Editing Tips and Red Flags in Fiction Writing

I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m tired of reading reviews that use “poorly edited” as an umbrella term for, “This isn’t how I would have done it,” “I didn’t like your writing style,” “You have to much description, or not enough description,” “This doesn’t read like a traditionally published book,” “You repeat phrases too much,” “I hate your characters,” “I hate you,” “Awkward phrasing,” or other some such thing. Some of those things are editing problems. The rest is just flak.

For the sake of my sanity, I made a list of words that may place you on the poorly edited list. I’ve used more than my fair share of these words. I’m positive you can find them in this short introduction. The thing about the words on the list is that they are more ‘telling’ word rather than ‘showing’ words. And as the writing advice goes, ‘show, don’t tell.’  However, just because you may use these words in your writing, it doesn’t mean you aren’t a good writer. There are times when these words are needful and it’s just silly to avoid them.

I use the find/replace feature in Word to find these words in my manuscripts. Once found, I decide if the word could be deleted and a better phrasing used. It takes some doing, but my writing is better for it. So here’s the list:

• and – but (both can indicate run on sentences)
• that (unnecessary in most sentences, but there are times that it is necessary. Rule of thumb, if you can read the sentence and it makes sense without “that” in it, you don’t need it. Also be on the look out when “that” really should be “who” or “which”)
• just
• very
• nearly almost
• really
• seem appear
• felt feel
• begin began
• would should could
• quite
• few
• rather
• thing
• stuff
• anyway
• because
•“-ly” adverb
•-ingly (use sparingly. They’re trip ups for readers and can lead to confusion)
• so
• even
• then
• down up (as in sit down, stand up can be redundant)
• only
• got get
•-ness (some of the words with –ness at the end can be stumbling blocks that cause confusion)
•-ize (again, not all words with –ize are bad, but try to minimize them (Sorry couldn’t help myself))
• it
•is – are – was – were
• to be – be – being – been
• am
• has – had – have
• there is – there are – there was – there were

(Disclaimer: this is a re-post from April 2011. It has been updated.)

16 Comments

  1. I had to break myself from using “that” too much. I’m beta reading a book right now where I’m marking a bunch of “thats”. 🙂 This is a really common problem, but writers usually get better with experience.

    1. Most do. Though some I’ve met never do. They write as they speak and that is a common word in their vocabulary.

  2. asraidevin says:

    I highly reccomend Editor by Serenity Software, it analyzes about 10 pages of text at a time, but it catches those little things. my worst was always always using the phrase “was going to go VERB”

    Painful once I had it pointed out.

    1. LOL I have a few phrases I’ve noticed using over and over and over again. 😀

    2. I saw your comment about “Editor” by Serenity Software a few days ago and I immediately did the free trial and will be purchasing it. Wow!! Thanks so much for mentioning it. I had no idea anything like this existed. It copy edits. I’m sure if you ask a copy editor they’ll tell you not to rely on a software, but I have to say, I think this software points out some of the obvious blunders that add to our frustrations about “lack of editing” when we know darn well we at least proofread the book.

      Anyway, thank you! Thank you, thank you, thank you!!!!

      1. asraidevin says:

        I found out about it from Zoe Winters’ INdie publishing book and for me it was like “where have you been all my life?”.

  3. Jessica says:

    Overuse of the gerund… ick. However, I will defend the use of ‘-ly’ adverbs, as I am sick of coming across things like this: “Run quick!” *sighs*

    Personally, I have cut the word ‘look’ out of my writing, unless it’s in direct speech. That, however, was a personal issue.

    1. 😀 I will agree that there are times that -ly should be used. I also think that most sentences with the -ly adverb can be expanded to describe more and tell less.

  4. You took away my vocabulary. Now what do I do?
    I write sentences for clarity. It is also the age I am writing for that makes a difference.
    I don’t drag things out and my main thing is to just tell the story.
    If it works, use it.

    1. LOL It’s okay, you can still use those words. 😀

  5. Thanks Jo! I know I use ‘ that ‘ way too often so appreciate these helpful reminders! :)) D

  6. This is a good list, I’m going to place it next to my computer so I see it often. I was appalled to see how many times I used -ly and ingly last year when a friend in writers group pointed it out. I hope you won’t mind if I share your list with the writers group. Thanks.

    1. When I get to my last draft of a novel, I start through this list using the find and replace function in my word processor. I don’t delete every instance of them, just the ones that help the story by being gone..

  7. Well, I’ll stand out as the odd ball in this whole thing and say that I use these words intentionally. Yeah, I know they’re technically wrong, but I’ve seen them used so much in traditionally published romance books that I don’t think the average reader cares. I know this makes me unpopular, and I understand this is why writers have a problem with my writing. But I’m okay with that. I self-publish to write books my way. I figure if someone doesn’t like my style, they can buy another author whose style fits them better. I do have two editors (one who looks at the overall storyline and the other who looks at the details), and I use proofreaders. So I’m not saying I don’t care about the quality of my books. I think it’s a matter of preference. 😀

    1. You’re not really an oddball, Ruth. Although I did break myself from using “that” so much, because the sentences sound less awkward without it, I still am guilty of some of the other things. I like adverbs. And I know other authors that do, too. I don’t know who came up with the rule to not use adverbs. Also, I like to use words like “she cried” or “he shouted” when everyone says you should just use “said”. I know it gets annoying if you overuse some of these, but sometimes “said” just doesn’t cut it. LOL

    2. It’s not that they are wrong, Ruth. Or in the realm of making you unpopular. 😀

      I think removing every instance of them would be just plain silly. I think it’s more along the lines of helping to improve writing by not using them so frequently that it sounds like a writer is telling the reader what is happening versus showing them what is happening.

      You’re right to say that a writer shouldn’t change their writing style to fit a mold of “what writers should write” or “how they should say things.” We are each individual and our writing voice should reflect that. When you try to change who you are, your writing becomes stilted and it becomes harder to sit down to write. Rules are meant to be broken, but they should first be understood so that you can break them with finesse. :D.

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