Robert Smythe

Self-editing Tips - Issues to Look for

A. John Lescroart's checklist for proper wordcraft.

A few years ago, a friend and I attended a seminar given by John Lescroart, a bestselling writer of crime and legal fiction. John insists that writers should be wordcraft experts. He checks every sentence of his book.

Anyone who submits a manuscript to John for examination gets a series of letters in the margin to point out problems with the prose. Each letter stands for a specific problem. Here is his list of writing problems, with explanatory comments or examples.

​P       passive (such sentences often use was, were)

G       grammar, punctuation  (e.g. "Are you coming?" She asked.)

T       telling (exposition) (Such sentences often use was or were, or are explanations by the narrator.)

C       cliché

     wrong word  (e.g. there / their; assure / ensure; literally / figuratively)

R       redundancy. (e.g. the orphan had no father or mother. Another sentence may be redundant with earlier sentences, so could be struck entirely.)

U       unreferenced or improper antecedent (usually for it, which, who)

A       adverb or adjective unnecessary (e.g. "I wish you were dead," he said, meanly.)

E       echo (same non-trivial word or phrase used recently (i.e. in the same book))

      fake, negative description, saying what didn't happen instead of what did.

X       contradiction  (e.g. Choosing to remain silent, he told her he loved her. Most contradictions will span more than one sentence.)

NV    narrator voice   … should use proper English

?        huh? (Doesn't make sense.)

I        insults the reader (by telling obvious facts, unnecessary explanations; by explaining jokes, by using illogical plot or narrative devices. Example of the last: A character says to his friend, "As you know, Bob, black holes are formed when…" If Bob already knows, the speaker wouldn't have explained it. The author should find another way to tell the reader what the reader needs to know (only.)

In addition to problems with setting, plot, conflict, and characterization, these concepts are what I look for when I am editing a client's story. When you revise your draft, examine each sentence, checking it for the wordcraft problems that John Lescroart identifies.    

B. Elmore Leonard's Rules

Elmore Leonard was a bestselling writer of westerns and crime novels. He gave these tips. We chuckle when we read them, but when we contemplate what wasn't explicitly stated in each one, we see that their significance.

1. Never open a book with weather.
2. Avoid prologues.
3.  Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue.
4.  Never use an adverb to modify the verb "said”…he admonished gravely.
5. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. 
6.  Never use the words "suddenly" or "all hell broke loose."
7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
8.  Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
9.  Don't go into great detail describing places and things.
10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

Leonard summed them up with this advice: If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

Excerpted from the New York Times article, “Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle