I respectfully disagree with some of these suggestions.

    "Fred drove down a street lined with palm trees swaying in a gentle breeze."

    "Swaying in a gentle breeze" sounds a bit cliché, and it shifts the emphasis of the sentence from Fred driving to the palm trees and the breeze, which may or may not be appropriate depending on the context. (And isn't "gentle breeze" redundant?)

    If you feel the punctuation is awkward in the original sentence, then the simpler fix would be to eliminate the mostly redundant word "tree". A "tree-lined street" evokes a very specific image in the mind, and a "palm-lined street" is a nice way of rendering the term fresher and more specific. A "street lined with palm-trees" doesn't conjure quite the same image (for me, anyway), especially once you start inventing weather details like the breeze.

    "Swaying in the gentle breeze" doesn't ring true, either. A breeze might ruffle some fronds, but it's not enough to make the tree actually sway. Swaying would require a substantial gust (or a more flexible variety of palm than the kinds familiar to me).

    "I picked up the glass gratefully ..."

    With this one, it's hard to tell what's right without more context. First person narration must always be in the character's voice. If the character speech would naturally include these adverbs (which aren't really all that clunky), then to eliminate them would be a mistake.

  7. Great suggestions, Maryann! I especially like the one where you rearranged the sentence to put the most important element - the baby - at the end. Saul Stein, in Stein on Writing, gives lots of examples of sentences he rearranged to put the most important element at the end, and it really works!

    Thanks for sharing these.

  8. I can't begin to count how many times I rearrange clauses, phrases, and words in an effort to tighten and clarify my writing. Some good advice, even though it is hard to take things out of context. Voice is everything, and sometimes, as Adrian pointed out, what looks clunky by itself might work for the character.

    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

  9. Thanks for the suggestions for other ways to fix the awkwardness of some of the sentences. My ideas have never been cast in gold. LOL

  10. Good one, Maryann! Hahaha. I dunno about gentle breezes though - in my stretch of the middle, the breezes get pretty brisk, and even stiff. So a modifier shouldn't be implied.

  11. Hi Maryann,
    Another brilliant blog. Thanks!

    I have one suggestion for: "Leslie felt a chill invade her stomach."

    How about: "A chill invaded Leslie's stomach."

    Thanks again. Love this blog.

  12. Oh! This is a delightful post! Especially the final point about how different "complete" is from "finished". I love it.

  13. Helpful, since I'm editing my novel now.

  14. Excellent, Maryann! I love the last paragraph--sums it up well! I like to challenge my clients to see if they can remove one word from every sentence, one sentence from every paragraph, etc.

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  16. Thanks for sharing the little fixes. About the use of 'he said to himself', in your example I can see how it might not be needed. However I think there is a fine implication, understanding, or perhaps even expectation, that a character at times is thinking through something as they speak to them self (lightly). Also, when a character speaks there could be ambiguity about who they are speaking to if that has not been established yet.

    " 'The book might be there.' He sat in the chair thinking about attending the evening's event where a collection of rare books would be auctioned."

    If it has been established he is alone in the scene the reader knows he is speaking to himself, however the reader doesn't know how he has spoken the word — loudly, plainly, softly as one often does when they speak to them self in thought, pointedly, etc., ... And I'm suggesting the phrase carries with it a bit of an indication of how the dialogue was spoken.

    " 'The book might be there" he said to himself, as he sat in the chair pondering the evening's event where a collection of rare books would be auctioned."

    Yes it is true that technically no-one is in the room (the scene) which means by fault he must be speaking to himself, but I think there is a bit of a connotative implication in the use of 'he said to himself' which creates the sense a person is speaking to them self, and oftentimes lightly as they are thinking through a problem or question, or something that has them a bit preoccupied in that moment. This is how some other novels have used it. The use of it certainly eliminates any ambiguity about who else will hear what has been said, or what the character intends to be heard by another, maybe he is speaking to something that can hear his words but is not in the scene — a ghost or someone from the afterlife for instance that is not considered to be in the scene but later reveals to have heard the words. But without using this description of the dialogue this remains ambiguous until it is established no-one else will hear the character's words. Also if a character is alone in a scene and speaks, 'Perfect' with no description of it, there remains the chance the reader is asking them self, who is the character speaking to or why are they saying this? And yes, of course to write " 'Perfect' he said as he admired the painting before resting it on the mantle of the fireplace" tells the reader why he spoke the word. But in those instances where an author doesn't want to include the longer description after the dialogue, the use of 'he said to himself' can achieve the same result I suggest.

    It's subjective I'd say as when I read 'he said to himself' I take it as the character is speaking as one usually does when they speak lightly to them self while working through a problem or similar. In your example I don't question who else can hear his words, and I don't take it as redundant because he is alone in the scene, but rather it makes me think the character is speaking lightly to himself in reflection of something which he considers to have been done well — a plan is going well, his appreciation for a photograph he is admiring, or a solution he has derived to a problem he has, for instance.

    As much as 'he said to himself' implies who is being spoken to, it also serves to imply how the word(s) is spoken and for what reason it is spoken. In this way a lot of meaning is conveyed to the reader with fewer words. What's that saying? 'Shorter is better?

  17. Great post -- I love fixing sentences. For #2 I would suggest a further tune-up:
    My favorite item on that list, and arguably the most important one, was a positive attitude.
    (Gets rid of an extraneous 'item').


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