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Patricia Anderson, PhD

Good Manuscript Housekeeping—
10 Tips for Immaculate Prose

Copyright 2003; 2005; 2011 by Patricia Anderson

 


Make every word count. This is the advice that top agents and editors typically give to emerging authors. In today’s world of sound bites, instant communication, and short attention spans, few readers will tolerate cluttered prose. Your challenge as a writer is to stimulate and maintain interest by tidying up wordy, weak writing that slows down and bores the reader.

Here are 10 tips for producing immaculate, readable prose. Once you’ve looked them over, how about pulling out that manuscript and doing some "housekeeping" of your own?

1) Use -ly adverbs with restraint.

Slowly, quickly, sadly, happily, quietly, loudly—these and many other such words that modify actions have a long history of overuse by hack writers. The old Tom Swift series for boys was notorious and, in the 1960s, gave rise to one-liners known as "swifties": "Brr, is it ever cold in here," Tom said frostily. Or even worse: "I can run fast," Tom said swiftly.

There are times when you might appropriately write something like she spoke haltingly—and leave it at that. The trick is to avoid falling back on -ly adverbs too often or using them when other word choices would create a stronger effect. Compare, for example, the following two sentences:

Weak:
"I hate studying," she said angrily and shut the textbook loudly.

Better:
"I hate studying," she said and slammed the textbook shut.

2) Avoid strings of synonymous adjectives.

Don’t treat adjectives like a multiple-choice test, whereby you list several options and leave the reader to pick the best. As the writer, it is your job to select the most effective word. Occasionally, you might wish to create atmosphere or emphasis by stringing together a series of roughly cognate adjectives: a dark, black, inky night; a searing, hot, blistering summer day. But be aware of what you are doing, and why. And when unsure, exercise restraint.

Weak:
A great, huge, overgrown red setter lumbered toward us.

Better:
An overgrown red setter lumbered toward us.

3) Keep articles to a minimum.

Unless you’re using the or a for reasons of emphasis or clarification, it often serves pace and readability to omit extraneous articles from a series of items.

Weak:
Before going out, I put on a coat, a scarf, a hat, and a pair of gloves.

Better:
Before going out, I put on a coat, scarf, hat, and pair of gloves.

4) Don’t settle for easy word repetitions.

When we write a first draft, we focus on getting ideas down in sequence before we lose our train of thought. To do so, we typically pick the first correct word that comes to mind. The trouble is, all too often, that word repeats one we just used. This is fine to begin with, but once you have your thoughts down, don’t forget to go back and clean out the repetitions. Compare the italicized words in the following two passages:

Weak:
He turned to me and said, "You just don’t get it."

Hurt by his accusation, I turned and headed out the door. I didn’t know it then, but that was a turning point in our friendship.

Better:
He turned to me and said, "You just don’t get it."

Hurt by his accusation, I spun around and headed out the door. I didn’t know it then, but that was the true end of our friendship.

5) Say said--or sometimes nothing.

Editors now frown on extensive use of substitutes for the simple verb said in dialogue constructions. Groaned, moaned, sighed, and similar words should at best be deployed at infrequent intervals. You might also get away with a couple of animal noises if they are not repeated throughout the manuscript. But do not allow your characters to snort, snarl, hiss, and growl their way through an entire novel. And whatever you do, don’t let anyone chortle.

To avoid constant repetition of said, a few words, such as answered, replied, told, asked, are acceptable in appropriate contexts. But wherever possible, avoid these, too, as in the second example below.

Weak:
"Mary," he said, "I didn’t know you were still here."

"I came back to rest for a few minutes," she replied.

"Can I get you anything?" he asked.

"She shook her head. No, I’ll be fine," she insisted.

Better:
"Mary," he said, "I didn’t know you were still here."

"I came back to rest for a few minutes."

"Can I get you anything?"

She shook her head. "No, I’ll be fine."

6) Put connecting words in their place.

However, whereas, nonetheless, nevertheless, although, therefore—these and other connecting words have their place, especially in formal expository writing. But because they slow the pace, they are better avoided in both narrative fiction and informal or creative nonfiction.

