Thursday, December 21, 2017

Little Fixes

This post was first published here on October 17, 2012.

I am a firm believer in the benefits of going back through a manuscript several times. The first rewrite is to deal with story issues, but a second or third draft should focus on ways to improve our use of language. Sometimes we write in such a hurry that we overlook the fact that the word placement and usage may not be quite right.

"Sirens screamed, bouncing off the buildings and deafening me. "

Wait a minute. Were the sirens bouncing off the building or the sound?  "Sirens screamed, the noise bouncing off the buildings and deafening me."

"As I pulled into the warehouse parking lot, the smell of smoke lingered in the air."

For some reason that just didn't read smoothly to me. Perhaps it is better this way? "Stepping out of my car in the warehouse parking lot, I caught the lingering odor of smoke."

"She tapped my forehead with the revolver then slipped it into the pocket of her blazer."

Oops, she didn't slip the forehead into the pocket. "She tapped my forehead with the revolver, then slipped the weapon into the pocket of her blazer."

There are times we may tack a phrase on the end of a sentence that is not needed.

 "I heard that Royce is having some problems with his health."

That way is correct, but could it be better this way? "I heard that Royce is having some health problems."

The use of pronouns can be tricky if we don't pay close attention, and we have to be careful not to write ourselves into a pronoun maze. "Leslie was a bit surprised that Mandy had not told her, but then she had been a bit distracted the past couple of weeks." Maybe you can fix the pronoun problem?

Something that I always have to be mindful of is not sticking with the first thing I wrote.

"She filled the sink with water and washed the dishes."

That is so bland. Sentences like that are so much better when specific details are added. "She filled the sink with water and slipped the egg-crusted plates into the suds."

In a book I recently read for review, I was a bit put off by the frequent use of adverbs, but there are times when a well-placed adverb works. The following example came from Kristen Lamb's blog. She commented that generally one should avoid using adverbs to show how someone is speaking. For example,  "She whispered quietly."

Lamb wrote, "Okay, as opposed to whispering loudly? Quietly is implied in the verb choice. Ah, but what if you want her to whisper conspiratorially? Or whisper sensually? The adverbs conspiratorially or sensually tells us of a very specific types of whispers, and are not qualities automatically denoted in the verb. Therefore, the adverb use works in those instances."   

I have been known to rail against having people bark, especially when barked is used as a dialogue attributive, but there are some rare instances when bark works. "Olivier gave a bark of a laugh." From Still Life by Louise Penny.

Now it's your turn. What are some of the improvements you have made by carefully crafting your words? Have anything to share from a book you are reading?

Maryann Miller is a novelist, editor, and sometimes an actress. She has written a number of mysteries, including the critically-acclaimed Season Mystery Series that debuted with Open Season. Information about her books and her editing rates is available on her website. When not writing, Maryann likes to take her dog for a walk and work outside on her little ranch in East Texas. 


  1. Thank you for this blog post! I'm getting together with four other children's book writers and we are doing a full ms edit of each other's work. This Saturday, I will share these tips.

  2. Good post. I love editing my manuscript to get it just right. I belong to a group that meets every week and we critique each others work. Sometimes we spend many minutes searching for just the right word to make a sentence shine. I find it is easier to find these things you speak about in another persons manuscript than in our own, since we are so close to our work. But, it jumps out at you when looking at another manuscript.

  3. In this context, shouldn't "There are times we may tack a phrase on the end of a sentence that is not needed" be: "There are times we may tack a phrase that is not needed on the end of a sentence." ? ;)

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  5. I recently read my manuscript out loud...twice. This exercise helped me "hear" the words so I could identify where language wasn't as strong or flowing as it could be. It took a long time, but it was worth it and helped me tighten the writing.

  6. Thanks, Jodi. I look forward to your tips.

    Janet, you are so right about it sometimes being easier to find those pesky little things in other people's work. I have found, however, that after years of editing and critiquing, I have gotten better about finding them in my own. Some of those examples I used were from my WIP. (smile)

    Christina, thanks for catching my mis-step.

    Liza, you make a good point about reading work aloud. I know a lot of writers read their dialogue aloud to make sure it flows well, but it it important to read the narrative, too.

  7. I agree about reading the manuscript out loud. For one book, I taped myself as I read, then went back to listen. I caught goofs that I hadn't noticed as I read aloud.

  8. Maryann, my tips will be more along the line of, "Don't do as I did, but do as I know now to do." Hmm, does that make any sense?

    See. Point made.

  9. As an editor, I love this stuff. For me it is never about the grammar per se, but about how the sentence serves the story. For instance, in your example of filling the sink to do the dishes, you might ask yourself, "Why is this detail important at all to the story, when I could just as easily jump cut to the next scene that advances the story?"

    A fun challenge is to go back through and make every sentence contribute to the story in a relevant way. Such as:

    "She scrubbed the plates in sudsy water until every scrap of crusted egg was gone so she could go to bed knowing she'd done at least one thing right."

    In this instance the pedestrian activities of filling the sink and immersing the plates is assumed. Gary Provost wrote of this kind of thing in his book MAKE EVERY WORD COUNT.

  10. Good point, Kathryn. I think I will have to get the book you mentioned.

    The dish-washing is important to the story for two reasons. One, the protagonist has a landlady who comes and checks to make sure the house is being kept up properly, so that is always something the protagonist worries about. Also, in this particular instance the mindless task is something she does while her mind is worrying over a problem.

  11. When I am working as an editor, I often run into dangling modifiers and adverbs that stand in place of strong, active verbs. Like Liza and Helen, I find that hearing the story adds a valuable sense to the process. Sight can be flawed -- particularly since the eyes tend to trick the brain into seeing what we know should be there rather than what is actually on the page (or monitor). Hearing is not so easily fooled. The two together make a great team. Needless to say, I apply the same techniques to my own writing.

    I love how the comments build on the article to add depth and perspective. Nice post, Maryann.

  12. I see a lot of "filler" in novels - information to build word count, but without adding anything to the story. Certainly not any information that made the characters and settings more interesting or moved the story forward.

  13. Checking for wandering body parts is a re-write must for me. I've always got eyes wandering all over the place.

  14. I don't mind skillfully weilded adverbs. I do recommend limiting them as dialogue tags.


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