Wadded paperI’ve now been editing for the better part of a year. To say that I learned a lot is an understatement. Some of the work Down & Out has sent me could be intimidating. My first project came from a well-known author in crime fiction circles, one I read quite a bit of in the oughties. I might have been more rigid on that one simply wanting to do a good job when, as a writer, I actually turned to this guy for advice. But I’ve learned a lot since then. Like, the writer expects you to edit. So if there’s a glaring issue, it probably means he or she forgot it or wants suggestions. 

More recently, the publisher handed me a local author, which worked out well. His would be a difficult book simply for the story he told and the choices he made. Being local, I was able to meet up with him (in an indie bookstore, no less.) Which was cool. We’d met and interacted before, so it was old-home week. Plus, his book had some AC/DC references. I’d just read Brian Johnson’s The Lives of Brian, so invoking Mr. Johnson’s bff from beyond the grave added some fun to this project. It wasn’t easy, but it was a joy to work with.

Since I use ProWritingAid to edit, some things become obvious. Writers, including the two I happen to be, don’t always follow the rules. PWA hates passive voice, but most writers, including the two I happen to be, use it sparingly or in contexts where active would just sound silly. But I’ve often wondered how I was doing? I mentioned in an online forum how much fun I had doing a recent music-themed anthology (which are always fun to edit, write, or read.) The editor, who had his own story in the book, sent back a note and said, “Yeah, I fixed a couple things with mine because of your notes.”  Yeah. I like feedback like that. If they didn’t like it, I usually don’t hear about it.

Unfortunately, I’ve had a couple of bad experiences as a writer. One with an editor trying to backdoor their mad developmental editing skills and coming off as though they didn’t even read. I won’t recount the “I didn’t know this wasn’t Mars” story, but suffice it to say, a red dwarf sun and the line, “Unlike Mars, we have a magnetic field” line should have been huge hints. (As TS Hottle, I write scifi. I have expectations of the audience. I have higher ones of the betas or an editor.)

The other, also a beta, thought everything was an Easter egg because I’m an American. And Americans put Easter eggs into everything. Some of this paid off, and I had to thank him even though I didn’t take a particular suggestion. It wasn’t his objection to “tea bags.” It was sending me down a rabbit hole and asking a handful of UK friends and an exchange student from Japan how they drank their tea. As such, Suicide’s silent rant about the Interstellar Era’s equivalent of the Keurig expanded. But downside, he was finding Easter eggs where their were none. “Falcon? Do you think everyone knows all the names of Apollo lunar modules?” Space buff that I am, I had to go look that one up. And I had seen the command modules from 11 and 15 that same year. This one wasn’t so bad because it did help having a reader who wanted to know if I killed off that murderous  human pestilence, Jez Salamacis, yet. Spoiler alert: No. And not even in the upcoming Suicide Gambit.

Yet I always wondered how I was doing as an editor. Was I stepping on my writers’ toes? Was I being too loose and handing back my publisher a less-than-stellar product?

Then I ran into a couple of instances with other writers where the editors clearly did not know what they were doing. One came from, of all places, the introduction to a memoir of a woman my wife and I met up in Ohio’s Amish Country. The intro, written by the editor, had said editor telling on herself. She said she ripped out all the passive voice, all the adverbs, and all the offending “thats.” The author said that wasn’t what she’d written. Oops. What I actually bought had a much cleaner edit. Yes, there were adverbs and a stray passive voice phrase here and there, but not that many. And she still showed “that” no mercy.  That was the editor telling on herself. She was also a writer, this her first attempt editing a manuscript.

A friend of mine fared worse. He made friends with a couple of editors, one of whom would be a bit expensive. The other wanted to become what’s called a “story coach” (a glorified developmental editor.) Like the lady from Ohio, she, too, had never edited. 

My friend showed me a 1500-word scene he’d given her. Upset, he said there was no way he could do everything she asked. It was turning less and less into what he’d written. I gave him the same treatment I give Down & Out’s authors, that two of their copy editors gave me. It wasn’t bad. I trimmed the fat, took out two of three passive voice lines, and tightened up a few lines. It was a fight scene. I wrote more comments than usual so he could understand what I was doing, with an eye for him looking for these things himself. Then I looked at the offending edit.

Tempted as I am to say who it was, I won’t. I will say opening an edit with a flagged paragraph and a page-long rant is not professional, never mind helpful. I was angry when I saw that. He’s a new writer, and the rant was one of the most insulting (and in a lot of places, just flat-out WRONG) comments I’ve ever read. I told him to part ways with the editor. This after she locked him into a six-hour story consult. For reference, the two dev editors I know – Stacy Robinson and Kalene Williams – limit such Zoom meetings to about an hour. Will this person ever become a decent editor?

Hey, I did. My first attempt at editing left the writer in tears. I didn’t try it again for several years afterward. But, there’s a balance between sticking to the rules like politicians to bribes and keeping the writer’s voice. Yes, you have to take out the excessive crutch words, repetitions, adverbs, and passive voice. But all of them?

If you really do have to do a rewrite, the best person to do that is the writer. Rewriting is not your job.

Wadded paperEditing is a details game. But when the shortest thing you’ve edited so far clocks in at 53,000 words, there are a lot of details to cover. If it weren’t for the tools out there, it’d take up entire evenings getting through just half a chapter of prose. Fortunately, there are tools that speed this process along. But you can’t just blindly follow them. Many writers consider Word’s spell and grammar checks sufficient.

Not even. And while it’s improved, it misses a lot. And its grammar checking still needs work.

So, what’s out there to help an editor (and a writer) clean up the prose on that last draft? Here are a few tools. Some I use. Some I don’t. 


