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4 Writing Crutches that Insult the Reader's Intelligence

Prose so simple the cat gets it…um, no.

I would wager that most of us do not sit up all night thinking of ways to treat our readers like they’re stupid.  Yet, it is a common problem, especially with newer writers who are still learning the craft. All of us can slip into these nasty habits, if we aren’t mindful. It’s as if we get so wrapped up in our story that we mentally stumble in that brief span from synapse to keyboard, and inadvertently end up treating our readers like they need to ride the short bus. So today, I put together a list of bad habits to make it easier for you guys to spot when you are coaching the reader.

Offender #1—Adverb Abuse

One of the reasons I am such a Nazi when it comes to adverbs it that they are notorious culprits for stating the obvious. “She smiled happily.” Um, yeah. “He yelled loudly.” As opposed to yelling softly? To be blunt, most adverbs are superfluous and weaken the writing. Find the strongest verb and then leave it alone.

The ONLY time an adverb is acceptable is when it is there to denote some essence that is not inherent in the verb.

For example: She whispered quietly. Okay, as opposed to whispering loudly?

Quietly is implied in the verb choice. Ah, but what if you want her to whisper conspiratorially? Or whisper sensually? The adverbs conspiratorially or sensually tells us of a very specific types of whispers, and are not qualities automatically denoted in the verb.

Offender #2—Qualifiers

It is really unnecessary to qualify. We get it. Using qualifiers is similar to adding in needless adverbs. If we have just written a scene about a heated argument, trust me, our characters don’t need to “slam the door in frustration” (yep…got it) or “scowl with disapproval” (uh-huh) or “cry in bitter disappointment” (gimme a break).

The qualifiers add nothing but a cluster of extra words that bogs down the prose.  If someone slams the door right after a heated scene of arguing, the reader gets that the character is angry, frustrated, upset. We don’t need to spell it out.

Like adverbs, it is perfectly okay to use qualifiers, but it’s best to employ them very sparingly (and only ones that are super awesome). Allow your writing to carry the scene. Dialogue and narrative should be enough for the reader to ascertain if a character is angry, hurt, happy, etc. If it isn’t, then forget the qualifiers and work on the strength of the scene.

Offender #3—Punctuation & Font as Props

You are allowed three exclamation points every 50,000 words—just so your editor can cut them and then laugh at you for using exclamation points in the first place.  Hey, a little editor humor :). 99% of the time exclamation points are not necessary if the prose is strong.

“Get the kids out of the house!” he yelled. (Yep)

I recently read a non-fiction book where the writer used an exclamation point on every single sentence. I felt like I was learning marketing from Billy Mays. At best, the guy was shouting at me for page after page. At worst, he was monotone, because when we emphasize everything, we emphasize nothing.

Ellipses do not make a scene more dramatic, just…make…the…writing…more…annoying. Ellipses can be used but, again, very sparingly.

In fiction, bold font and italics are almost never acceptable. Again, if the prose is well written, the reader will stress the word(s) in his head. Trust me. We don’t need to hold our reader’s hand, or brain, or whatever.

Is it ever okay to use bold font and italics? Sure, if you write non-fiction. In non-fiction we are teaching, so certain key words or points need to stand out.

In the world of fiction?

No bold font. That is the tool of an amateur. And italics? We can use it, just not very often or we run the risk of insulting our reader’s intelligence. If you come to a point where you believe it is absolutely necessary to use italics, I suggest trying to strengthen the scene first.

Offender #4—Telling Instead of Showing

Most of us have been beaten over the head with the saying, “Show. Don’t tell.” There is a good reason for that. Telling is a lazy method of characterization. Most readers are pretty sharp and like figuring things out on their own. Thus, if we spoon-feed information that should be given via the story, we risk turning off the reader.

New writers are almost always guilty of telling instead of showing. Why? Simple. They’re still learning techniques that are going to take time and practice to develop. Yet, all of us, regardless our skill level need to be wary of this narrative crutch. To be blunt, telling is far less taxing on the brain, so our lazy nature will try to take shortcuts if we aren’t careful.

