“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. 

Wadded paperIn the mid-2010s, independent writers bandied the term “authorpreneur” constantly. Most of those making it their catchword sold more books about writing than the fiction or nonfiction books they tried to sell. They all hammered on one method to get production up: Dictation.

It took me about five years and the worst pandemic in a century to find the mindset to dictate. During lockdown, Uber was not an option as a side hustle. I did Door Dash instead. Bop into the restaurant to get the food, then leave it on the customer’s doorstep. When this began, I hit on an idea. I’m the only one in the car. On the way to the restaurant, I could dictate a story by speaking into Google Docs on my phone. On the way to the customer, as I needed GPS to navigate, I listened to audiobooks. This resulted in some highly productive weekends and allowed me write nine Suicide Arc novels in fourteen months. However…

Friday and Saturday nights, when I normally wind down from an Uber shift talking to my wife and just relaxing before bed, I spent correcting Google Docs’ interpretation of I spoke. There were a lot of errors.

A LOT of errors.

And I’m still finding them. Thanks to ProWritingAid, sharp-eyed beta readers, and resigning myself to spending vast amounts of time adding quotation marks, finding every variation Google had on the name “Mitsuko” ( a former coworker would be infuriated at the misspellings), and filling in missed words, I got most of them. But not all.

Occasionally, even after Sarah Davis, my current scifi publisher, goes through them, I’ll spot one or two in the finished product. Not enough to recall the book, but enough to make me cringe. Mind you, I’ve seen worse come out of the Big Four in New York. Big Famous PI Writer (TM) once flipped speakers in a block of untagged dialog. And this novel is considered a classic.

There are several ways to mitigate this. You probably will never get 100%. If Ellen “the Cutter” Campbell says she never gets all the errors, who can? But you can mitigate it to where it’s unnoticeable to the average reader.

  • Eyeball it – If you dictate, you’re going to have to reread what you wrote. For me, that has to be almost immediately. What comes out of a dictating session is usually unreadable as prose, so if you intend to use this method of writing, suck it up.
  • Word/Scrivener – Most word processing and writing apps have built-in editing tools. Scrivener is designed specifically for writers, and Word’s editor has improved to the point of useful. (Sometimes. It occasionally suggests something that would give my high school and college teachers screaming fits.) This also lets you build your dictionary for a given work.
  • Read back – Word, among others, has a function that allows you to listen to what you wrote. It almost sounds natural, but if your character is pounding the steering wheel in heavy traffic, that repeated obscenity doesn’t come back as shouting. It comes back as a pleasant female voice offering excrement as though you asked it for tea. Still, a lot of writers say to read a work aloud. This is another way to hear your own words and make sure they don’t sound like writing.
  • Editing tools – ProWritingAid is, of course, my tool of choice. I pay for the premium addition. A lifetime subscription gets you a plagiarism check as well. It’s great for catching missing words and minding your quotation marks. Plus, you can plug it into Word. (Someone can comment on whether it works for Scrivener.)
  • Betas/Editor – Other people aren’t as close to your work. Other people don’t care about your ego. Other people will say, “What the hell is that?” Usually, I find more dictation errors that way than anything else. There’s an editing conundrum that affects us all. As you’re flagging points to edit, you miss the next one just as often as not. If you reduce the amount of work for someone else to do (and I will do this for you for reasonable rates. Contact me!), the easier it is to find what remains. I’ve rarely seen a perfect manuscript, even off the shelves at Barnes & Noble. They exist, but like albino rhinos, they’re hard to find.

Wadded paperThis website is, of course, to pitch editing services to writers. If you’re here, you’re either a writer or you follow me somehow on social media. In terms of business, I’m trying to replace Uber as a side hustle, one that lets me interact with other writers and doesn’t risk my car dying before the final payment.

Which means editing costs money. So do book covers, formatting, and other services a writer needs. Marketing can be a real cash suck as there’s no guarantee your social media maven can help you recoup your expenses.