Grammarly is the best known editing tool out there. Run your manuscript through that, and it flags all sorts of mistakes, such as inconsistent quotation marks and apostrophes, passive voice, and sentence fragments. The best way to use Grammarly (and ProWritingAid, my preferred tool) is to take each suggesting on a case-by-case basis. Blanket deletions or revisions of adverbs, passive voice, etc. can actually make things worse. Grammarly makes suggestions, but you still have to decide if they work or not. An entire block of legalese will have reams of wordy prose and less active voice than usual.

Downside: Last time I used it, I was locked into UK English.


I wanted to like Hemingway. I really did. Instead of Word or Scrivener, word processors with spell and grammar checking built in, Hemingway is an editor with a word processor built in. It tracks how many adverbs, passive voice instances, and long sentences occur as they’re written. Or you can import a file and let it work its magic. Alas, Hemingway is too rigid. Its namesake’s most famous passage, “He went to the river; the river was there,” would not pass muster. Seems Ernest committed the crime of using passive voice in the back half of a compound sentence (which Hemingway doesn’t like.) Recommend this for short business memos but not for long work of any kind. I even soured on it for blog posts.


Like Grammarly, you can pump a manuscript through it. I have a paid subscription, so I also have the Word plugin. That is a major help, especially this month, when I have three manuscripts. However, there are some caveats. The plugin chokes late in long manuscripts. I’ve managed to mitigate this by converting a given manuscript to .docx format (You’d be surprise how often I receive .doc and .rtf.), then switching back to the original with track changes in place. Track changes is what bogs things down, so the conversion to the current format helps. A couple of downsides: it flags entity names, which in fiction is useless, and it has some questionable ideas about US vs. UK English. Unfortunately, there’s no Disable Rule option for either of these. Still, it’s my go-to tool. Like Grammarly, I can ignore what I don’t like. With track changes in Word, I can make comments rather than wholesale changes when the writer should really handle a suggestion.


I don’t own this one. Yet. The money went the other way on my 2022 taxes, or the IRS would have funded this and Atticus nicely with a lot left over for other things. (Like going to jazz shows. I digress.) PerfectIt is your writing buddy. It asks you if you want track changes turned on, what dialect of English you want (Sorry, Dana King and Kate Pavelle, but no Yinzer filter yet.), and how you want abbreviations and spellings kept consistent. Used in tandem with ProWritingAid or Grammarly, it can really cut down your editing time and give you a clearer picture of what your manuscript needs. That frees an author or editor to find things like word choices and name inconsistencies.

My personal choice is to run it through PerfectIt first, then ProWritingAid. Much of what I do is eyeballing it. The tools don’t really find run-ons, though ProWritingAid hates sentence fragments. Put that with a copy of the Chicago Manual of Style and keep Google up to check those brand names (not as easy as you may think, and some of my favorite editors miss things like Jack Daniel’s.), and editing, while not easy, becomes doable, even enjoyable. On my last manuscript for Down & Out, I actually was disappointed to stop to make a comment when I wanted to see what happened next. Because editors, yanno, read.

Wadded paperWhen I was a kid, every teacher, from Mrs. Dunham in the fourth grade to English literature teacher Mrs. Snell in high school, pounded into us not to write phonetically. Especially in narrative. Nope, kiddies. Queen’s English was the rule. Joke’s on them. Now it’s the King’s English! 

Seriously, though, we also had to read Huckleberry Finn. I kind of get the point as Twain laced his first-person narrative with enough apostrophes and malaprops to warrant a magic decoder ring in places. Well, if Twain did it…

So did Chandler, now pointed at as a paragon of style, the master of simile. When you write like him, it’s as cliché as a Twitter bot hijacking a webcam girl’s images so you’ll follow it. (Spoiler alert: I usually block those.) But Chandler, despite not having much use for Hemingway, took Hemingway’s lean approach a step further. He rendered fiction in a way the average reader could grasp it. And he wrote his dialog to sound like the characters, not what Mrs. Peterson or Sister Mary Bruno wanted. 


Then we come to one of Chandler’s literary descendants, Walter Mosley, he of Easy Rawlins fame. Mosley did write a science fiction novel based in the days of slavery called 47. I’ve read it. Fortunately, he doesn’t write the title character’s dialog like Huck, though like Twain, he’s unflinching in his portrait of the Antebellum south. However, there’s that Easy Rawlins series, which unapologetically has swallowed letters and words and Texas idioms force-fit into Los Angeles from the late 1940s onward. I met Mosley once while he toured for 47. He said there was no way he would not write that accent Easy grew up with. Both he and Easy came of age in that part of the world, and he wanted it celebrated. A few months later, I read another novel by the late great Bill Crider, another Texas native, and found a lot of the same speech in his work. Crider, however, smoothed it out some for us ignorant Midwesterners, New Yorkers, and sundry West Coast folk. But then speech was there.

So, how does one edit for this?

Very carefully.

As I’ve written here before, I use ProWritingAid as my main tool, though PerfectIt is becoming a major part of my process. PerfectIt is better suited for writers who write with an accent while ProWritingAid has a fit if it thinks an American is using “leapt” instead of “leaped.” In the past two years, I’ve seen one non-UK writer use “leaped.” She’s from Canada. I write “leapt.” Blame Mrs. Snell.) My first challenge with accent and ProWritingAid came from a recent project by an Australian author. The publisher said they wanted to keep the Australian grammar and dialog. Since I can’t change the Word plugin to Australian English, esp. while revising my own American English work, I grabbed a PerfectIt trial. (BTW, I’m sold on the tool.) It does change dialect on the fly. I actually suggested putting back in the “-our” endings of words as opposed to America’s insistence on “-or.” (Flavour instead of flavor.) That was easy enough once I got into the flow.


