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.

We’ve heard them all before. Purge adverbs relentlessly. Do not end sentences with a preposition. Do not split infinitives. 

And then we hear from linguists, who contradict our high school English teachers by telling us these are all myths. Two are  myths. One is the dominant stylistic preference of the day. Let’s take these last to first.

Split Infinitives

Like many rules of English that aren’t really rules, this is based in Latin. Only English is a Germanic language spoken by two tribes who moved into England after the Romans pulled out. Old English, as in the language of Beowulf, looks and sounds like Dutch. When the Angles, then the Saxons, became the dominant tribes of England, Anglo-Saxon became the default language. So, how did Latin rules get imposed upon English? Blame the Normans. They spoke French. Plus, heavily Christian Europe used Latin as lingua franca. And in Latin, you can’t split an infinitive, a rule that carries forward to French, Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish. But in those languages, there is no “to walk,” a two-word construction that can, in fact, be split. (“To boldly go where no one has gone before.” Sorry, but GR wins that argument.) Infinitives in Romance languages are all one word. For example, we say, “to have.” The Spanish say, “tener.” Spanish infinitives end in an “r.” You can’t split the word. So, why is this a “rule” in English? Because many scholars spoke both languages. Some got it in their heads that Latin rules should apply to English. Only English is Germanic, not Latin. It glommed a lot of Latin words, but it has a lot more Welsh (and thanks, Wales. for “ough.” Must have been tough to have thought that up, though.) and Old Danish. 

But if it’s not a rule, how is this useful? The late General Colin Powell ordered his staff to check for split infinitives when revising their reports. He didn’t believe the rule himself. He did, however, believe purging the split infinitive put one into the mindset to also spot “your/you’re” and “there/their/they’re” errors. And he was right. Look for crutch words, broken “rules,” and dodgy phrasing, and you’re likely to discover more errors or tighten up your prose.

Sentence-ending Prepositions

I can’t count the number of times in high school this forced me to write some stilted prose. It is now a linguistic myth up with which I will not put! 

Once again, blame the Latin nerds. If i haven’t made it clear enough, English is not Latin! Latin rules do not apply! In this case, ending a sentence in a preposition in Latin or a Latin-based language is impossible. Not so in English.

So how is this useful?

Just because you can end a sentence in a preposition does not mean you must end a sentence in a preposition. Like adverbs, it can weaken your writing. Now, in dialog, you may want a few ending prepositions. There’s an old joke not worth repeating here about a student at an Ivy League school getting a tongue-lashing for saying, “Where’s the library at?” The student corrects himself in, shall we say, the Samual L. Jackson manner. Older versions of this joke are best left forgotten, but the basic premise still works. 

But, like adverbs, the preposition can be moved to make an idea clearer. When it doesn’t work, leave it. You don’t want your writing filled with bloated lines like “up with which I will not put!”


Adverbs get a lot of bad press. There’s a reason for that. Adverbs appear far too often. The worst offenders often also shout the loudest about it. Right, Stephen King? But go back in time. Many of the classics are laced with adverbs. And what are adverbs? They describe adjectives. They describe verbs. In a few horrific and best-forgotten instances, they even describe other adverbs. 

Now, the anti-adverb bias can be extreme. If you purge all the adverbs from a given work, the musical 1776 loses one of its most memorable numbers. Egregious-Lee, one might say. 

But overuse of adverbs (Using them liberal-Lee?) can really bloat prose. Crutch words such as “just” are adverbs. Yet they are part of the language. Quite often, they cannot be avoided. (Ironic-Lee.) So, if this is more a trend in editing than a rule, how is it useful?

Simple. While adverbs in and of themselves are not evil, overuse can rob a line of its strength. Hunting for adverbs puts a writer (or editor) in the mindset of tightening the prose. Does that adverb belong there? Probably not. If it strengthens the sentence, or it’s more efficient, run with it. Chances are, almost any adverb applied to an adjective can go. Applied to a verb, think in terms of whether the verb is better off without it. Is the adverb conveying any additional information that colors the sentence? If so, keep it. If not, chop chop. And never use an adverb on another adverb. That is the pineapple-on-pizza of linguistic atrocities.


We can argue all day about the legitimacy of the rules. However, the point is to make the prose stronger and eliminate unnecessary words. If it works, break the rules! But be smart about it. Someone’s going to have to read what you write.

Wadded paper

Does an editor need an editor when they write?
To quote Stephen King, does a bear go cockadoodie in the woods?
Most of us use editing tools. That’s to catch your mistakes. What about our own writing? Writing is one of those endeavors where “Physician, heal thyself” doesn’t really work.
Editors use their eyeballs as much as they use whatever tools they have on hand. Yet that’s how most writers revise. When it’s your work, you’re going to miss a lot of erros.
A LOT of them.
I recently stared doing line edits on my Amargosa trilogy and a couple of related novellas. I plan to rerelease them late fall. Consistency is one reason. However, as I started going through The Children of Amargosa
Oh, boy.
I credit Stacy Robinson for editing this novel. Stacy, however, did a developmental edit, not a line edit.
“Well, what’s the difference? Editing is editing. Right?”
Proofreading is not line editing or copy editing. It’s a quick grammar check and not much else. If you’re at the proofreading stage, and your editor is spasming over adverbs, you may have chosen poorly. By the time you’ve hit the proofreading stage, you should already have your prose tightened up. You’re just checking for spelling and grammar errors. Adverbs are NOT grammar errors; they’re merely disliked.
A copy edit goes deeper, purges passive voice, cleans up hard-to-read sentences, and suggests shorter ways to say things. Line edits go deeper. A line edit looks for consistency and ensures you sound like you. It also makes sure that Ken on page 30 is not Barbie on page 147. Barring, of course, a plot point to explain it.
Line and copy edits overlap. Many use the terms interchangeably. Some, like your humble narrator, call them line/copy edits. They also overlap proofreads. Developmental editing?
I would posit a developmental edit introduces more prose errors than deletes them. It’s not a stylistic edit. It’s structural. Dev editors will move scenes, question motivation, cut whole chapters. I know several, including Stacy, who are very good at this. Another is Keystroke Medium’s Kalene Williams. They want to know the whys and wherefores of your plot, your characters, even your settings. Because you’re moving, adding, and deleting scenes, you have lots of opportunity to say “your” when “you’re” is called for. Once you finish a dev edit, at the very least, get a proofread.
So, does that mean editors who write need editors?
Boy, howdy. You hire an editor because you’re too close to the work. It’s like being nose blind to your cat’s litterbox. You don’t smell it until it needs changed. Your guests sniff once and say, “Oh, you have a cat!”
We’re human. We miss things, too. When the Bible says take the log out of eye before you pick the speck from your neighbors, Jesus did not mean editors. The log is forever in our eyes. Other people’s specks are easier to spot. Why?
We didn’t write it.