It’s no secret I love books. Hordes of them clutter my house, even after I switched to primarily using an e-reader. I always purchase the books on any birthday or Christmas wish list. Bedtime story time is sacred in our family. Plus, I write my own stories and strive to one day become traditionally published. Books are a huge part of who I am.
Yet I never expected to be gifted books for my wedding. It takes a very astute friend (or critique partner) to select the perfect book for each member of a new family.
Video games + Psychology = My Husband
Graphic Novel + Fantasy Story = My Daughter
Writing + Critique Partner Tough Love = Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne & Dave King for me.
Yes, she nailed it.
I wish I’d read this self-editing book years ago. It’s filled with pearls of wisdom I’ve had to learn the time-consuming way. I’m proud I’ve figured out many of these tips. Yet humbled I still have more to learn.
The biggest take-away from this book (and my writing experiences): Proper grammar does not necessarily equal a publishable manuscript.
This is one of the toughest concepts for a newbie writer to grasp. The A+ story from your high school English class will end up on a literary agent’s rejection pile. Correct grammar is important, of course. Writers must know these basic building blocks first. Then there is a second level of stylistic writing tricks to learn to escalate your craft from amateur to professional.
Browne & King address this topic in a chapter called “Sophistication.” In my experience, it’s a long list of writing constructions that tell agents / editors this writer is a newbie and still has much to learn. It can also make the novel voice feel old-fashioned or clunky to the reader.
Here’s my Grammar Self-Editing List assembled from many writing conferences, editing books (like the one mentioned above), and rejection comments:
1) Show, don’t tell. A detailed, well-developed scene is always better than a brief statement telling the reader what happened. The reader needs to see events unfold and draw his own conclusions. Being “told” dumbs down the writing. It also doesn’t give the reader a chance to get to know the characters and care about them.
2) Use a consistent point of view / voice. The narrator cannot head-hop mid-scene or mid-chapter. It’s very confusing for the reader to follow. Also, a close first person or close third person point of view can only reveal the information that character would know. And no character should tell information directly to the reader that is basic knowledge known to all characters in that world. This tactic is often referred to as an “info dump.” Find a more natural way to world build.
3) Limit unnecessary description. Modern publishing standards are different than those of the classic novels you may love. The days of the three-page paragraph or the description of every single item in the room are long gone. Even in modern literary fiction, there is such a thing as too much description. Limit yourself to descriptions that are essential to the storyline or would be noticed as unusual by the character living in that world.
4) Limit repetitive word use to once per paragraph. The reader will be distracted or annoyed by too much word repetition, which pulls him out of the story. Generally it is not good for the reader to notice your grammar. The writing voice should read effortless, and the story plot should be more interesting to the reader than your writing mechanics.
5) Avoid cliché emotional reactions. Limit tears to once per novel. Yes, I said novel. These emotional responses lose their power when overused. Plus it’s tough to identify with and root for a main character who is weeping on every other page, or who is a stereotype instead of a unique, developed character.
6) Vary sentence structure and length. In some cases a fragment or single word could be used for impact. In all cases, the reader will get bored if every single sentence structure is exactly the same.
7) Use shorter sentences in action sequences. If the action is moving fast, the characters won’t notice the details of the setting or pause to give flowery descriptions. Choose a quieter moment in the plot to set the scene.
8) Use contractions. Modern vernacular uses contractions so often that the story voice feels old-fashioned to the reader if contractions aren’t used.
9) Avoid using “was.” Passive voice is rarely your strongest sentence choice. It’s also often an indicator of telling.
10) Avoid using “just.” This word is often used as filler when speaking and used incorrectly in writing. Unless you mean the adjectives “fair” or “lawful,” there’s a better word choice.
11) Do not use “very”. One strong adjective / verb is always better than a weak adjective / verb emphasized by the word “very.”
12) Do not use “ly” adverbs. A strong verb is always better than a weak verb with an adverb.
13) Do not use “ing” constructions. Rarely is it possible to truly do two things simultaneously. i.e. Unzipping his pants, the boy peed behind the tree. Trust me, no boy will choose to pee while he is still in the process of unzipping his pants. One of these actions must happen before the other can begin.
14) Do not state emotions. i.e. “I feel”, “I think”, “I realized”, etc. The reader doesn’t need to be told what emotion the character is feeling if the writer has done a good job showing the emotion in the scene. The reading experience is more rewarding if the reader can draw his own conclusions based on the scene shown to him.
15) Do not use two prepositions in a row. Try reading your writing out loud to look for constructions that will tongue tie the reader and pull him out of the scene. Double prepositions rarely read smoothly, and there’s usually a single preposition that is a better fit.
16) Eliminate dialog tags when possible. If needed, use only “said” or “asked.” Readers don’t notice these constructions and only process the explanation of who is speaking. Dialog tags such as “yelled” or “whimpered” draw attention to themselves instead of the dialog the reader should be focusing on. Strong dialog will convey the proper emotion. When dialog tags are used, put the noun before the dialog tag for a more active construction. i.e. “Ben said” instead of “said Ben”.
17) Start a new paragraph every time a new character acts or speaks. It’s okay to have a single sentence or single word paragraph. White space on the page is a good thing because readers may be intimidated by huge blocks of text. Long paragraphs are often indicators of too much description or an info dump.
18) Pronouns must refer back to subject of previous sentence. Also, introductory clauses must fit with the subject of sentence. There are of course exceptions to every rule. That said, the reader will often get confused if this rule is broken. The writer won’t get confused while editing because he knows who / what he meant to refer to. Always ask a friend unfamiliar with the story to read your novel and flag points of confusion.
19) Replace adjectives / adverbs with specific details. “He could shoot a nut out of a fleeing squirrel’s butt cheeks” is more colorful and specific than “He’s a great shot”. It also establishes the voice of the character.
20) Avoid using exclamation points and italics. These items lose their impact if over-used, and they annoy many readers. Good writing will show the excitement, alarm, or surprise of the character without using short cuts.
21) Avoid redundancies such as “stand up” or “nodded yes.” The only way to stand is up. A nod is generally understood to mean “yes”. A good editing exercise is to check every sentence in your novel for unnecessary words that can be eliminated.
22) Characters rarely call each other by name after they’ve first met. The one exception might be one character yelling out a name to catch another character’s attention. Otherwise keep their names out of the dialog. If there is any confusion who is speaking, use a dialog tag.
23) Don’t use clichés. Agents and Editors view clichés as lazy writing. Plus these expressions have been used so many times they’ve lost their impact and / or set up a stereotype. Create a new spin on an old cliché or your own unique description instead.
My list is a work in progress and is not by any means all-inclusive. Of course you’ll find exceptions to all of these rules in printed novels (Probably in this blog post as well). Keep in mind that published authors have already gained the trust of their agents and editors, so they are given more leeway in their writing mechanics.
Debut writers face tough competition to be noticed. Any one of these unofficial rules could be the difference between a manuscript request and a rejection letter. Do your research so no one labels you as a newbie writer (even if you are one).