Guardians of the Language

International bestseller, John Lescroart once said something to a small group of authors that has always stuck with me.

“You are the guardians of the language so choose your words precisely.”

He was talking to a group of about 20 other authors who had submitted three pages of manuscript for his review. The daylong critique felt arduous and all of our manuscripts had a range of faults, some easier to repair than others. In fact, he stated that he could tell from the first page if a manuscript was ready for publishing since most of the editors and agents look for the same thing. I was amazed at how many of us mid-career writers were still making these mistakes. However, the lessons learned that day were not about correct grammar or story elements. They involved the more subtle aspects of good editing that separate excellent writing from everyday dross.

So here are some major manuscript errors that you should avoid in your writing.

  1. Avoid the adverb. Use of –ly words leads to telling the story, not showing it, which we all know is a major sin in creative writing. However, the insidious terms sneak in as the Muse is whispering in your ear and you are in the full blow of streaming words to paper. Sometimes the –ly expression is the best way to go. However, most come from lazy or too-quick writing. After the story is completed, search most of them out and kill them.
  1. Echoing words. A great phrase gets stuck in your head so you use this great phrase over and over again until it sticks. See? Great, phrase,stuck/stick, and over are all overused in one sentence. However, when you are editing, look for repetition across paragraphs as well and don’t let characters repeat statements that someone else has already said (example: “What do you mean ‘who am I?'”). It slows the pace and is unnecessary.
  1. Unclear pronoun. If you are mentioning a he or a she, make sure we know the name before the pronoun occurs. Example: Before he became a man, he heard Dad often say “Roger, stop eyeballing them women!” This is far better as “Before Roger became a man, he hear Dad often say “Son, stop eyeballing them women!”
  1. Overuse of exclamation marks. Unless your character is shouting, don’t use the exclamation mark. People don’t think or talk in great emphasis. If you read your material out loud, you can hear if this punctuation fits or not.
  1. Avoid “It is,” “There is,” and “There are” phrasing in all of your writing. These expressions are inherently weak and lead to dull, passive sentences. Yet they are easy to fix as well. “There are a lot of writers who use these verbs,” easily changes to “A lot of writers use these verbs.” Take the weak sentence starts out and the action in the story increases dramatically.
  1. Passive verbs. You probably know this one, having heard it repeatedly in any writing class. However, the terms still sneak in. In addition, avoid “is able to…” If a person is “able to” do something, then just state that they did it.
  1. Overworked words. Since writing paints an overall image in the reader’s mind, the author should choose specific words that support that picture. Obvious examples include verbs such as do, walk, get, look, or take, just to name a few. In less than a second, you can think of more exact terms to use that evoke a stronger impression. This also includes more complex concepts such as colors. Is the object “white” (that might be good enough) or could it be cream, eggshell, cloud, or snow shaded?

Remember your writing may be good, but it can always improve. Seek out and destroy these and other pesky errors to make your material as tight, interesting, and clear as possible.

These winter days make me miss the long hours and warmth of summer.

These winter days make me miss the long hours and warmth of summer.

4 thoughts on “Guardians of the Language

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