UK, America, Canada all have regional dialects. In North America, some places mix in French or Spanish without translation. Then there’s the rural Texas dialect used by Crider and Mosley, which both refuse to imply rather than spell out. That can get dicey. I know. I’m editing a Yinzer right now. What’s a Yinzer?

Yinzer is the dialect spoken by people living in Western Pennsylvania. To us Rust Belters, it’s as distinctive as the drawl of Kentucky or the twang of West Virginia. It draws from German and Italian, and thanks to an influx of West Virginians during the Depression, it’s taken on a but of a southern flavor. So why’s it so hard to edit?

Yinzers love sentence fragments. Not surprising. I grew up in Cleveland, which had those same West Virginians coming to the steel mills and auto plants there, but with more Slavic overtones mixed in. And it took me well into my twenties to ease up on the sentence fragments. But not only are the characters in this book Yinzers, so is the author, a Pittsburgh native. So his narrative has a lot of sentence fragments. Another author, or someone editing me, would find a manuscript awash in red tracked changes with lots of comment balloons. This particular author?

I find myself hitting ignore a lot. My job is to clear up the writing, not rewrite the novel. (And I strongly disagree an editor sometimes has to do that. Not unless they are doing a developmental edit, in which case, you’re going to call me after that part’s done. Dev edits leave a lot of copy editing to be done it their wakes.) Writers tend to write the way they talk. Or want to talk. And sometimes, they write like their characters. Military characters tend to speak in short, declarative sentences. Gossipy people prattle on incessantly. Introverts are prone to one-word responses. Those, of course, are stereotypes. I have met some rather verbose introverts and really quiet extroverts. That’s another topic for another blog. 

The point is to make it readable, but preserve the author’s voice. You can’t do that if you listen to Mrs. Snell nagging you in the back of your mind to zap every single one of those sentence fragments and make Easy Rawlins use the King’s English.  

In fact, I consider rewriting Mosley’s work along those lines blasphemy.Wadded paper

Wadded paperMy brother-in-law, who’s started writing in the past year, mentioned some notes he got back from an editor. “I didn’t know ‘suddenly’ was a crutch word.”

I hadn’t thought about that in a while. Suddenly, I realized I don’t use the word that much anymore.  Yet a lot of professional editors I know hate it more than adverbs. Oh, they might talk a good game about words ending in “-ly” (then liberally use them in their own prose), but nary a word about “suddenly.” But they’ll cut it without explanation. You might say it disappeared…


Suddenly, and its companion word, surprisingly are really crutch words. They’re also adverbs of the worst kind. Editing for a crime imprint, I don’t get much adverb abuse. The prose tends to be straightforward, gets to the point. The biggest issues I have (especially with a science fiction author named TS Hottle and his virtual crime fiction twin, Jim Winter) is with “that,” “very,” overuse of “so,” and “Well…” But “suddenly” comes up. A lot.

These are words you don’t think of much, but too many of them slow the prose down unnecessarily. (See? I used an adverb. Sparingly.) As with “very,” the writer is trying to manage stage direction. They don’t believe the reader will get the swiftness with which an event occurs or a person or thing appears. To the writer, this is a reasonable assumption.

To the reader, it comes off as, “It was a dark and stormy night. Suddenly, bad writing appeared! Someone screamed!”

(In some cases, someone screamed very loud. In a few cases, very, very loud. Which should be written “loudly.”)

Some of you will recognize that hideous passage as a send up of Edward Bulwer-Lytton, who is responsible for the old cliché, “It was a dark and stormy night…” Aside from starting in passive voice, it begins with a weather report. I can think only of one lengthy work that needed to start with a description of the weather, and Stephen King opted to write Storm of the Century as a screenplay. It also has two exclamation points in one line. So, not only does it offend David Morrell, the prophet of lean prose, it summons the angry ghost of Elmore Leonard, who famously said one exclamation point per hundred thousand words. And Elmore wrote short, so whole novels would pass without one. But “Suddenly” is the most offensive part of that line. OK, the second, but passive voice is not being spoken of here.

A really good editor would suggest depicting a flash of lightning revealing Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s writing. You can keep one exclamation point. I’m more of a one-per-page kind of guy. 

The real problem with “suddenly” is it shows instead of tells.  Now, “Show, don’t tell” can be a trite, overused bit of advice, like “Write what you know.” (Honestly, I don’t need bored single women writing about watching Hallmark or men farting while they play Call of Duty. Do some research. That’s the fun part.) I’m of the mindset that, since showing takes more words than telling, make sure you tell the write things. If Johnny is sick because he’s confronted with a stressful moment, simply say he’s sick, and get to why he’s stressed. By now, you’ve guessed he’s stressed out suddenly. As vaguely as I wrote this, you didn’t need that word.

Once in a while, I’ll use it in my writing. And if a manuscript I’m working on contains it, I may stop and do a crutch word check. Five times out of 85,000 words is not worth the extra effort for me or the writer. The reader is not going to care. If it’s every other page, expect a lot of red ink.

During the writing of this post, I started my latest editing project. Before diving in with ye olde editing tool, I checked for crutch words. “That” did not surprise me. We all abuse the word. “Very” almost didn’t show up at all. I did “suddenly.” Not a single instance. Not. One. So, often, a writer already knows it’s a word to avoid. Makes my job easier. It’ll make your readers’ jobs easier, too. 

Wadded paperI started editing for Down & Out Books in November, right after Thanksgiving. Prior to that, I edited for a friend who gets a deep friends and family discount. A couple of bucks for me, and she returns the favor with other services. Yes, writers do that.  I’m up to my fifth project now, and no two have been the same.