On behalf of all the other freelance editors I know, we get it. Most of us are also writers, have been on a shoestring budget, and know the loneliness of exile in DIY Land. I still do. Wish I knew ten years ago what I know now about formatting and covers. (No, I do not offer those services. Don’t ask.) The one service successful authors and small presses harp on the most for the independent writer is editing. More over, even big name traditional authors will use them before submitting their work to their publisher. Copy editors at big houses are overworked. The less they have to do, the better. But you don’t have the sums it may cost for a line or copy edit. You most likely don’t have the larger sums for a developmental edit. So, while many are saying you have to have an editor, many writers are forced to do it themselves.

When I decided to go into science fiction and be the master control freak that I am, I did my own. I thought, “Eh. I can string sentences together. Beta readers, many of whom are closet editors, will catch the rest.” Um… No, that doesn’t really work.

I just took three novels off the market for clean-up and rerelease. New covers, combined with shorter works as bonus material, and fresh copy edits. Both The Children of Amargosa and Storming Amargosa show the signs of having a developmental edit without having a solid line edit after the fact. Someone else did the dev edit on Children while I did several of my own on Storming. In developmental editing, you’re not proofreading, doing consistency checks, or reading for flow. You’re restructuring the story. Essentially, it’s a collaborative rewrite. 

Which means whether you just ripped your own story apart and put it back together with new parts, or someone pointed out the structural flaws in the story, you now have a brand new….

Rough draft.

I once knew a writer who did not consider rough drafts to be first drafts. The first draft was the readable version of the rough draft. It’s not an opinion I agreed with, but it is one worth considering. Especially after you do a dev edit.  The reason is you are moving scenes around. You are adding new material to replace old or to make existing material fit together. I heard one writer say she would never pay a developmental editor if it came back needing a line edit. That assumes all editing is created equal.  

Dev edits, whether you do them yourself or have someone do them for you, by definition introduce new errors. If you’re paying others, you need to either hire at least a proofreader or have really picky beta readers.

So, if this post is about doing it yourself, what does that mean?

1.)  When you finish a draft, let it sit. Yes, we’re in an age when indie writers have to get it out fast. However, that first one (and all the subsequent ones) have to be rightSecond Wave, the second Amargosa novel, might have had three betas, but I didn’t wait. It had been a while since Children, and I wanted the sequel out, dammit! That’s never a good idea. Get it right. Or take up knitting. Otherwise, you’re wasting the reader’s time.

2.) Editors use editing tools. Hemingway, ProWritingAid, and even the built-in functions in Word and Scrivener give you a leg up. Someone once told me they didn’t need Grammarly because they had an education. I thought that was the most arrogant (and flat-out wrong) writing advice I’d heard since “Write what you know.” (I may rant about that rotting chestnut on the TS Hottle or Jim Winter blogs. Or both.) To shun editing tools is a sign of insecurity. Don’t brag about using a Mac if you’re too stubborn to use the tools the apps have built-in or are available for the platform. (And those apps, like those for Windows, are legion.*) USE THE TOOLS! You’re human. By definition, Francis, you will miss stuff.

3.) Betas are your buddies. Now, let’s define a beta reader. A beta reader is one who reads before the public does. This can be anything from taking it for a test drive (“I didn’t like the character of Joe. Have you considered making him a houseplant?”) to doing a line edit. If they go beyond that, someone’s trying to hawk their editing services without looking like they’re hawking their editing services. I’ve had two do that to me. The second one didn’t end well. (First one, I shrugged and said, “Well, edit for the author’s style, not yours.”)

4.) It’s more important to get it right than to get it fast. Yes, you want to be an author. I get it. I’ve been that person both traditionally and independently. The first novel is, for every writer, “My baby!” Trust me. My first novel is a book called Northcoast Shakedown, and unlike the four that followed it, I want that thing line edited before I republish it in the next couple of years.

