What’s Wrong With This List(?)

I StumbledUpon a page from eight years ago (since which time, let’s hope, writers have smartened up) that lists two hundred (200!) words to use instead of “said.” Why?
See for yourself. I looked at that list and immediately eliminated all but maybe ten, and that’s only because they’re marginally less egregious than the other 190. And only if they’re used under extraordinary conditions. And rarely.

No less a literary personage than Elmore Leonard (see my blog post from June 2014) disagreed, as did Kurt Vonnegut, Ernest Hemingway, and many others. Have you read Ed McBain? Stephen King (see the September 2013 blog post)?

Most of the words on that loathsome list serve mainly as substitutes for weak writing. They also distract the readers, who are smarter than many writers give them credit for. If the dialogue is economical and strong, there’s no need to spoon feed the readers. They get that the characters are angry or scared or miserable or devious. Another dodge is to use adverbs (she said insistently). First, if you absolutely can’t resist, why not just write “she insisted”? Second, and more to my point, if the dialogue is well written, we should already know that she is insisting. Finally, laugh, hesitate, groan/moan, sigh, look, point, and all of their synonyms are also not dialogue tags. They are called “action beats,” and they don’t get commas before, during, or after the speech; they get periods.

Don’t distract your readers. Leave out as many words as you can and leave the heavy lifting (and the banter and heartfelt confessions) to the characters. They’ll tell the readers what they want them to know.

Holy Writ

There is a lovely article written by Mary Norris, a copyeditor for The New Yorker (http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/02/23/holy-writ) that follows her from her peripatetic beginnings to her deep understanding of the subtleties of editing, particularly with respect to the comma. Commas and their presence or absence in a sentence, she insists, are not necessarily bound by rules, even those in The Chicago Manual of Style, before which most of us bow. It is such a pleasure to read her musings, especially since I agree with her, because it allows some personal “editorial discretion” in our work. Ironically, the subtitle, “Learning to Love the House Style,” suggests otherwise. Ms. Norris, the lucky duck, can call these authors and ask them their intent. The rest of us have to guess.

Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points, and Especially Hooptedoodle


These are rules I’ve picked up along the way to help me remain invisible when I’m writing a book, to help me show rather than tell what’s taking place in the story. If you have a facility for language and imagery and the sound of your voice pleases you, invisibility is not what you are after, and you can skip the rules. Still, you might look them over.

1. Never open a book with weather. If it’s only to create atmosphere, and not a character’s reaction to the weather, you don’t want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead looking for people. There are exceptions. If you happen to be Barry Lopez, who has more ways to describe ice and snow than an Eskimo, you can do all the weather reporting you want.

2. Avoid prologues. They can be annoying, especially a prologue following an introduction that comes after a foreword. But these are ordinarily found in nonfiction. A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want.

There is a prologue in John Steinbeck’s Sweet Thursday, but it’s OK because a character in the book makes the point of what my rules are all about. He says: “I like a lot of talk in a book and I don’t like to have nobody tell me what the guy that’s talking looks like. I want to figure out what he looks like from the way he talks…figure out what the guy’s thinking from what he says. I like some description but not too much of that…Sometimes I want a book to break loose with a bunch of hooptedoodle…Spin up some pretty words maybe or sing a little song with language. That’s nice. But I wish it was set aside so I don’t have to read it. I don’t want hooptedoodle to get mixed up with the story.”

3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue. The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But said is far less intrusive than grumbled, gasped, cautioned, lied. I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with “she asseverated,” and had to stop reading to get the dictionary.

4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”…he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances “full of rape and adverbs.”

5. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. If you have the knack of playing with exclaimers the way Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful.

6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.” This rule doesn’t require an explanation. I have noticed that writers who use “suddenly” tend to exercise less control in the application of exclamation points.

7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly. Once you start spelling words in dialogue phonetically and loading the page with apostrophes, you won’t be able to stop. Notice the way Annie Proulx captures the flavor of Wyoming voices in her book of short stories Close Range.

8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters. Which Steinbeck covered. In Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” what do the “American and the girl with him” look like? “She had taken off her hat and put it on the table.” That’s the only reference to a physical description in the story, and yet we see the couple and know them by their tones of voice, with not one adverb in sight.

9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things. Unless you’re Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language or write landscapes in the style of Jim Harrison. But even if you’re good at it, you don’t want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.

And finally:

10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. A rule that came to mind in 1983. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them. What the writer is doing, he’s writing, perpetrating hooptedoodle, perhaps taking another shot at the weather, or has gone into the character’s head, and the reader either knows what the guy’s thinking or doesn’t care. I’ll bet you don’t skip dialogue.

My most important rule is one that sums up the 10.

If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

Or, if proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go. I can’t allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative. It’s my attempt to remain invisible, not distract the reader from the story with obvious writing. (Joseph Conrad said something about words getting in the way of what you want to say.)

If I write in scenes and always from the point of view of a particular character—the one whose view best brings the scene to life—I’m able to concentrate on the voices of the characters telling you who they are and how they feel about what they see and what’s going on, and I’m nowhere in sight.

What Steinbeck did in Sweet Thursday was title his chapters as an indication, though obscure, of what they cover. “Whom the Gods Love They Drive Nuts” is one, “Lousy Wednesday” another. The third chapter is titled “Hooptedoodle 1” and the 38th chapter “Hooptedoodle 2” as warnings to the reader, as if Steinbeck is saying: “Here’s where you’ll see me taking flights of fancy with my writing, and it won’t get in the way of the story. Skip them if you want.”