Weak:
Although Joe was exhausted after his sleepless night, he nevertheless forced himself to go out for some fresh air.

Better:
Exhausted after his sleepless night, Joe forced himself to go out for some fresh air.

7) Don’t bog down in redundancy.

Redundancy swamps the reader with excessive words. In the first example below, the words slow, leaden, plodded, and endless all suggest extended action. In a lengthy passage of this sort, the pace can become as leaden as the action described.

Weak:
With slow, leaden steps, he plodded along the endless path.

Better:
He plodded along the endless path.

8) Simplify the past.

Stylistically, flashbacks and other events occurring prior to the simple past of the main story can trap you in unwieldy constructions—including the dreaded had had. (Note: If you must use this construction, then use the contracted form—he’d had enough, not he had had enough.) Both of the examples below are correct, but the second is simpler and ultimately more sophisticated. One strategy is to start a flashback in the past perfect tense to cue the reader to a memory or earlier event. Then retain immediacy of action and stylistic clarity by continuing in the simple past, possibly with some careful word omissions.

Weak:
On a whim, she drove around the lake.

Years ago, she had walked this way often. How many times had it been? In the old days she had kept count. She had had a good reason, although now she couldn’t remember what it had been.

Better:
On a whim, she drove around the lake.

Years ago, she had walked this way often. How many times? In the old days she kept count. She had a good reason, although now she couldn’t remember it.

9) Make contractions work for you in dialogue.

In formal expository writing you have little choice but to use the full form of constructions such as it is, cannot, what is, you are, I am, and so on. But in less formal writing you can manipulate the pace and create a conversational tone with judicious use of contractions.

Dialogue, especially, is affected by the introduction of contractions. Their presence implies situations that are intimate, familiar, or otherwise informal; they create realism by reflecting how most people really speak; and they contribute to characterization by helping to signal the age, education, stress level, and personality of the speaker.

With its absence of contractions, the first example below might just do for a fussy British professor interrupting an argument between two colleagues. But for most other characterizations and scenarios, the rigorous use of full forms produces stilted, unrealistic speech. The second example is more realistic and could apply to a family situation, such as a teenager confronting his battling parents, or alternatively, to an encounter involving three friends or colleagues.

Weak:
Martin burst into the room and stopped short. "What is going on? I cannot believe it—you are fighting again, are you not? Well, I am fed up with both of you."

Better:
Martin burst into the room and stopped short. "What’s going on? I can’t believe it—you’re fighting again, aren’t you? Well, I'm fed up with both of you."

10) Don’t borrow -ing trouble.

Using -ing constructions to modify actions or nouns is a risky business. It can result in grammatical error, such as misplaced (a.k.a. dangling) modifiers: Driving south along the highway, several signs pointed us toward motels and restaurants. The signs are not doing the driving. The corrected version is: Driving south along the highway, we saw several signs that pointed us toward motels and restaurants.

Even when grammatically correct, -ing constructions must be handled with care, or they can create silly and impossible time sequences: Getting up from the sofa, she left the room. See the problem? The two actions cannot be simultaneous—unless the sofa is almost in the middle of a doorway, and she more or less falls out of the room.

In the end, stern editors and sophisticated readers dislike -ing constructions because they are weak, and place the reader at one remove from straightforward action.

Consider the examples below, all of which are grammatically correct and sensible.

Weak:
Glancing at her watch, Rose knew she had to leave soon. She waited a few moments. Then, getting up from the sofa, she apologized for disrupting the meeting.

Better:
Rose glanced at her watch and knew she had to leave soon. She waited a few moments, then got up from the sofa and apologized for disrupting the meeting.

Better still:
Rose glanced at her watch and knew she had to leave soon. She waited a few moments, then got up from the sofa. "I’m so sorry for disrupting the meeting."


Like a messy home, a wordy, weakly written manuscript offers little pleasure. The last thing you want is to make your readers wade through scraps of verbiage and stumble over piles of words. At times, of course, you might wish to embellish your prose to create a certain effect, rather like you might decorate your home for a special occasion. But in general, and when in doubt, take the minimalist approach: Less is more.

Your writing will benefit—and so will your readers.

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