Actions speak louder than words. Yeah, it is easy to just tell the reader our antagonist is a real jerk, but it is better to show our antagonist doing things that make the reader decide this for himself. We accomplish this by creating an antagonist who simply does things jerks do.

Good writers don’t tell readers a character is ticked off. Good writers show she is ticked off. Crossed arms. No eye contact. Clenched jaw. Slamming doors. Remember that over 95% of communication is non-verbal. Use this to your writing advantage. When creating characters, think about what actions will define your character’s nature or mood universally.

For a character’s nature: If you want to create a cad, think what actions cads do that would make everyone in a room label him the same way—checking out every woman who walks by, openly flirting with other women, using breath spray every 5 minutes, telling sexist jokes, etc.

For a character’s mood/mental state: Regardless of culture, we can tell if someone is mad, hurt, sad, or happy by body language. Make a list of all the body language cues for the mood you wish to create. A book on body language can be extremely helpful for the more subtle stuff. For instance, people who lie often rub a body part (wringing hands) or tap. Why? Unless people are sociopathic, it usually causes mental stress to lie, so the rubbing or tapping is a sign of energy displacement.  See, these are the sort of details that make good writing into much better writing.

I would also recommend picking up a copy of Angela Ackerman & Becca Puglisi’s The Emotion Thesaurus. This is a tool every writer needs to have handy.

What are your thoughts? Are there some other pet peeves you guys have that I missed? What makes you put down a book? What methods transport you? What makes you hurl the book across the room?

I love hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of June, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.

***Changing the contest.

It is a lot of work to pick the winners each week. Not that you guys aren’t totally worth it, but with the launch of WANA International and WANATribe I need to streamline. So I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novelor your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

And also, winners will now have one business week  (5 days) to claim the prize, because what’s happening is there are actually quite a few people who never claim the critique, so I never know if the spam folder ate it or to look for it and then people miss out. I will also give my corporate e-mail to insure we connect and I will only have a week to return the 20 page edit.

At the end of June I will pick a winner for the monthly prize. Good luck!

I also hope you pick up copies of my best-selling books We Are Not Alone–The Writer’s Guide to Social Media and Are You There, Blog? It’s Me, Writer And both are recommended by the hottest agents and biggest authors in the biz. My methods teach you how to make building your author platform FUN. Build a platform and still have time left to write great books.

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  1. Thank you. I really needed to hear these things today. Italics in fiction? (ouch) Completely guilty.

  2. This is good enough to share it on google+, Facebook and Pinterest! Thank you, Kristen!

  3. Mornin Kristen, these tips are spot on and I have to admit, even though I’ve been at this writing thing a long time, sometimes gentle reminders like this are a good thing. I still want to slip into Qualifiers and have to remind myself of the Writers First Rule I adapted from Goodkind’s Wizard’s First Rule. Readers are highly intelligent.

    As always, thank you.

  4. Very good lesson. Agree on all counts. And (thankfully) I think I’ve mastered or nearly mastered them.

    PS – Not all kids who ride the short bus are academically challenged. I started off with two–both bright, but autistic. The one who still rides taught himself to read when he was four, and he was the only 5th grader in the whole school to make a perfect score on the math portion of the standardized test. 😉

    I still laughed at the joke, though. 🙂

  5. Kristen,

    Thank you, perfectly and simply stated. Something I need to remind myself all the time.

    I have imprinted this on my root RAM:)

    brendan

  6. When I’m editing, these are precisely the four things I ask myself when I encounter them in my writing. I’m okay with letting them in on a draft; that’s where the editing comes in, but I always take a few moments to ask myself, “How can this be done better?” if I encounter any of these four things. I’m particularly bad with adverbs, and I love the challenge of figuring out how to emphasize what I’ve put in italics without actually using italics. The results are always better, with the exception of a few of those rare instances. What a great little reminder for us to stay vigilant. For me, it’s not so much about insulting the reader’s intelligence as it is simply lazy writing, though. Which I suppose is an insult all its own…

    Great post, Kristen!

  7. Hi Kristen, thanks for these reminders. When it comes to ellipses…..Mea Culpa. It’s a terrible habit I must work on breaking. When reading a book, I will quickly lose patience if the writer employs the same turn of phrase repeatedly. I read a book recently in which a character said ‘Good point, well made’ so many times I ultimately gave up, and started reading something else. That kind of lazy vocabulary is a real turn off.

