Friday, December 28, 2012

Beyond Grammar, Spelling and Punctuation

This post was first published here on September 12, 2008.


1. Mark repetitive words and phrases for rewrites or substitutions. As is a particularly overused phrase beginning.

2. Mark all lazy verbs such as were, was, had, and substitute active verbs or restructure sentence. In most cases take out just, now, very, only. There is no now in the past tense except within the dialogue or thoughts of the character. An editor once told me that tiny is the most overused word in manuscripts.

3. Once those basic mistakes are corrected, read aloud and listen for:

A. Hard to read passages that make you stumble. Fix them.

B. If you stop to breathe in the middle of a sentence, it’s probably too long.

C. Unpleasant cadence, too many sentences with the same rhythm, too many long or too many short sentences within a scene. As a general rule, short sentences are used for fast paced action, longer are to calm down a scene.

D. Sibilance (repetition of S or SH sounds) or iteration (repetition of same sounds) should be avoided unless you are doing it to create a particular effect.

E. Too many verbs ending in ing. Change to ed endings by restructuring.

F. Noun-verb repetition. Jake saw, Jake sat, Jake ran, or he saw, etc.

4. Substitute words (especially verbs and nouns) that will set a mood, convey the five senses or visualize a scene.

5. Watch your viewpoint. You are not God, nor are you a camera.

6. Balance dialogue and narrative.

7. Say what you mean. Incorrect placing of prepositional phrases can totally change the meaning of a sentence.

8. Be true to the voice and tone of your book in both narrative and dialogue.

When the time comes, print out the work and go someplace else to read the entire story from paper, not the computer screen. Do not sit in the same place in which you created the work. Edit with a red pen, it stands out much better. After those corrections have been made, one more read is in order before sending it off to an editor, agent or contest.


By Velda Brotherton



  1. Lots of things for a novice writer to remember. Good idea to print out this list because everything mentioned is important.

    Morgan Mandel

  2. Good advice, Velda. Many writers tend to repeat words, phrases, and sentence structure. For example, on one blog I read fairly often, I don't think I've ever read a post that didn't have "that being said" and "simply put" somewhere in the post. I make a game of seeing how many times the blogger will use those two phrases. The blog has good information but repetition of those two phrases becomes very annoying. That kind of repetition in a book-length manuscript is even worse.

  3. Okay, quick! Who can find Velda's punctuation mistakes? LOL.

    That being said, the essay is full of good advice.

    Simply put, I'm feeling like a bit of a brat today. Must be the weather. ;)

    Hugs and kisses,


  4. Velda makes a habit of sending a page of commas to her editor, not having an education in English, but rather learning in the school of hard knocks.

    My editors never seem to mind. In our critique group we have a woman we call "comma Momma." She helps a lot. In the newspaper business we leave out a lot of commas to save that one space. Guess it may be a bad habit. Or, wait, maybe I put in too many. Gosh!

  5. Good tips.

    Here's another: Print out Velda's list, hang it above your editing table and refer to it often.

  6. Velda, what many people don't realize in journalism is that "styles" change all the time. I was just talking to my good friend from high school who has been a journalist for many years, and it drove her crazy how each publisher had a different idea of what "their" newspaper would look like. Language is fluid and changes, more quickly now in the modern day than ever before. And commas.... whoa! They are all over the place or not at all. One has to learn to roll with it. You definitely can't be an old stick-in-the-mud when it comes to the written word, and nitpick everything to death. The basics will hold the essay up well enough. The point is for the communication to be sharp, and sometimes proper language can dull the edge. You'll see a fine example of that in our header description today. ;)

    I was thinking of adding some quotation marks (or italics in the new habit) to a couple of your words. Just for clarity. You think?


  7. Good points. Thanks for sharing them. I would say more, but others before me have said it all so well. Plus, I am exhausted. :-)

  8. Velda, Thanks for the reminders. The taking out of "just" mentioned in # 2 is my personal bugaboo. I just can't seem to get away from using it liberally. And it's not as if I'm not aware of them once they're piled up—on my proofreads they just jump out at me for deletion. It's just on those first go arounds, I can't seem to avoid inserting them. :-) Alison

  9. "Just" is one I tend to overuse, too, along with "really".


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