- Spelling – Even the best spellers make mistakes. Use a software program like Grammarly or WordWeb (both have free versions) to supplement your software’s spellcheck. They may also catch other errors in word usage – like affect vs. effect which sound somewhat similar but mean something different – and both offer a thesaurus so you can find a better word or correct one that’s overused.
- One of the first things they should tell you in writing classes or seminars is that in a novel, it’s all about the action. It’s about doing things. Show don’t tell. People don’t ‘begin’ to do things, they don’t ‘start’ to do things, they DO them. For example – ‘Smoke waited until they were distracted to begin nibbling at her hair again’ vs. ‘Smoke waited until they were distracted to nibble at her hair again.’ Which sounds better? (Smoke is a horse, by the way.) Don’t have your characters begin or start to do anything unless it’s the first in a series of actions. When self-editing do a search for begin and start.
- Ditto feel and felt. Which sounds better – When he kissed her it felt like she tingled all over – or – When he kissed her she tingled all over?
- For #2 and #3, a professional editor will often scribble “SDT”. This isn’t a disease, it means “Show Don’t Tell”. The best “show-don’t tell advice” comes from Anton Chekov: “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
- Very or Really. They’re not very happy or really happy, they’re ecstatic or delighted. Use a better, more descriptive word. If nothing comes to mind get a thesaurus or use WordWeb or an online thesaurus.
- Search for contractions. For some reason, many writers don’t write in contractions. Especially with ‘had’. He had, she had, rather than he’d or she’d. (This is a personal choice, in a more casual voice like the dialogue in fiction, it works, but in more formal writing it may not.)
Be very careful not to do a universal search and replace to correct this or you’ll hate yourself in the morning. Once it’s saved you have no other choice but to search the entire document for the awkward mess you made. (Always create a new copy when editing, just in case. It’s a lot easier to start over that way.) For example, a universal search and replace for ‘had not’ to ‘hadn’t’ will also change ‘had noticed’ to ‘hadn’ticed’.
- ‘There was’. Sometimes it’s justified, but it can be ‘easy’ writing. Look at each sentence to see if you can rephrase it to make the sentence clearer. Almost any sentence that begins with there was/there is/there were is structurally weaker than it should be.
- Speaking of there. Their (possessive), there (in that direction), and they’re (they are), Use them correctly.
- The dreaded “that”. That she, that he, that they… In many cases, the use of the word “that” is completely unnecessary, but we use it in speech so it can sound correct when you write it. It can almost always be eliminated.
- Try not to use that when you mean who. “The man that…” should be “the man who… ” An easy way to remember is this rule: Humans are who; other things are that.
- Just and only. Make sure you need to use either and they’re next to the word you want to modify. For example – only costs vs. costs only or just costs or costs just… Do you need either?
- Was. Jim was shaking his head. Jim shook his head. Always watch for those ‘ing’ words. Too many will weaken your writing. Also note that “Jim was shaking his head” doesn’t mean the same thing as “Jim shook his head”. Was shaking is past continual tense and shook is simple past tense. Past continual implies (rather obviously) a continual action while simple past indicates a one-time event. So “I was sitting on the park bench when the pack of dogs ran past” does not mean the same as “I sat on the park bench when the pack of dogs ran past.” The trick is to know which one you mean and not overuse or misuse the -ing.
- Active voice vs passive voice. Active voice describes a sentence where the subject performs the action stated by the verb. In passive voice sentences, the subject is acted upon by the verb.
- As if/like. Make sure you know which you really mean. Do a search for like, and in each case see if you need it, then see if ‘as if’ doesn’t sound better.
- Watch those split infinitives. Not all of them are bad – to boldly go where no man has gone before, where boldly splits to and go – is generally accepted. “I decided to not go” sounds awkward. The trick here is that if the rest of the sentence contains a verb, you need as if rather than like. ” It was like the world were coming to an end.” Wrong. See the verb? “It was as if the world were coming to an end.” “Her hair was like butter.” Right. No verb following the like.
