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Wednesday, July 8, 2015

The Toxic Eight: Editing pitfalls for novelist

(Here are some wonderful tips from our upcoming speakers at the SJ SinC meeting.)

By Bonnie Hearn Hill & Christopher Allan Poe

Don’t let toxicity take over your manuscript. Before you begin submitting, study it with a critical eye. Readers will tolerate an error or two. Maybe three. After that, you fall into the pit of amateurs. That’s the desolate, frigid region, where lost souls waste unthinkable amounts of energy and money on promotion because they didn’t bother to learn the difference between your and you’re. Don’t end up in that pit of despair. Here are some of the most common copy mistakes to watch out for in your manuscript.

Ellipses…well...they really do slow your pace… Besides, they do not substitute for dashes or periods. They’re meant to indicate missing words from a quotation. You can also use them to show that the character is interrupted in mid-speech. Be careful though. Every sentence can’t trail off into a haze of dot-dot-dots. Too many probably indicate that you’re relying on punctuation to prop up weak writing.

Exclamation points. These poor creatures get tacked at the end of any sentence that can’t stand on its own. F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “An exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke.”
He’s right. Use them rarely.
Your language should be strong enough to convey meaning without the punctuation crutch.
This also applies to our friend, Mr. Caps Lock.
“YOU STAY AWAY FROM ME,” she shouted.
That type of behavior is fine for Facebook, but it has no place in fiction. Come to think of it, don’t do it on Facebook either.

That damned very
Mark Twain said it best. “Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write “very.” Your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”
Twain was one smart man.

These delightful little gems have a tendency to pop up when we’re not thinking about them, like when Pops used to make popcorn for you. Echoes draw attention to themselves and can cause the reader to wake from your story. Your goal should be to use the most important words once—not just in the same paragraph, but also on the entire page if possible.

Low-impact words and phrases. We’ve all been guilty of using words that don’t sing on the page. Instead, ramp those babies up. Use words and images that punch the reader like rifle slugs. Whenever possible, you should always replace limp words with their high-octane counterpart. Punch. Slugs. Octane. Limp. See what we mean?
Blade is a lovely word, but an X-Acto knife conjures a stronger image. Did the couple drink wine or Pinot Noir? Was the flower fragrant, or did the carnation smell like exotic spice? The more specific your language, the more real your setting.
The Old Words Home. Some words and phrases are just too old. William Saroyan could use “commenced” and did so frequently. Not such a great idea today. If you still do, send it to the Old Words Home, the place where tired words and phrases go to live out the rest of their days. Don’t worry. They’ll have nurses and shuffleboard, and you won’t have to deal with those words in your writing.

Clich├ęs. Even if your character is cool as a cucumber and ready to give the devil his due, you have the chops to kick it to the curb and come up with something fresh as a daisy. Well, maybe not, but you get the idea. The first author who described someone’s eyes as jade green might have been original, but the term should now be retired. Silken loins might have been sexy once, but it sounds like something at a butcher shop and it’s been used too many times to conjure a fresh image in the reader.

Adverbs, adjectives, and no-sh*t Sherlocks.
Stephen King nailed one part of this problem when he said, “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” Cut them wherever you can, or replace the weak verb they’re modifying. If your protagonist walked quickly, the correct verb might be ran or jogged. If he spoke loudly, yelled or shouted work better.
Adjectives can be equally redundant. The worst are the dark-and-stormy night variety. Jane was sad and depressed. She should have been grateful and optimistic. You use two words dark-and-stormy style here because you sense unconsciously that neither is strong enough to satisfy the reader. Keep searching. Better yet, put yourself in your character’s head. Jane felt like throwing herself out the window.
Also check for no-sh*t Sherlocks. He wrapped his fingers around Jane’s throat. She was terrified. No need to tell us that last part. We get it. 
When you’re in the heat of a first draft, you’ll find yourself tossing around these words and phrases like confetti. That’s exactly what you should be doing in the first draft. Your first job is to slam that story down in any form possible—because you can fix anything but a blank page.

Bonnie and Chris are the co-authors of DIGITAL INK, a guide for fiction writers in the digital age, regardless of whether they are published traditionally, with independent presses, or self-published. The book is a creative writing text at Mt. San Antonio College in Walnut, California, where Bonnie and Chris frequently lead workshops.


  1. This is the tedious part of writing, but one I do automatically.

  2. Great advice to new writers. Even good for more experienced writers to be reminded occasionally.

  3. You just punched me in the gut. Several times.

  4. Do you give workshops elsewhere?

  5. Well, you are right-on with all this information I learned the hard way (critiques and criticisms). I'll never forget being asking to critique someone else's work when I was still a rookie, but I'd learned a lot more than this new writer and wanted to help and share. In a two-page story, she had exclamations marks everywhere - the word "very." Hey, I was there and since she asked, I thought I could help. She took huge offense and said she would never seek my advise again. She asked, I offered. I always wanted the raw facts. I think if you listen to them, you can only improve.

  6. Watch the 'as' usage, too. Many times 'as' gets used to indicate action but sometimes dialogue and action don't work well at the same time. Verbs ending in 'ing' can be overused, also. This is another mistake I see often with action during dialogue. "Thank you for inviting me," he said drinking tea and eating a scone. I don't think he said anything at the same time he drank tea at the same time he ate something.

    This 'at the same time' action doesn't work well during action scenes: He punched the man, knocking him back, driving him to the floor, and choking him. Whew! Too much going on at once.