5.) Things to look for that editors wish you would look for: Crutch words in varying degrees and pet peeves, adverbs, repeated words, missing words, missing letters, dictation mistakes for those of you brave enough. (Many writers prefer dictation. Others can’t wrap their heads around it. I’m somewhere in the middle.)

6.) Commas still matter. Learn the rules. The Chicago Manual of Style has sections available online. The Elements of Style is cheap in paperback, cheaper in ebook. Read them! Love them! They will save you grief later on.

*If you use Linux, you probably can write your own. 

“DoWadded papern’t use any dialog except ‘said,'” he declared ominously.

Oooh. Ouch. I’m not the most adverb-averse editor, and that one made me cringe.

Today, though, we talk about dialog and how to handle it. I could write an entire book about it. If I quote the various editors I know, I could write an encyclopedia about it. Since I’m already doing a wiki for my scifi series, I’ll pass. 

Dialog is a gift to the reader. The character opens their mouth, and you learn quite a bit about them. Gender, politics, likes, dislikes, nervous ticks, etc. Tendency to talk in sentence fragments the way this paragraph is written. It also makes a page read faster. Well, it does when the writer doesn’t put one of Shakespeare’s soliloquys in the character’s mouth.

Handling it, though, is a thorny issue. To tag or not to tag? What kind of tag? Comma splices. Untagged dialog. And that dirty word, exposition!

Let’s take tagging first. Tagging is a quick way to let the reader know who’s speaking. However, lately, that old chestnut of use only “said” is under assault.

“Why?” you query.

“It’s invisible!” he ejaculated. (Yes, someone used this. In print. When the standards were stricter. I hope that editor died from the strain of a manuscript laced with you’re/your errors.)

Said/asked is, in fact, invisible, and should be your go-to for tagging dialog. The reader doesn’t really see it. They read the dialog and look for who spoke. 

Unless your reader is actually a listener. Books on Tape, its various CD successors, and especially Audible and the public library have made “said” what some in Toastmasters call “hear ache.” Now, that public speaking organization usually means verbal ticks likes excessive ands, ums, the so-called “snicks and smacks” we do without realizing it when speaking. No one cares if you’re doing it over lunch with a coworker. It’s annoying in a speech or while hosting an event. And the word “said” has fallen into this category when it comes to the audiobook.  When reading, your eye blows past the word with nary a thought. When Morgan Freeman reads it out loud, you think, “For the love of Joe Burrow, find another word already!”

At the same time, the threat of really distracting words like “queried” and “ejaculated” (never to be used outside sex scenes and clinical writing) still exists. Fortunately, you don’t have to go too far off the beaten path. It’s an opportunity to slip in some unobtrusive stage direction. He mumbled. She shouted. People can grumble, growl, breathe… There’s enough there to give the reader an impression of the character’s mood or demeanor, the perfect combination of showing and telling. Tell them something that shows it quickly and move on. 

Quotation marks.

The single quote vs. the double quote. If you read UK editions of books, you’ll notice all the dialog is in single quotes. In US or Canadian, it’s double. Reverse it for quotes within quotes. Since I’m writing this from a US perspective, I’ll go with double as the default. Why bring it up?

Because, regardless of how your version of English is written, you never use the same type of quotation marks inside a line of dialog as you use outside it. “Well, Bob said, ‘Johnny eats liver without onions.’ I think it’s gross.” In US English, whoever is speaking is quoting Bob directly as marked by double quotes. Bob’s quote also needs to be off-set, but we already used double quotes. So we use single to quote the speaker quoting Bob directly. (If he or she is just paraphrasing, no inner quotes are needed.) The inner quote should always be different from the outer quote, regardless of whether your dialect uses single or double to begin dialog. 

Untagged Dialog

Ever read swaths of text where two people talk? Yet you could follow the conversation? Sometimes, tagging and inserting a character action gets to be a bit much. If Joe is talking to Judy, and it’s clear from tagging or actions that Joe had the last line of dialog, you can do a few lines without tagging. The back-and-forth is enough to carry the narrative for maybe half a page. I generally don’t like to do five or six lines untagged without flagging who’s speaking. For starters, we all have short attention spans these days. Also, while “White Room” is an all-time classic song, it makes for a lousy setting.  What are these characters doing? Where are they? 