Sweet Thursday came out in 1954, when I was just beginning to be published, and I’ve never forgotten that prologue.

Did I read the hooptedoodle chapters? Every word.

WRITERS ON WRITING New York Times, July 16, 2001

Advice from Kurt Vonnegut

Rules for writing a short story:

  1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
  2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
  3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  4. Every sentence must do one of two things–reveal character or advance the action.
  5. Start as close to the end as possible.
  6. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them–in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
  7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
  8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

Ten Rules of Proofreading

1. Never proofread your own copy.

2. Read everything in the copy straight through from the beginning to end.

3. Read copy backward to catch spelling errors.

4. Read pages out of order.

5. Have proofreaders initial the copy they check.

6. Have someone read numbers while you check hard copy.

7. Take short breaks so you can concentrate more clearly.

8. List errors you spot over a month.

9. Alter your routine.

10. Make your marks legible and understandable.


From “How to Avoid Costly Proofreading Errors” by Carolyn Boccella Bagin and Jo Van Doren



Neatness Counts!

I learned to type on a manual typewriter, and when I first saw an electric one, I was pretty impressed. However, it was immediately apparent that while the touch was lighter (I still pound the keys, though, which is a problem on those sleek aluminum Apple keyboards), the fundamentals were the same. Carbon paper, White-out, and the ability either to think ahead or write one’s way out of an unfortunate corner—to avoid retyping the page—were still high on the list of sine qua non.

Needless to say, many manuscripts looked pretty rough.

Fast forward to decades later. We have cut/copy and paste, one of technology’s major leaps forward (up there with the intermittent windshield wiper, Velcro™, and the iPod), to say nothing of AutoCorrect and spell check, and guess what! Too many manuscripts still look pretty rough.

Agents will not read crappy-looking work. They get far too much beautifully packaged writing to bother with stuff that the writer couldn’t be bothered with.

People! This is not okay! I’m not going to get all philosophical about the downfall of civilization as reflected in messy work, but it might not hurt to consider it. Why shoot yourself in the foot? Discuss! And then e-mail me, and I will make your work beautiful.

Orwell’s Rules for Better Writing

Today I want to direct you to a dandy site, Delancey Place, which brings its subscribers eclectic excerpts from the writing of interesting people. In this post, opinions about good and bad writing by the great George Orwell are laid out. Please find the 5-13-2011 post for the entire piece, but below is a portion.

“…one can often be in doubt about the effect of a word or a phrase, and one needs rules that one can rely on when instinct fails. I think the following rules will cover most cases:

(i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

(ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.

(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.

(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

These rules sound elementary, and so they are, but they demand a deep change of attitude in anyone who has grown used to writing in the style now fashionable. One could keep all of them and still write bad English, but one could not write the kind of stuff that I quoted in those five specimens at the beginning of this article.”

Author: George Orwell

Title: “Politics and the English Language”

Date: 1946




On Writing

After hearing about this book for several years, I have finally read Stephen King’s memoir On Writing. King’s novels have never been my cuppa, but this book is worth every minute of your time. Not only does he explain why rewriting and editing is important, he shows you in his own work, which is fascinating. He makes the case for the wholesale slaughter of adverbs and of dialogue words other than “said,” and—my favorite—he dismisses that most beloved of institutions among the un- or underpublished, the writers group.

I spent many hours vaguely irritated by the creampuff opinions of my fellow group members, many of whom I truly love and remains friends with, when it was clear that the two goals of most members were a) to get finished already with everyone else’s work so they could read their own pearls to us all, and b) to figure out what to say that was supportive and nonspecific, so that no one’s feelings were bruised. I know this to be true, because that’s usually the way I felt. And let’s be honest—you do, too.

I always said, before I began reading my pages, that I already knew what was good about my stuff (which I did). I didn’t need to hear about that. I wanted to know what people didn’t like, what didn’t work—what was trite, or illogical, or weak. But there’s an inherent flaw in that system: the audience is too big. Stephen King says what I had long suspected, suggested to clients, and now, even practice myself (the iron test, right?): Write to one person, your first reader. In my case, it’s my sister. He has many reasons for this advice, all of which make powerful sense.

Read his book.

Why Self-Publish?

Because you can.

The days of boxes of inventory crammed into your closet are gone. And so is the stigma of what was known, in pre-digital days, as “vanity press.”

Today, thanks to technology, it is a viable and respectable alternative to the time-consuming process of finding an agent (possibly years), and then waiting for a sale (possibly more years). Today, your book will be printed each time someone goes online to buy a copy. No more boxes of books.

Today, publishers are keeping an eye on the sales figures at Amazon (and the rest) and if they see that a book is gathering steam, believe me, they will not be shy about calling you and suggesting that they buy and republish your book. So in a way, Amazon (and the others) will function as your literary agent while you sell your book online.

Why wait? Publish your book, the sooner the better, and let the market decide.

e-Publish? Please!

In case you need another reason to e-publish your book:

Last week, Amazon announced that “e-book sales on Amazon exceed the number of hardback books sold” and today, Steven Levy tells us in WIRED’s Gadget Lab that Jeff Bezos predicts, “Our best estimate is that Kindle books will outsell paperbacks sometime in the next nine to twelve months.”

Let me repeat that.

“Our best estimate is that Kindle books will outsell paperbacks sometime in the next nine to twelve months.”

Get your book up there now.

© Bookmark Services 1995-2015 • 413-717-1243 • victoria@bookmarkservices.net