    1. I know the book you read, Koco. I also found that repetition annoying. Perhaps I didn’t like the phrase from the get-go?

      1. I honestly can’t understand all the fuss surrounding that book (ok, some of the fuss I understand, just not the kind I find mentally stimulating) as the writing is so basic and repetitive I was bored rigid.

  8. I used to tell and not show, but don’t anymore after having an ms critiqued and know what to look our for. I dont use ! that often, and when I do, I don’t put the person yelled or shouted. Think I used to but learnt I shouldn’t. And I only use italics now for character’s thoughts not for emphasis.

  9. What about using italics for deep third-person POV inner monologue?

    1. I was wondering about that as well.

        • Deb Kinnard on June 30, 2012 at 2:53 pm
        • Reply

        This might be a matter of house style. Two of my publishers were fine with italics in such spots, the third one didn’t like them.

        Like all “rules,” use of these things are all “it depends.” Adverbs exist for a reason, and the use of them is all right, in moderation.

      1. Dahnya and Chad, I’m a very well-respected freelance fiction editor and I’ve got a post up on my blog right now on that very subject: “Expressing Thought-Reactions in Fiction,” at http://jodierennerediting.blogspot.com/. Hope this helps.

  10. Hi Kristen:
    Thank you for the reminders on writing without crutches.
    As a fairly new writer (under three years), I was guilty of using adverbs.
    I kept that first piece and it will never see the light of day. I used over seventy adverbs in one chapter. I howl when I read it now.
    I just ordered Angela and Becca’s new thesaurus. I’m chomping at the bit waiting for it to arrive.
    Although I don’t comment often, I read everyone of your posts.
    Thank you
    Tracy

  11. Are there any instances when it is acceptable to use italics? I think I’ve seen it used for protagonist thoughts, bible quotes or ghostly whispers.

  12. My big sin? Adverbs. I think I event talk that way sometimes. As a nonfiction writer, I also struggle with the passive voice. To be or not to be, that is the question. Thanks for a great post, Kristen.

  13. Great advice! 😉

  14. My editor changed all my MC’s thoughts into italics after I had just writen them like ‘this’. I assumed she must be right and its gone to print now 🙁 That’s very annoying. Thank you for another great post.

    1. I wouldn’t worry about that. Having thoughts in italics is actually one of the acceptable uses of italics as long as it’s consistent. You don’t always see it done because it’s also acceptable not to as long as it’s consistent and clear. If you look at books put out by the big NY houses, you’ll see it done both ways.

      1. I use italics for self-talk to distinguish it from internalization narrative.

      2. Lindsey, it’s quite common to use italics for direct thoughts, in first-person present tense.

    2. I believe that it’s perfectly acceptable to write a character’s thoughts in italics. I think you’re okay, Lindsey.

      1. Thank you, that’s a relief, I had assumed my editor must be right, but this is my first book and I’m learning all the time, thank you again 🙂

  15. I love a good basics refresher. These are all things I watch for when I’m editing someone else’s work, and yet, I still find myself falling into the punctuation trap in my own writing. When I go back through, I usually end up having to cut at least one ellipses or exclamation point per chapter. I just love those little pieces of punctuation.

    • Heather on June 29, 2012 at 8:20 am
    • Reply

    This is such good advice. Thank you. My only question is how to show that the main character is thinking something rather than saying it out loud. I have read somewhere to use italics in that situation, but perhaps it’s better not to do so. Maybe the reader figures it out without setting it apart in italics.

    1. Heather, it depends on whether it’s an indirect thought, as in “He was attractive.” or a direct thought, as in “Wow. He’s hot.” Both would be without the quotation marks of course, but the first one, an indirect thought, would normally appear in regular font, and the second one, a direct thought, would often be expressed in italics.

        • Heather on July 2, 2012 at 1:07 pm
        • Reply

        Thanks! That makes a lot of sense.

  16. I pulled one of my earlier books from the computer vault, and found out I really had attained some skills since writing this particular stories. Fortunately I’ve never been fond of Italics or exclamations but sadly all there in telling readers all about my characters and their motives in the middle of what had been a strong first scene. Well, that’s why we keep learning. Thanks for another fabulous blog

  17. Thanks for the reminders. I’ve just downloaded The Emotion Thesaurus … (oops, sorry) – hadn’t heard of it before! (dang, sorry again) Happy 4th!

  18. I always worry that show-don’t-tell could be tripping me up. What are your thought on that in relation to dirt person narration? Body language is great for the non narrators, but I feel a bit awkward to write “I tap my finger against my leg and shift back and forth” unless I add something like “and I hope he doesn’t notice and figure out that I’m lying.” Thoughts?

  19. I had been using italics in my fiction WIP to show when my protagonist is thinking instead of talking out loud. Is that acceptable?

    • Chris Redding on June 29, 2012 at 8:41 am
    • Reply

    My publisher’s style is to put internal thoughts in italics. I have to do what the publisher says.

  20. Such good points, thank you. I have literally had new writers argue with me over the adverb use. Your example of of when to use an adverb for a particular type of whisper was so good, I will use that when explaining this to clients. Your point about using italics was well-taken, too. Even for internal dialogue, which is where it was used most in fiction, the trend is now to do deep third person POV and not do direct internal dialogue. For example, I am going to have to get a grip. As internal dialogue that would be put in italics. But, She knew she was going to have to get a grip, is deep third person POV and doesn’t have to be in italics. Not a stellar piece of writing, I know. But it’s first thing in the AM. Haven’t had enough coffee yet. LOL

    1. I think you made it perfectly clear with your examples.:-) Thank you, Maryann.

    • Kenn Ashcraft on June 29, 2012 at 8:43 am
    • Reply

    Needed this again. I’m writing my story and use italics and an occasional exclamation point. I’m guilty of using too many dashes. Regardless, this is good stuff. 😉

  21. I use Italics for character to character telepathy.
    I’m also guilty if using them to stress a point. Ouch.

  22. My writing partner, Buck Stienke, and I use ellipses only in dialogue to show speech patterns or hesitations. I know that the Chicago Manual doesn’t like it, but screw ’em. We cut our teeth on screen/teleplays in which ellipses are used for interruptions, hesitations and creative thought in dialogue. Recently saw an example of using an EM dash for that same reason in the Chicago Manual. “I—I—I”. How stupid, look like fat “Hs”. An example of our, call it screenplay, style: “Promises, promises…what time is it, anyway?” Or, “I…I…I don’t know.” That’s our story and we’re sticking to it.
    We use italics to show thought and, since we write military novels, we use them for the names of aircraft as required by the Navy Rules of Style. The F-4 Phantom (Phantom in italics). USS Iwo Jima (Iwo Jima in italics, but not USS) you get the idea.

    1. I advise my writer clients to use dashes to indicate interruption and for setting apart a thought within a sentence, and ellipses to indicate hesitation or a trailing off of a thought. But sparingly! And of course italics are also used for titles of movies and books.

    • Skunkboy on June 29, 2012 at 8:48 am
    • Reply

    Wow, I still have so much to learn. I am so glad that a friend turned me on to your blog, and intend to follow it.

  23. Guilty! feeling guilty, culpably guilty, …guilty…. Guilty Ad nauseum. Just read this and went straight across to WIP and fixed a tell not show moment. I’m actually writing a first person at the moment which is a really interesting exercise for the show not tell and practicing POV Deep or otherwise.

  24. I’m the adverb junkie for sure. My editor cuts most of them and makes comments like “your action shows this” or “this is redundant”. That’s why it’s SOOOOOO important for authors both new and experienced to have a good editor on their team. Kristen, this is an amazing and very informative article, and I really appreciate your time in sharing this with us. Very helpful!
    Another big problem of mine is overuse of commas and em dashes, which again, my editor helps me cut out, thank God 🙂 (Did I put too many commas in that sentence, LOL ;-))

  25. Ellipses? *gulps* You just tasered me on that one. Scary, since I have som pages under the scrutiny of an agent now. Thanks for the pointers, Kristen.

  26. Thanks for the practical advice. As I write my first novel, I stop every so often because I have a specific question about the craft. One that could probably be answered in a minute or two by a published author. Alas, since I don’t move in those circles, yet, I don’t have any one to call, or tweet, or email to get my questions answered. But I do have blogs like yours. I took a few notes today while I read. Practical advice that I will check my manuscript with. Thanks.

  27. Love this, Kristen,
    Printed and now on my bulletin board above my desk. Clear,simple reminders, to the point! That’s what my brain loves!

  28. Great post, Kristen! I especially agree with your advice on cutting way back on adverbs, qualifiers, and telling instead of showing. But as a fiction editor (and critical reader and former English teacher), I feel there is definitely a place for the occasional exclamation mark, at times of high stress, fear or pain. Cut back on them, yes, but no need to ban them altogether! If a character is screaming or yelling out in pain, it needs an exclamation mark. Also, I suggest the use of italics for direct thoughts, in first-person present tense, like “Idiot,” or “You wish,” or whatever. (Without the quotation marks, of course.)

  29. Many more years ago than I’d like to admit, I read the book, TOTAL RECALL. Overall, it was pretty good and much better than the movie, but one qualifier made me roll my eyes, and if I wasn’t already invested in the book, I would have put it down. In fact, I still remember it two decades later.

    1. What was it?

      1. A woman with dark hair approached the MC, grabbed his crotch and said, “What have you been feeding this?” He replied, “Blondes.” Then in the narrative, it said it was true, his wife was a blonde.

        Never ever explain a joke.

      2. Groan. I agree.

  30. Got a question for you when it comes to using Italics in a fiction book. If the MC is thinking, what would you do besides italics? Use a single quotation mark instead? ie. ‘Good, she’s not hanging around.’

    Thanks for your fb.

    1. Snapgrowl, definitely don’t use either single or double quotation marks for internal thoughts, whether direct or indirect. Use either regular font or italics. I recommend regular font for indirect thoughts (3rd person, past tense) and italics for direct thoughts (first or 2nd-person, present tense). I hope Kristen doesn’t mind if I send you to a post I wrote on expressing thought-reactions in fiction. It’s at Blood-Red Pencil: http://bloodredpencil.blogspot.ca/2012/05/expressing-thought-reactions-in-fiction.html

  31. I love this, too, Kristen. Thanks! Ellipses, I reserve for unfinished or interrupted dialog. There are many body language/dialog due opportunities in those pauses. Back-in-the-day when I told Mom Barbara Cartland books were like a Nancy Drew read, the “I…j-j-just…c-c-can’t…do….it…” heroine dialog drove me bonkers.

    My pet, Peeves, says: “sat down in the chair, stood up, turned around,…”

    I found my pet work “back” when I used wordle.net. Fillers are filtered out (he/she said, and, the, etc.). The resulted word cloud shows frequency of use by word size in the cloud. My biggest word was back. That sent me on a search and destroy mission for passages like “turned back toward the door” and the like.

    Now, off to write. MUST hear how your reunion went or goes.

    1. *smacks head* Proof, Gloria, proof.

      1. dialog cue opportunities
      2. found my pet word
      3, resultant word cloud
      4. largest word was “back.”

      Should have done Must versus those shouting caps.

      *slinks away*

        • DMM on August 9, 2018 at 1:12 am
        • Reply

        Loved your post. My brain fixed all your “mistakes” even without the edit, but I know what you mean with the ellipses. I try to use them sparingly unless my character really does stutter that much.

  32. Another great read. I always look forward to your posts.

    My pet peeve adverb is “suddenly.” It occurs so frequently in amateur fiction and I cringe every time I see it.

  33. As a screenwriter, I find this to be great stuff. We have only 110 pages or less, and since it’s a “blueprint”, there’s no room for adverbs, qualifiers, fancy fonts, or most exclamation marks. The action has to carry the story and characterization. Thanks for the blog, Kristen.

  34. All good points. I’m going to have to share this. A lot.

  35. I spend a whole semester struggling to get my composition students to accept what you said here. I’ll take an essay that is somewhat shorter than the stated length requirement if it actually says something without being puffed out by needless words. But oh, dear, that does make the writer have to work, doesn’t it.

