“Was” and “Were”
Y’all have heard about passive voice, but you are still using it. Stop that horse and dismount!
Here is one simple problem I see, over and over –
“Kathryn and Angie were eating gumbo in Baton Rouge.”
Try instead, “Kathryn and Angie ate gumbo in Baton Rouge.”
“Tracy was standing next to her horse.”
Try instead, “Tracy stood next to her horse.”
“The writers were attacking the editor.”
Try instead, “The writers attacked the editor.”
Seemed, appeared (also show, don’t tell)
Tonia Marie seemed nervous. Blah. Shawn appeared bored. Blech.
Don’t use seemed or appeared or any similar wishy-washy words. Don’t tell us a character “seemed upset,” or “appeared bored” – show us how she is upset or how she is bored.
Show us the beads of sweat on her brow, her chewing on her bottom lip, her clenching fists.
Show us her slouchy posture in the chair, her wandering or rolling eyes, her picking at her nails.
Boring dialog vs. character-driven dialog
I recently edited J. J. Brown’s American Dream. All of J.J.’s characters have a personality that translated into the dialog.
One of J.J.’s characters is a Frenchman, and his English dialog has a French flair. He would often say, “Oui?” or “Yes?” or “No?” at the end of his bits of dialog.
Do you work on giving each character a distinctive voice?
A character clears his throat before speaking
A character has a Southern accent or a Jersey accent
A character uses a lot of similes or clichés
A character uses no contractions
A character quotes the Bible
Number of words in a sentence
All your sentences have the same number of words. There is no variety in your novel’s sentence structure. I am getting bored by your mundane sentence structure. I beg you to give me some sentence variety.
All the sentences in the above paragraph have the same number of words. Boring, right? Though it is never exactly like this in the projects I edit and proofread, some sentence structure is hauntingly similar.
Giddy up! Some sentences go directly to the barn door. Other sentences take a wandering path around the side of the barn, meander behind the barn, and come out at the corral.
See also Quick Editorial Tips I and Quick Editorial Tips II.
Photos courtesy of Angie Ledbetter, Tracy Hinkel, and Jink Willis.
Karen S. Elliott was raised by a mother who wanted to be an English teacher and who worked for Merriam-Webster as a proofreader and an aunt who could complete the Sunday New York Times crossword in a day. Their favorite expression was, “Look it up!” Karen is an editor and proofreader, blogger, and writer. Her short stories have been featured in The Rose & Thorn Journal, Every Child is Entitled to Innocence anthology, Valley Living Magazine, BewilderingStories.com, and WritingRaw.com.