Now, you can do an entire story without dialog. I did one, and it was extremely difficult to pull off. On the other hand, Google “They’re Made of Meat,” about two aliens discussing these weird intelligences they found on Earth. You know enough to know they’re not human, but nothing else. Yet the conversation flows effortlessly.

Character Action

This arose from chaffing against using “said” constantly. Instead of tagging the dialog directly, indicate who’s speaking by having them do something. 

“I’m a bit concerned about Jim.” Joe poured another cup of coffee. “He’s just not up to his old game.”

Judy dunked her teabag. “What specifically do you see?”

You knew who said what in that passage. Yet there’s no “Joe said” or “Judy said.” As I mentioned before, “White Room” is a rock and roll classic. White room is not a very good narrative device.  Character action in place of dialog tagging is a great way to put the reader in the room with the characters. It also can break up an unavoidable info dump. In Save the Cat, Blake Snyder called this “the Pope in the pool.” It referred to a movie that began with the Pope meeting his cardinals. The scene had a lot of expository dialog, the sort of thing normally handled over coffee or in a meeting across a desk. However, this was an early scene in the movie. Instead of giving the action a break, it delayed it getting started. The screenwriter decided to give the audience a visual. Why are men in robes talking to some old dude in a swimming pool? Wait. That’s the Pope? Doing the dog paddle?

It also lets you weave dialog into the narrative. Gone are the days when you could have pages of description. Dialog is a way to engage an attention-challenged audience. By having one of the speakers look around at their surroundings or having the characters do something while they talk, you kill two birds with one stone.

Also, something I see a lot of newer writers do (and it goes back to when I started writing, even before.) Multiple people speaking in one paragraph. Um… Hey, I have to follow this! Can you break it up a bit? Having Joe talk at the beginning of the paragraph and Judy at the end makes me think Joe is still talking.  “But then my paragraphs are short.” So? Makes it more readable, doesn’t it?

Dialog doesn’t have to be hard. As to what your dialog sounds like? That’s a whole ‘nutter topic.

Over the weekend, a couple of places talked about the worst writing advice anyone had been given. “Show, don’t tell” is one most experienced writers agree needs to go on a short hiatus. Others wanted to see the adverb jihad go away as it’s usually the worst offenders complaining the loudest. All agreed that any rule beginning with “Always…” or “Never…” needs to be tossed out and ignored. 

One struck me, though. “Never edit as you write. Wait until the draft is done.”

There’s a reason editors and experienced writers give that advice to novice writers. Ever meet someone working on their first novel or short story who can’t get around the fact they rewrote the same paragraph sixteen times? That’s why.

And yet…

We make fun of your/you’re mistakes, but those are the least visible. I know. I just found out I’ve had a book out for five years with a couple of glaring ones. (Why you should wait a month and proofread or get someone to do it for you before hitting publish.) Does it not make sense to zap that before you close up shop for the day and get on with your life?

One person complained that the advice was useless. They wrote how they wrote, and they edited on the fly. I also noticed this person had quite a few short story credits and a couple of novels under their belt. You learn as you go. They had gone a long way.

I took this advice early on. And the editor of the Jim Winter novels Northcoast Shakedown and Second Hand Goods called me out on it. Not because I waited to self-edit. Because it let stupid mistakes through. So, I developed a more pragmatic method: If you see something, edit something.

As with anything, the answer to this question is, “It depends.” No two writers write the same. The rules can be confusing and contradictory. When you work with an editor, figure out the ground rules ahead of time. Do you use an Oxford comma? (If you’re paying me, I will hide my sneer of judgment if you don’t.) Dialog heavy vs. lots of narrative? And do you really want a dev edit or just copy editing? Or even a proofread?

