As an editor of fiction, (in South Africa there aren’t many), I have come across manuscripts that belong at the bottom of the slush pile, manuscripts with a literal value, manuscripts that are mediocre, entertaining, and some downright sloppy.
At times I value the plot, other times the characters, but, in the end, it doesn’t matter what I value, essentially the publisher has the last say. All I do is make sure that the manuscript is as perfect as it can be the moment it lands on the publisher’s desk.
My view of perfection must always be linear to the writer’s view of perfection. You might argue and say, Well, I’m writing for myself. By all means do so, and make sure that you stash it in a drawer, with all the other manuscripts you have written that will never see the light of day. If you are writing for yourself, please, please do keep it to yourself.
However, if you wish to share your writing with a workshop group, or editor, and you wish to grow through the process of learning the craft, by all means I will do my best to make sure your writing is handsome to the eye.
With this in mind, there are words that I never want to see in a novel.
I make a list of the author’s favourite words, these are words that the author uses repeatedly.
In many manuscripts I mark the margin with something like: Be careful of this word, it is used repeatedly throughout the chapter. A word like JUST. It is used in dialogue so often that the author is not aware that he has repeated it 45 times in a chapter. The warning will be something like this: JUST – try to stay away from using this word, it tends to be repetitive. I am reducing all JUST’s.
Other repetitive words include: SO, WELL (especially at the beginning of sentences, and often used in dialogue), SMIRK, THE FACT THAT.
The following qualifiers and verbs: A BIT, A LITTLE, FAIRLY, HIGHLY, BACK, LOOK, KIND OF, MOSTLY, PRETTY, QUITE, RATHER, ACTUALLY, REALLY, SLIGHTLY, SOMEWHAT, SOMETHING, SORT OF, THAT WHICH, AS WELL,THOUGH, LOVERLY, WONDERFUL, BEAUTIFUL, ADORABLE, HORRIBLE, NASTY, TERRIBLE, SILLY, COMELY. THE REASON WHY. THEN (too many). THAT (too many).
The list goes on and on. These words do not convey what the writer is seeing. He sees something terrible but doesn’t allow the reader to see it. He sees a beautiful man or woman, but fails to convey the beauty. If the writer uses any of the 5 senses to convey the last nine words in the list, then he will have succeeded in showing the reader, instead of telling the reader what he/she is seeing.
Another pet peeve of mine is WOULD OF, instead of would have, COULD OF, instead of could have.
Body parts that act on their own: HER HAND WAVED, instead of He/she waved.
LOOK and GAZE. These two verbs are so overused in all writing, including mainstream. There are better words to use, that is why there is such a thing called a thesaurus.
The words BEGAN TO and STARTED TO. In good writing, there is no beginning. The characters just DO IT. Which is better? He began to scream or He screamed? The horse started to gallop up the hill or The horse galloped up the hill?
Leave out the word THEN as much as possible. Why? Most things happen sequentially anyway.
He THOUGH TO HIMSELF. Well, who would he think to other than himself? TO HIMSELF is redundant. Delete it.
There are so many words that I scream at. Unnecessary articles, a/an/the. Whole cliché’s. Unnecessary words. Roundabout and indirect words. Redundant words and phrases like THE SKY ABOVE. The sky is above. Everyone knows that. (I should hope so). Unnecessary possessives like: She held up the diamonds, (her) eyes gleaming.
Other words I dislike are: SO AS. UH OH. VERY. SUDDENLY.
I AM SAT HERE. (It’s true that someone may have sat you there) but it should be I am sitting here.
Why do I dislike all of the above? They call attention to themselves. The moment a reader starts noticing repetition, he/she is no longer lost in your story. When the reader begins to play with his commitment ring after the tenth THE FACT THAT, you’ve lost a reader.
I am not against using any of the above in dialogue. Dialogue exists to show character and to move the story forward, it exists to create conflict. But if I find these words used repeatedly in the narrative, most of them will be deleted.
Churchill once said: This is the sort of bloody nonsense up with which I will not put.
I second this.
If your manuscript is riddled with all of the above, then it’s not ready for an editor. Your work is not finished until you have these all ironed out. When I say ironed out, I mean that you should play with the sentences. Never rush. Especially if you are writing for an audience. I dislike rushed work. I can see it immediately from reading the first paragraph. Make your sentences crisp, clear and precise. Clarity and precision are paramount. Rewrite that troublesome sentence 100 times if you must, but please get it right. Not for the editor, not for the publisher, do it for yourself.
Have a juggernaut weak, and should I not great, my hand will wave from where I am sat.