I’ve had a project that came from an author who’s been writing longer than I’ve been alive. And I’m old enough to remember (before kindergarten, mind you)  when Abbey Road was new and on the radio. That one was long, even for him, though I’m pleased he’s still working. I did an anthology. I did one set in New England at the same time as reading Gwendy’s Final Task. At least part of Gwendy took place on a space station. The last was a straightforward thriller. The current one is Australian, and Down & Out asked me to keep as much Australian English as possible.

So how’s it going?

Just based on my list of projects, plus my friend’s book, it’s really solidified my game as an editor. How?

  • Technique – Before I edited Jenn Nixon’s The Fixer, I revised one of my own scifi books in the can ahead of time. I’ve been using ProWritingAid, but without track changes. Up until next year’s Breaking Liberty, I’d simply accepted or rejected changes. Who would I be tracking changes for? Me? But when it came time to clean up Breaking Liberty ahead of sending it to First Reader, I needed a guinea pig to test how I’d do this for a paying client. Normally, I would read, then do PWA. But PWA has enough trouble with track changes and long manuscripts. So Jenn got both at the same time. She was pleased with the results. I applied this to my first Down & Out project, the aforementioned writer who started before I was born. PWA did get a bit wonky, and I’ll probably have to hit up some colleagues on how to better utilize it. Howevever, Down & Out sends me partially formatted files, so breaking it up into nice 50-page segments is not really an option.
  • Other writers make the same mistakes I do – Every so often, I’ll work on one of my own manuscripts and go, “Argh!” (Best heard in a Charlie Brown voice.) Then I noticed other writers do the same things in varying degrees. One story or book can be relatively clean while another becomes awash in red ink. Some writers love the word “that,” which is harder to purge than you think. Very is another crutch word that refuses to die. You plow through and leave comments or notes, so the writer doesn’t think you’re just some mean-spirited hermit stabbing people with a red pen.
  • Anthologies – I’ve often said, “Edit for the writer’s style, not yours.” This becomes more challenging with an anthology. For instance, are African-Americans Black or black? I recently had two writers, both black (I had a black editor flag me for using capitalization once.) who each did it differently. I skimmed the story with the word capitalized, flagged instances where it wasn’t but was used to indicate race, and moved on. The trick is consistency. If Joe is blue-eyed on page one, he’d better not be hazel-eyed on page 203, not without explanation. Plus, the red ink flowed in different amounts between stories. A journalist who writes for a major daily turned in an incredibly clean draft while another, very experienced writer had all sorts of “that” and “very.” They’re pros. You’re a pro. Do your job. If it looks wrong, they’ll ask. And one gent did. Most manuscripts I send back usually have a comment on something that says “Stet as needed.” Down & Out is a small press that gives its writers a decent amount of control. Lower down the food chain, you may want to have a couple more passes to catch missing words and quotation mark errors.
  • Non-US English: The first thing that jumps out at you is the reversal of quotes.  But also “-our” vs. “-or,” “metre,” not “meter.” And who knew there was a difference between UK and Australian English. PWA wasn’t going to cut it. Fortunately, the oft-mentioned goddess of cutting, Ellen Campbell, turned me onto PerfectIt, which looks for these very differences. You just tell it what version of English you’re working in. I’m still doing a PWA pass, but now I’ve done PerfectIt, then a crutch word check. (By the way, I really hate the word “that” now. Everyone, including the idiot writing this blog post, abuses it.) But now I know what to ignore and will let it find the usual issues. Plus, that’s when I go looking for repeated words. Can’t get rid of all of them, but I can get most of them.
  • Editing tools – Sooner or later, I’m going to have to get PWA to play nice with track changes. Which means taking Down & Out’s nice, partially formatted manuscripts and carving them up into 50-page splices. The ProWritingAid passes will probably go faster. Once again, I’ll probably experiment on something of my own.

It’s been a great experience, and my wife likes having me around more now that I don’t Uber anymore. So, now I need to expand this to freelance clients.

“You have ‘that’ disease,” one of the firsWadded papert professional editors I’d met once told me. Back in the heady days of the 1990s when Autotune was a novelty Cher used only once, and everyone was going to get rich in big tech.

This came as a surprise to me. That? What was wrong with “that?”

Well, aside from being a crutch word, it raises a couple of red flags. First off, “that” serves mainly as a pronoun or a definite article.

“Look at that.” – Pronoun.

“That thing is strange.” – Article.

It goes into the weeds when it’s used in place of “which.” You might call it bad whichcraft. (And you might call that a really bad dad joke. You’d be right.) So, the wrong word gives us our first red flag. The second?

Even once you replace “that” with “which,” you now have to decide if that non-restrictive clause even belongs. For example…

“The Plymouth Fury, that Chrysler built in the 1950s, gave Christine a serious retro vibe on top of its obvious horror.”

OK, that’s not the best sentence I’ve ever written. It’s not even the best one in this post. But it gives us enough to work with. Our first red flag: I wrote “that” instead of “which” to offset the phrase “Chrysler built in the 1950s.” Already, I’ve used the wrong word. At least I used commas. The Chicago Manual of Style, not the only guide out there, but the Big Kahuna of style guides, is clear. Unrestrictive clauses begin with “which” and are offset by commas. So, I should have wrote “which Chrysler built in the 1950s.”

Or should I have?

I can see one of you now holding up your hand and squirming in your seat. Either you have to use the bathroom (Down the hall and on the left. Febreeze when you finish. Thank you.), or you want to know what the ever-lovin’ heck is an “unrestrictive clause?”