As for writing that first draft, you’re the one who has to go back and revise it before your editor, publisher, or even beta reader sees it. Some writers, like the late, great Philip Roth don’t move to the next page until they think it’s perfect. Phil could go years between novels. You’re not Philip Roth.  Others fly through a draft, zapping errors as they spot them. It takes two seconds. But then they don’t do a lot of revision, counting on their editor or publisher to flag it. After all, if they’re going trad or semi-trad, the editor and/or publisher are the client. Let them beat it into final shape.


Wadded paperCould. Just. So. Well.
You think those words are invisible like “said” in dialog. In reality, they come across as fingernails on a chalkboard.*
“But, TS,” you say, “why not use them if they’re part of the language?”
Adverbs are part of the language, but a writer still needs to use them sparingly. (See what I did there? I made Hemingway mad throwing in another adverb.)
These words that send editors into fits of rage are called crutch words. Writers use them to get a point across, but they’re often overused to the point of annoying the reader. I don’t know about you, but if a book annoys me, I quit reading. Mind you, it’s usually dialog and plot, or lack thereof, that annoys me, but that’s another post.
I’ll start with “just,” a word I’ve worked very hard to purge from my writing. I never noticed how often I used it until about 2005 when I placed a story in the late, lamented Plots With Guns. Written as Jim Winter, the story had the title “Just Like Suicide,” taken from a Soundgarden song. With a title like that, editor Anthony Neil Smith sent back edits with that word flagged several times just on the first two pages.
Some of it had to do with the title. Yet, when I wrote my next short and as I worked on a novel called Second Hand Goods, I started seeing it all over the place. From then on, I did a “just” purge on my work. Like passive voice or other crutch words, I shoot for one crutch word per manuscript page. Of course, I hardly use the word that much anymore and zap it quite often during an eyeball copy edit.
There are, of course, other crutch words. My celebrity crush, Jenn Nixon, brought one to my attention I’d never thought of before. “Could.”
Would/should/could can be crutch words, but would and should do not get used nearly as much as could. If you write in past tense, which most writers do, could is hard to avoid. Unlike just, which is basically zapping an adverb, could often needs to be there. So, you have to think about it.
Like any other word or phrase you write, one-per-manuscript-page is a good rule to keep your readers happy. (I leave you to figure out if your plot is a dud or not. I’m not a developmental editor.)
Are there others? We started this post off with “so” and “well.” These usually turn up in dialog. I’ve gone through first or second drafts where a character will start every sentence with “so” and “well.” One did it for two straight pages. Every line of dialog began with ” ProWritingAid, Hemingway, and Word’s rather improved editor won’t flag these words. They’ll only call you out on your comma usage. Make no mistake, however. Too many sos and wells on a page will have your reader tossing your epic fantasy and reaching for the nearest Harlequin romance. (Where, I’m sure you’ve noticed, most of the rules get broken anyway.)
What else sets editors off?
Sometimes, it’s editor’s choice, but it’s a choice you should at least pay some attention. Michael Bracken, a crime editor of some note, rails on the word “got.” It’s an irritant to him. I recently placed a short story with an anthology he edited. I had one “got” in the entire piece. It sailed through without a note. However, I can think of some earlier work that would have had him deleting or shredding his copy.
Ellen Campbell, aka “The Cutter,” has a growing list of words she’s tired of seeing. Ellen has an eye for detail few editors can match. I recently worked with one editor whose suggestions I rejected on the basis of “Yeah, but Ellen wouldn’t care.” That gambit works 99% of the time. Her list is on the Keystroke Medium group on Facebook. If you have access to the file, it’s worth your time to download.
Ultimately, you have to make the choice. But if editor after editor flags the same thing, it’s probably something you should limit to one or less per page.
Just do that, and you got it. You could if you tried.
*Back in ye olden days, when my dad would drop me off at school in his Model A, we used these things called chalkboards, which were dusty and noisy when used. Now we use whiteboards, which are smellier but less noisy. Or we use tablets, which tend to need a charge when you have to use one.