Tuesday, August 17, 2021

Author Intrusion

The more I write and the more I edit, for myself and for my clients, the harder it is for me to read for pleasure and not want to whip out that old red pencil. Sigh...

Most of the time I've been able to ignore some simple craft issues. There seem to be more and more lately in so many published books, so I've told myself to throw away the editing hat, and the writing hat, and just read. That works for a while, then I come across another book by an author with a penchant for going to extremes in finding active verbs that absolutely make no sense in the sentence.  For instance: "Frank ditched around the door and headed for the desk." And: "Sam jammed out of the dining room and grabbed his briefcase before leaving for work." 

Changing common verbs to something unique seems to be a thing now in writing, and I get it. We often tire of using the same ol' same ol' words for a character's movements. I can get so tired of having a character simply walk I want to scream, but sometimes characters walk. Or they run. Or they dash. Or they hop over hot pavement. Seldom, however, do they "jam" or "ditch" themselves from one place to another.

The examples cited above were taken from a book I recently read. I changed up some of the wordage such as character names and places, but left the verb as is. While reading this book, I wondered if the author did a search for "walk" in their manuscript then changed every one to something like the examples cited above. 

By working so hard to find what at first glance appears to be fun, creative word usage, a writer is actually turning the attention from her story to herself. It's almost like saying to the reader, "Oh. Look how clever I am." 

This penchant for finding unusual word usage is a form of author intrusion according to editor Beth Hill on What Is Author Intrusion  

"Author intrusion can come into a story with word choices. Some writers like to pretty up their prose, add a dash of the poetic or use fancy words in place of cheap, everyday words." 

It's not only editors who urge clear, concise writing. Consider the advice of writers like Elmore Leonard and his rules for good writing:

  • Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue.
  • Never use an adverb to modify the verb "said"…he admonished gravely.
  • Keep your exclamation points under control. 
  • Never use the words "suddenly" or "all hell broke loose."

And Stephen King who advises us not to "dress  up our vocabulary."

While doing my research for this article, I wanted to see what Hemingway, the master of concise writing, had to say about using simple words. I couldn't find the exact quote I was looking for, but I did find this: “The first draft of anything is shit.”

That has nothing to do with the topic at hand, but it's worth including here, lest we think that the first words we put on paper, or computer screen, are golden. I hold strongly to the belief that a good book isn't written, it's rewritten, which is something I tell my clients and the people who take my editing classes. And I remind myself of that every day that I'm writing.

But back to the topic at hand. 

Before I spent an entire day down the fascinating rabbit hole of advice for writers, I had to give up my quest to find the exact quote about avoiding unusual word usage, but I found this at The Master's Class 16 Tips for Fiction Writers:

"Write simple sentences. Think of Shakespeare’s line, “To be or not to be?” famous for its brevity and the way it quickly describes a character’s toiling over their own life. There is a time and place for bigger words and denser text, but you can get story points across in simple sentences and language. Try using succinct language when writing, so that every word and sentence has a clear purpose."

Note that the article makes it clear that there are times for using big words and writing denser text. Some genres, especially fantasy, call for the denser text, but I don't think there is ever a need for awkward substitutions of words.

What do you think? Please do let us know in the comments.

Excerpted from Maryann Miller's humorous memoir, A Dead Tomato Plant and A Paycheck.  You can find out more about Maryann, her books, and her editing services on her Website and her Amazon Author Page, read her Blogand follow her on Facebook and TwitterHer online workshop on self-editing, part of a series of online writing workshops from Short And Helpful, can be found HERE


  1. Excellent reminders, Maryann. I particularly appreciate the paragraphs on adverbs, unusual words/usages, and the singular, unenhanced verb "said" in dialogue. Thank you for this keeper. :-)

  2. You're welcome, Linda. So glad you found the article helpful.

    And many thanks to our harried and over-worked "pusher of the posts" Elle, for getting my post live.

    1. Aw, you're welcome, Maryann. I'm glad you're well enough to join us online. <3

    2. Thanks, Elle. Better living through pharmaceuticals as my son is known for saying. As a reminder that I don't have to try to be stoic and I don't have to suffer. Pain meds keep things at a tolerable level most of the time.

  3. There is craft to sentence construction, but few are willing to learn it, or edit to that degree. I don't mind new nouns, slang, even verbs in SciFi or Fantasy if they add to the worldbuilding. But agree these examples would annoy me. There is no point in awkward replacements for verbs like ran and dashed. I am not against all use of adverbs, but they should be curated and used for impact instead of laziness. I find mistakes in traditionally published books and magazines now. I wonder if it is because they proofread on a screen? I find it easier to spot errors in print.

    1. I'm not against the use of adverbs, either Diana, and agree they should be used sparingly. A strong, sensible verb can stand alone. :-) My daughter who reads a lot of fantasy will point out a unique noun or verb from a book she's reading, so I do know that it's a common thing in that genre to substitute.

  4. I agree with this post 100%. When a sentence stops me from reading, that is a bright red flag that the author is trying too hard. Would I say that? Would anyone say that? If the answer is no, then the red flag turns into a black mark.

    1. Thanks, Polly. While writing is hard work, the reader should never be aware of the writer at work, if that makes any sense.


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