Unrestrictive is a nice way of saying “unnecessary.” More experienced editors than I will zap these clauses and say rude things in the comments. (And Ellen Campbell, if she senses you root for the wrong college football team, will say, “Roll Tide!”)* Does this clause add meaning to the sentence? Can it be removed? Let’s have a look-see. (And by the way, unless it’s dialog or first-person narrative, don’t use words like “look-see.” Seriously. I don’t know an editor who thinks that’s a good idea.)

“The Plymouth Fury gave Christine a serious retro vibe on top of its obvious horror.”

Yep. That clause is gone, baby, gone, and the sentence already looks better.

To the next person with their hand up: We have Coke Zero and iced tea in the fridge. Glasses are between the stove and the sink. Oh, you had a comment?

“But TS, what if I want to mention the Fury was a fifties model?”

Easy peasy. (Same as look-see. Leave it out of narrative. Dialog and first person only. Hmm… Next week’s blog post?)

You still don’t need the clause. If you saw the movie or read the book Christine, you know the titular car/monster was a 1958 Plymouth Fury with bad juju but a respectable taste for post-Elvis rockabilly. You still don’t need that “that” which should be “which.” 

The 1958 Plymouth Fury gave Christine a serious retro vibe on top of its obvious horror.

There you go. Why use a lengthy phrase when a short-and-sweet adjective will do?

Now, you may ask yourself, “When I do I use ‘that’ to separate a phrase? I’ve seen in before.”

You may also find yourself behind the wheel of a big automobile. Probably a 1958 Fury. That’d be fun to drive. As long as it wasn’t possessed.

“That” is properly used for restrictive clauses. If the sentence loses meaning without the clause, you need “that.” You can see it in this minor act of plagiarism on my part:**

“Pizza that’s less than an inch deep just isn’t Chicago-style pizza.”

They are so passionate about that in Chicago they included my least favorite crutch work “just.” Different topic.

You might be able to get away with removing “that.” I omitted an obvious spot for it in my snarky comment about Chicagoans and their pizza. But the phrase itself cannot be removed. 

“Pizza just isn’t Chicago-style pizza.”

Huh? What pizza? Brooklyn-style pizza? Actual pizza from Sicily or Tuscany? (Oh, don’t get an Italian started on that topic!) Why is that “just” still in the sentence?

As I said, you can probably lose the “that.” In fiction, I’m likely to ignore it. It’s the proper way to use it. That said, I still zap about 80% of “that” when used to offset a clause if it still reads well without the word. But the clause itself has to be there. What kind of pizza just isn’t Chicago-style pizza? 

In editing, it’s hard sometimes to purge them all. One writer, who’s been at this longer than I’ve been alive (and my earliest memory is Armstrong coming down the ladder. Mind you, I was a toddler.), used every permutation of “that” in his manuscript. Did I get all of them or start replacing it with better words? Not completely. Keep in mind, it was my first gig with this publisher. Also, he was a guy I used to read frequently. At some point, I will have to become a cruel editor. I don’t care if you’re Neil Gaiman, that goddamned “just” is coming out!!! O-H!

(I almost said Jonathan Franzen. Somehow, I don’t think I could handle the stress. Gaiman, I’d probably be laughing too hard to catch everything. Gaiman is fun even if it’s his grocery list.)


Is this a case of “Do as I say, not as I do?” Boy, howdy!*** Name me a writer who doesn’t break their own editing rules. I don’t count Philip Roth because Roth used to rewrite every page until it was perfect.  Also, writers are too close to their work to see all the errors, which is really horrific when I go back through the old TS Hottle manuscripts for reissue. 

And that’s all I have to say about that.


*She’s wrong. The correct phrase is “O-H!”

**The article also goes into much more detail than I do. For starters, it lacks a poorly written Stephen King reference. O-H!

***Frank Zappa used to say “Boy, howdy!” So I can, too. You get a say in the matter when you write your own Joe’s Garage. O-H!

Wadded paperWhat’s this job like?

Glad you asked that. I just accepted a freelance gig with Down & Out Books, the ones who publish my stuff as Jim Winter these days. Nothing I’ve edited has come out yet, and really, I don’t want to talk directly about the projects I work on. Not naming names, anyway. 

A little about how Down & Out works with their authors. I received the edits from the latest Jim Winter novel back in October. That, of course, pushed off revisions for Compact Universe books coming out in February and August. But going through edits is not a big issue for me as a writer. I was especially pleased that the editor working on my manuscript had a similar technique to mine. (I had just edited a freelance manuscript the previous month.) 

So when I came on board, I worked the same way the previous editor worked with me. My first job was a novel by a guy who’s been writing longer than I’ve been alive. (To put this in perspective, I watched the Watergate hearings as a kid, not that I understood them at the time.) My second was an anthology. That had its own challenges because you edit for one author, then, ten pages later, boom. You’ve got a completely different style of writing. 

So, how do I edit?

I do a combination of ProWritingAid and eyeballing it, keeping a copy of the Chicago Manual of Style handy. ProWritingAid flags a lot of things, but it’s far from perfect. Over the two years I’ve been using it on my own work and, now, clients’, I have discovered using it exclusively can be a crutch. I pay for a subscription, which lets me have the plugin for Word. A caveat about using the plug-in. I do track changes on my edited manuscripts unless it’s my own work, so I have to turn the plugin on for the entire manuscript. My first job for Down & Out was over 100,000 words, so around 75K, it got flakey. It captured opportunities for improvement well enough, but it would sometimes forget I’d already cleaned up the quotation marks and apostrophes or lose the underlining. 

