Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Bad Writing Habits

I thought it might be useful to highlight some common habits into which writers often fall. If possible, I suggest you catch yourself when you are doing it. That might save me some work if I am copy editing your manuscript!

Looked at

‘He looked at him...’, ‘He looked at him and said...’ There may be a reason why the author wants to emphasise this occasionally. But many writers repeat this formula over and over again. Most of the time it is completely unnecessary. Most of the time, particularly during a conversation, the reader can safely assume that the interlocutors are looking at each other.

Some add to this ‘turned’. ‘He turned and looked at him...’ More just wasted ink.

There are other variants on this, often involving movement: ‘He went to him and...’, ‘He walked to him and...’ For example, ‘He went to him and hugged him.’ Again, the reader will happily fill in this missing movement: if one person hugs another, it can be safely assumed that he or she first closed the distance between them.

To generalise, when writing, try to avoid a step by step description of each and every intermediate action. Or adding actions that are completely unnecessary. ‘He got in the car, turned on the ignition, backed out of the driveway, and drove into town...’ Or: ‘He drove into town.’ He couldn’t have done that without first having done all those other, preparatory actions.

Sometimes it will be important to pinpoint or highlight the smallest, apparently least significant actions. But usually not.

He said... She said...

This is one you have probably all heard before. During a long section of dialogue it is often useful to remind the reader who is saying what. Sometimes ‘he said’ is perfect for that. However, it can be tedious and repetitive. Often no speech attribution is necessary. On other occasions, ‘Mary went into the kitchen to make coffee...’, followed by a line of dialogue, tells the reader quite clearly who is speaking.

Suddenly (and other superfluous adverbs)

I am not an enemy of adverbs. Adverbs are very useful, and do not deserve the kind of irrational persecution to which they are sometimes subjected. Nevertheless, writers often seem to throw in adverbs, such as ‘suddenly’, ‘immediately’, ‘quickly’ etc. for no obvious reason at all. Often the action being described is none of these things. ‘...he said, suddenly’ in the middle of a conversation makes no sense. Often, when reading someone’s manuscript, I have no idea why they have ‘suddenly’ decided to use this word. That previous sentence is an example of how we might use such a word in speech. ‘I was reading a manuscript when suddenly I saw the word “suddenly”’.’ What is ‘sudden’ about that action? Why is seeing the word ‘suddenly’ different from seeing the words before and after it?

Perhaps this is a reflection of how we tend to speak, often using the most outrageous hyperbole. Again, unless this is the author’s specific intention, I would discourage this habit.


This is one you will probably have come across again and again. It is very common in speech to use expressions such as this: ‘It was like he was struck by lightning.’ The more correct form of this is: ‘It was as if [or: as though] he was struck by lightning.’ The simplest way to explain the correct usage is to quote directly from The Chicago Manual of Style:

Like is probably the least understood preposition. Its traditional function is adjectival, not adverbial, so that like is governed by a noun or a noun phrase {teens often see themselves as star-crossed lovers like Romeo and Juliet}. As a preposition, like is followed by a noun or pronoun in the objective case {the person in that old portrait looks like me}. Increasingly (but loosely) today in ordinary speech, like displaces as or as if as a conjunction to connect clauses. For example, in it happened just like I said it would happen, like should read as; and in you’re looking around like you’ve misplaced something, like should read as if. Because as and as if are conjunctions, they are followed by nouns in the nominative case {Do you work too hard, as I do?}. Although like as a conjunction has been considered nonstandard since the seventeenth century, today it is common in dialectal and colloquial usage {he ran like he was really scared}. Consider context and tone when deciding whether to impose standard English, as in the examples above.

Attempting to eradicate this usage from direct speech is a lost cause. For that reason, I would not, as an editor, change this in dialogue. Nor would I necessarily change it in a first person narrative, which is virtually direct speech. However, I would encourage writers to avoid this in a third person narrative. I would also not expect to see it in the speech of every character.

There are other issues to which I could draw attention, such as the use of numbers, capitalisation, and abbreviations. I may return to these at a later date, but that is probably enough to go on with. Now, attack that manuscript with the delete key!


  1. Very interesting post, Philip, and I do agree with you. I have added your blog to my favourites, so I'll pop by occasionally and see what you are up to.

  2. I use an online editing tool to help me with my first editing pass. I'm adding these to my custom checks.