- Of is another sneaky little beggar. ‘Inside’ works as well as ‘inside of it’ in most cases.
- ‘Then’ and ‘and then’ are telling words, don’t use them. For instance: Then he went to sit down. Just say: He sat down. Or… And then she set a bowl on the table. Just say: She set a bowl on the table. Using then or and then is like a narrator in your book telling us a story. The action slows. Show, don’t tell.
- Singular and plural pronouns. When speaking about an individual, the pronoun should be singular, when speaking about a group, it’s plural. Ex. It brought him to their feet. Wrong.
- Don’t ‘Slug a Nun’, as a well-known writer once said. (Although this is primarily a grammar document, it is about writing and this is used too often to go unremarked.) In other words, when opening a chapter, any chapter, get to the point. Don’t say “Mikey slugged a nun” and then take ten pages, eight of which explain the history of the Catholic Church, before you explain WHY Mikey slugged the nun.
- Another very common mistake – Her eyes wandered. Please put them back in her head – that’s disgusting. Her gaze might wander but not her eyes. She might glance at him, their gazes may meet, or lock, etc., or they might stare at each other, but his eyes will never wander over her breasts unless it’s a zombie movie, and they’ve gained legs. Some editors might let this go, but you should be able to find a better way to say it.
- Watch for sentences that start with the same word or the same type of beginning. He did this, he did that. Change it up so the reader doesn’t get bored.
- Too much use of “it” as a subject can be weak writing. Delete the vague pronoun and identify ‘it’ with a solid noun. Not – It felt good to dress up. Try – She enjoyed dressing up.
- Or using “that was” rather than stating what was going on. Not – “He wiped away the drop of sweat that was clinging to his brow. Try – ‘He wiped away the drop of sweat clinging to his brow.” Sound better?
- Be concise. Do not mix dialogue of one character in the same paragraph as another. Ever. Even if, or especially if, you’re using omniscient point of view. And always identify the person speaking or thinking either through their actions or dialogue.
- Limit dialogue tags. ‘Said’ to most readers is virtually invisible, only identifying who is speaking.
- Action and reaction. Sentences need to relay information about the cause before the effect or result. Not – She jumped as the door slammed shut. Try – The door slammed, making her jump.
- Eliminate unnecessary words. In the above example – few doors slam open, so it must have slammed shut or closed. So, the door slammed.
- Try to avoid prepositional phrases (to her, at him, for her, etc.) that can be implied. Not – Seeing him proved what a distraction he was to her. Try – Seeing him proved what a distraction he was.
- Stephen King said, “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” Try to evaluate each adverb (generally words that end in -ly), especially in conjunction with dialogue tags. Replace with stronger words. Not – He leaned close and spoke softly. Try – He leaned close and whispered.
- Repeated words: There’s a function in Word that shows words you overuse, but a beta reader or editor can be a better choice. Sometimes it’s justified – a character tic. How often do you use ‘look’? Try variations like glanced, gazed, stared, their gaze met, they saw. Said, but don’t get too caught up it. Studies have shown that ‘said’ is a word that readers eyes pass over, registering only who is speaking.
- Starting a sentence with But when you could use However. Or And. Can you rework it? Both are acceptable, but too much of anything is a bad thing.
- Redundant actions: stood up. How else would you stand? Sat down – try sat. Nodded his head – just use nodded, if he’s nodding anything else it’s just weird.
Consider picking up The Elements of Style. It’s a small, thin book, perfect to keep beside your laptop or desktop computer. It answers some of these pesky grammar questions. For style suggestions, try Hemingway Editor, a software program that highlights lengthy, complex sentences, common errors, and passive voice.
Always be careful taking the advice any software programs or even editors offer – you don’t want to sound too mechanical or lose your authors ‘voice’.One last little hint. By not doing a read-through sentence by sentence but using search instead, it forces you to look at each sentence individually, in isolation. It makes it much easier to spot errors you might otherwise have missed or to question the wording of the sentence. Try reading it aloud, or use text to voice to read it back, that may help you pick up errors and help the flow