Even though my tool is good at catching things, eyeballing is how a human would read it. I also have to be careful not to impose my own prejudices on someone else’s story. Plus, there are some things editing tools are not very good at. They are not true AIs, as much as some insist otherwise. Also, ProWritingAid would absolutely choke on Huckleberry Finn. Let’s take the sanitized version, which strips out a couple of words particularly offensive to modern ears. The story is written in the dialect of Antebellum Missouri, and like Walter Mosley a century later, Twain writes his dialog phonetically. Plus, even up to and after Hemingway made stripped-down, lean prose the norm, passive voice was used extensively. Even Ernie used it. Adverbs abound, and character names come out of left field, as they should! 

A sidenote on that: ProWritingAid has a feature (I call it a bug) where one of the suggestions is changing the character name. I, as an editor, need to make sure that you, as a writer, don’t spell Tanya’s name Tania  fifteen pages after she’s introduced. That’s as far as an editor needs to go. ProWritingAid, for some reason, wants to change names randomly. There’s a function called Report As Incorrect. Usually, I use it when it doesn’t get a made-up word or loses the tense agreement in a passage. When it says that Luke Skywalker’s name is actually Luke Starkiller, the developers get a message back from me, roll their eyes, and say to themselves, “Oh, Christ, it’s this asshole again.” (Yes, I stole that from a meme.)

I generally don’t take every suggestion ProWritingAid takes. People mispronounce words in ways a writer has to render phonetically. A apostrophe might get mistaken for a single quote during a long sentence. And I don’t redo every line of passive voice. In some military jargon, legalese, and political contexts, active voice actually reads and sounds stupid. And sometimes, you want the line to come off as weak and distant because the character is being weak and distant. However, more often than not, if I see it more than once per manuscript page, I’ll redo it, especially for Down & Out as Lance sends me formatted manuscripts.

I do aggressively take out unnecessary “that’s”, zap two out of every three instances of “very.” Not a big adverb guy, though, and most of the writers I’ve edited for Down & Out, plus my Number One client/muse/critique partner all use them sparingly. “That,” “very,” “could,” and “just” are the biggies. Your editor may vary. Michael Bracken, a writer and editor I’ve known for years, hates the word “got,” but left it in a short story of mine because it appears only once. Ellen Campbell, who demands you bring your A game, has a YUGE list of overused words that gets longer as the years go by. It’s worth a read, and perhaps I’ll get her to share it here. 

Dialogue: Believe it or not, “said” is starting to wear a little thin after years of editors and writers complaining about adverb-laiden, overused tags. In text, said is invisible. And for the longest time, I would avoid tagging as much as possible in my own writing, preferring action beats. Hey, I’m telling a story, and as one writer I know posited, “I hate white rooms.” But audio is getting big. Whether you go with some in-road to Audible or post your own recordings, “said” becomes the equivalent of “um” in a conversation. I’m not suggesting we return to the heady days of “Shoot!” he ejaculated. (For starters, wrong image and offensive in some quarters.) But it’s almost become necessary to use “shouted,” “whispered,” or some other benign tag that cuts down on excessive text trying to put a line into context. (The downside of show-don’t-tell. Do you really need to show that when it detracts from what needs to be shown? Answer: no. Don’t waste your time or the reader’s.)

But I’ve discovered that every writer’s go-to errors are variations on ones I make myself. I still find too many thats in my prose, even after I’ve purged it and sent out for beta a couple of times. One rather experienced writer seems to love the word, so a lot of it I had to let go. I still zapped all the instances where it’s used to join clauses. 

There are other things. A race-themed short story uses Black to indicate African-Americans and black to describe the color of one’s shoes/car/that stuff growing on the leftovers from Applebee’s that probably should go into a landfill by now. Another writer just uses the word with no caps, unless it’s someone’s name. Details like that get harder in an anthology because, unless the editor who compiled it says otherwise, you have to edit for the author of a particular story. Ten short stories? Ten authors. Each story requires a reset.

I make judicious use of comments. Sometimes, I’m merely explaining myself. Sometimes, the line isn’t clear. (And I’ve gotten that note as a writer only to discover I forgot what I meant as well. ZAP! Rewrite.) I make suggestions when making an edit veers into rewriting. I’m not here to do the writer’s job. Also, comments make it easier to stet a change an author doesn’t like. Use that privilege wisely. It was fun on the last book I turned in because the copy editor and I had the same mindset. I requested him again only to learn he was moving on. Bummer. For freelance clients and authors I know fairly well, comments can be fun. My main freelance client and I have been known to send each other zingers in each other’s manuscripts.

Now, you may ask if the writer has to take everything the editor says. Stephen King suggests the editor is always right, despite releasing a massively extended version of The Stand, putting 400 pages back in. It’s an exception that actually proves his point. To King, The Stand is his Blood Meridian, so even he admittedly is going to get precious about it. Usually, he listens to his editor. Many of us mere mortals are doing this on our own or with a small press. Do we take everything? As a writer, I don’t. I know the authors I work with don’t. Ellen Campbell, who can look at three paragraphs and have it carved up without even turning on Track Changes in MS Word, says no one takes everything. It’s unrealistic, actually. And in the case of the anthology project, I had no way of asking a dozen writers what their style preferences were. When I pinged the editor who compiled the anthology, he said to go with my instincts. And since this was a Down & Out project, I would not be the final word. Lance and Eric, the publishers, would. 

Also, speaking as one of their authors, I also know the writer has a bit of leeway. I stetted a lot of The Dogs of Beaumont Heights. Not a majority of my copy editor’s changes, but a noticeable percentage. I also noticed he and I had the same editing philosophy. Unfortunately, I have no idea who will do the follow-up as I was his last author for Down & Out. 

Then there are those editors, the ones with the heavy hand. The ones who might have taken a creative writing course or two. I had one go on a show-don’t-tell rant because I said a character felt ill instead of describing it. I had another scold me for a character wearing a piece of jewelry she hadn’t worn earlier, never mind that earlier was a dream sequence. I had one look at a science fiction book who didn’t pick up the part where I said the setting was not Mars. They ranted that I took ten chapters to reveal that information. (1. I expect a certain level of knowledge from a space opera audience, like our sun is not a red dwarf. 2. In Chapter 1, the narrator clearly says, “This is not Mars.”) What do you do about those?

One of them I stetted. It was a short story going to a publisher, and since the gent who compiled it had the final say, I stetted and gave my reasons. One tends to be rigid about style, and I was his first deep editing job. The problem is you do have to allow for the writer’s style. Now him, I hope, takes up editing but loosens up a bit. The instincts are there; he just needs the flexibility. Kind of like your humble narrator has needed on occasion. The last one I fired.  I suspect she tried to sell me an expensive (and unnecessary) developmental edit.

Of course, the writer’s response puts all the onus on them. It takes time to know whether an editor is a good fit or knows what they’re talking about. I don’t do developmental edits because I know what a slog that is. I’ve worked with a couple, and they really loved picking a story apart and putting it back together better, kind of like working on a classic muscle car but adding extras to it. Also, a writer needs to develop a thick skin. It’s not personal. Well, it shouldn’t be. See above. You have to be able to look at a darling the editor just killed for you and ask, “Is it me?” And don’t waste time navel gazing as you ask that. Stet, rewrite, or, and I can’t stress this enough, ask. I’ve been in two anthologies edited by Brian Thornton. The downside of workshopping with Brian is we end up wasting extra time talking about music and why Toyah Wilcox is the sexiest sexagenarian of the twenty-first century. (Though she’s no Lauren Bacall in her sixties. I digress.) You have options. A bigger press? They might point out how much money they’re paying you for an advance. But down the food chain, it’s more collaborative, or should be. When it’s self-publishing, you have the final say.

Use it wisely.


Wadded paperI wrote a few weeks back about crutch words. I also said some lists tend to be long more because a particular editor gets sick of reading a group of words than a reader would even notice. My list I kept to a minimum, though there are some doozies on it. “Just,” “could,” etc. I should add “immediately” and “suddenly,” which, as a writer, I still abuse. You need to understand, though, I don’t write as an editor. I don’t read as a writer. And I don’t edit as a reader. Those are three completely separate tasks in my mind. It’s very important they stay that way.

Which leads me to a word I left out. I’m very concerned about its misuse. Very, very concerned. Of course, it’s an adverb. Very much so.

I speak, of course, of “very.”

The Washington Post ran a recent article (pay wall. Sorry, but worth a read) in which the writer advocated slashing it the way one might aggressively go after the giant hogweed.  (Google it. Then listen to Genesis’s “The Return of the Giant Hogweed” on streaming. You’ll thank me for the story prompt alone.) Unlike hogweed, it’s very unlikely you’ll have to, as Peter Gabriel warns, strike by night, for it does not need the sun to photosynthesize its venom. (And Tony Banks wins points for using the word “photosynthesize” in song lyrics. Top that, James Taylor.)

Very is one of the most common words in the English language. But it’s an adverb, and as a writer, I already have to restrain editors in use of the Loving Mallet of Adverb Annihilation. This is best mitigated by judicious adverb pruning. They’ll cut the ones you don’t want and leave the ones you can defend.  But very?

Very makes editors very, very annoyed. As a writer, I usually limit it to dialog because characters don’t give a rat’s ass what you’re editor thinks. (Unless they’re incoherent when they need to be clear. That’s another topic.) It’s a common verbal gambit to use “very” or its evil twin, “very, very,” in dialog. Done lightly, it works. But Elmore Leonard’s disdain for the exclamation point should really be focused on the word very. Only once every so many words. My view on crutch words is one or less per page. The exception is very. Once every hundred pages of manuscript.

And only in dialog! I am of the school that says very has no place in narrative. First person, you say?

Do you want someone to read your book? Again, only once every 100 pages of manuscript. That’s roughly once every 25,000 words double-spaced. 

Yes, very is a legitimate English word. It doesn’t have the stink of, say, irregardless, which should be printed out and stabbed mercilessly whenever spotted, irregardless of whether your editing client will see that or not. (For electronic copy, a nasty comment about irregardless will accomplish the same goal.) But very is so overused and so empty it really just bogs down a sentence. Even in dialog, unless the effect is obvious, it should always be flagged. In narrative? 

Drive it from the prose like St. Pat running snakes out of Ireland.*

Yea, verily.

*No pedantic screeds about snakes in Ireland being a myth. I shall be very rude to you if you do.



Wadded paperIf you’re of a certain age, that song is going to be stuck in your head the rest of today. Deal with it.

I wish today to speak of commas. Lately, there seems to be a trend to get rid of them. We can probably blame texting. After all, the keyboard keys are so small that even those with the thinnest fingers will fat thumb a key. Autocorrect doesn’t exactly help. And voice to text? I worked a little bit with Dragon Naturally Speaking before I used voice-to-text regularly. Plus, during lockdown, I dictated nine books of a story arc. So, saying “comma” and “period” are nothing for me. It’s likely a major pain for everyone else.

And, of course, the days of 733t Speak are long over, where numbers and symbols made texting less of a chore when all you had to work with was a touchtone-style keyboard.  “r u serious?” is one of the more readable phrases.

That said, if you’re writing prose, word meant to be read on a website, on Kindle, on this wood-derived material called “paper,” you need to better punctuate.

But people seem to be making up their own rules about commas. Why? What are you going to do with that .4 seconds you saved by not hitting the comma key? You don’t even need to use shift!

It doesn’t help that editing has gotten sloppy lately. My news source of choice is the Associated Press, followed by Reuters. No agenda, no 24-hour news cycle to fill with professional blowhards for whom intentionally stupidity is part of their job description. (Wait. This isn’t the TS Hottle blog, is it? I digress.) And the venerable AP lets some whoppers slip by. And it’s not just news. Rolling Stone, espn.com, even ads for your favorite streaming service blow it. So, what’s a poor writer to do when those we count on as examples of good editing drop the ball?

I’m gonna help you out. Here are some simple rules (and a rant at the end) about commas.

  • Use commas to separate independent clauses. What’s an independent clause? Take a section of a sentence beginning with and, but, or, for, so, or yet. (Those are called conjunctions, kids.) Remove the conjunction. If the clause is a complete sentence on its own, you need a comma. If not, you don’t.
  • For an introductory clause, use a comma to set it off from the main part of the sentence.
  • Descriptive clauses, which occur in the middle of sentences, should begin and end with a comma. (Notice a pattern here?)
  • It is preferred you drop the word “that” from sentences when not using it as an article. It’s also important that you don’t replace “that” with a comma. 
    For example: 
    It’s preferred that you don’t use “that” in this sentence.
    It’s preferred you don’t use “that” in this sentence.
    You can use “that.” An editor will strike it if you do. But you must NEVER replace “that” with a comma. That would be bad. (See what I did there?)
  • Use commas to divide adjectives not logically joined together.
    The frequent, annoying misuse of commas drove TS to distraction.
  • Use commas to set off parts of a date or geographic units. 
    On October 10, 2022, TS published this blog post in Deer Park, Ohio, USA. (Note: The trailing comma is often ignored by editors, editing tools, and even Microsoft Word. However, you must offset the month and day from the year and the town from the state, province, or country. That part is ironclad.
  • The Oxford comma. It’s a given to use commas to set off a series of nouns (or phrases, but let’s go with nouns.) 
    One meme I saw said the Oxford comma is the difference between “I was attacked by two dogs, a shepherd and a boxer” and “I was attacked by two dogs, a shepherd, and a boxer.” The former is a bad day. The latter is a trip to the ER.

    I am militant about the Oxford comma. There is no legitimate reason not to use it, and I’m sorry, but Weird Al was wrong. (OTOH, that song was better than the original “Blurred Lines,” which set Marvin Gaye spinning in his grave.)
    That said, I will ask a client before beginning on a work. Some writers are anti-Oxford. They’re wrong, but I edit for the writer’s style, not mine. At the same time, let’s say you’re going to submit to, say, Aethon Books. Steve Beaulieu is going to get an IM before I even think about beginning. After all, he’s paying the writer, so, indirectly, he’d be paying me. Substitute any press in there outside the Big Four. They’re going to ignore whatever we do to a manuscript, anyway. 

Wadded paper“Never fall in love with your first draft.”

People credit multiple writers from Elmore Leonard to Hemingway to Stephen King for that aphorism. Quite likely, some of them are repeating advice they heard starting out (and maybe even did not heed until later.) Just as likely, they came up with it on their own.

Of course, we fall in love with our first drafts, especially that first novel. It’s…

My baby!

Full disclosure: I’ve come to loathe my first novel. Most who’ve read it like it, but I know what went into it, where I tripped up, and why I published badly despite having ten rewrites. I guarantee you, though, I loved the draft I sent to St. Martin’s-Private Eye Writers of America First Novel contest. (Spoiler alert: I lost to Michael Koryta.)

The first draft is always going to suck. I’m generally a four-draft kinda guy. I do my own revisions first, which are probably as close to a developmental edit as I’m going to get. I have a primary reader for the third draft. And multiple betas for the fourth, usually three, though the scifi novel out right now is only with two. (And I talk about what entails a beta here. Which is pretty much anything from a general critique to a full-blown copy edit.)

You could say the final copy edit is the fifth draft, but that’s production when a publisher is involved. (And I’ve heard of manuscripts getting a few more rounds.)

No one ever reads my first drafts. My brother-in-law, who recently dived into the madness, is always bugging me to read my first drafts. I have to firmly say no because first drafts are, as King insists, to be written with the door closed. Missing words or even phrases. Changing character names. Excessive sentence fragments.

I once heard Laura Lippman describe her first drafts as caveman speak. I used to know Laura. She might have, at one point, let me look at something about to go out to the publisher. (She never did.) I would never read the caveman draft. I doubt her husband gets to read them, and he created The Wire. (I have no idea what David Simon’s approach to drafts is, but he works in television, which is a whole ‘nuther beast.)

I’m finding even subsequent drafts have cringey moments. I just re-edited the Amargosa novels. Children went well, but that had a professional edit done and really needed a proofread. That was it. So, you get a cleaner version in 11 days from this posting. Storming was brutally dev edited, so errors abounded even after a few passes to iron out the kinks. You’ll get a cleaner version of that in December.

Second Wave….

Ugh. I can’t believe I let that one go out the door. It took the longest of the three to revise and had the most embarrassing errors. 

But the first drafts? Never let anyone see your first draft. Not your spouse. Not your best friend. Not that annoying fellow writer who knows everything, at least until they fling their own work at you. Think of it this way. You’re sculpting. The first draft is you figuring out how to turn a slab of marble into a dude. The intermediate drafts are you making it clear it’s a naked dude, most likely in need of a fig leaf. 

The published draft is King David or Zeus or, hey, let’s go off the beaten path, Thor. (My wife would want me to sculpt Jason Momoa, but that’s between us.) No one’s going to put the vague shape of a man carved from marble in the Sistine Chapel. The Pope will want the room for Dogs Playing Poker at the Last Supper with Elvis

I can neither confirm nor deny that either Pope Francis or Pope Emeritus Benedict go off in private to read David Sedaris.