    By the way, since you avoided the reference, I’ll put it in. How. . . could. . . you. . . use. . . ellipses. . . with. . . out. . . men. . . tion. . . ing. . . Will. . . iam. . . Shat. . . ner?

  36. Struggling with all of this. The grammarian in me wants to use proper punctuation for my writing (ellipses, em dashes, semi colons), but I know that they aren’t really appropriate in fiction. Sometimes I cringe when I don’t put them in but I know the sentence requires them. It’s a battle. The same is true with italics. My critique group says if I’m stressing a word when I read then I should italicize it in the work so readers know it gets emphasis. What to do, what to do (is it safe to put an ellipses or exclamation mark in here?). I guess it’s best to leave it all out and let the editors decide if they want to add them. I’m guessing they won’t.

    1. Staci, bestselling fiction writers use a lot of em dashes – don’t throw them out! I would definitely eliminate semicolons in dialogue, though, and cut way back on them anywhere in fiction. Same with ellipses. Kristen, I love your posts and follow your blog regularly. I hope you don’t mind me stepping in here with this particular topic, as I edit fiction and have written many articles on these very topics, published on 6-7 different blogs.

  37. Excellent advice! One note, though. I write SciFi and the names of ships should always be italicized. It drives me crazy when I read a book and they are only capitalized. Also, if a robot goes into Sleep Mode or some similar mode, I’ll use bold text for that.

    • annabeljoseph on June 29, 2012 at 10:43 am
    • Reply

    Another thing I learned back in my screenwriting days was not to use the characters’ names repeatedly in dialogue. “What do you want to do today, Paul?” “I don’t know, Mary. How about a trip to the pool?” In real life, we almost never say someone’s name in a conversation unless we’re trying to get their attention.

    Someone also mentioned this already, but watch out for really unusual words and phrases. If you use them, only use them once. I remember one book where someone’s lips “kicked up” into a smile about ten times. It was cool the first time. By the third time, I was like, “wow, that smile is kicking up again, huh?” By the tenth time I was seriously wondering why the author couldn’t find some other way to describe the act of smiling.

  38. As much as these are the “rules”, there are times when an ellipse is perfectly appropriate, as well as an exclamation mark or italics. Qualifiers are also sometimes appropriate.

    I get the “rules” here just fine, but I think it adds up to a “less is more” factor rather than absolutes.

    1. I agree with you, Samuel.

    2. Of course you can use some of these, but I edit a lot of new writers who are using these as crutches. I get that a character is yelling. Don’t need !!!!!. And when we use too much italics, we are using a prop for drama instead of the prose. Less is more 😉

  39. I’m completely new to writing, so this list was incredibly helpful. What other posts would you suggest I read, that can help a new writer?

    Also, what other resources would you suggest?

    • JM on June 29, 2012 at 10:59 am
    • Reply

    An excellent reminder. Printed and pinned to my writing board.

  40. Great post! Th italic and exclamation points are always a hot topic in both my critique groups. My advice to writers is to leave them out and let an editor put them in if they feel there is a need. Thank you for the heads up on Angela Ackerman & Becca Puglisi’s book – I tabbed over and bought it 😉

    • lynnkelleyauthor on June 29, 2012 at 11:13 am
    • Reply

    I’ve learned that italics should also be used if we another language in the text, whether one word or a sentence. Is that correct?

    1. Yes, according to the Chicago Manual of Style, one of the copy editors’ “bibles”, italics are used to indicate foreign words or phrases.

  41. Kristen, as a new writer, I have to tell you that your blog has been a huge help to me. This latest post was very eye opening, since I am guilty of many of those things! I do have a question about the use of italics though. I’ve read several books where italics are used when the character is talking to herself, so the italics are used as opposed to the quotation marks. What are the rules for that?
    Anyway, thank you for being there for new readers! You are awesome!

  42. Kristen, as you’ve been getting a lot of questions about expressing internal thoughts in italics, perhaps your readers would be interested in my article “Expressing Thought-Reactions in Fiction”, published on Blood-Red Pencil blogspot in May. I’ve just reposted it on my own blog: http://jodierennerediting.blogspot.ca/2012/06/expressing-thought-reactions-in-fiction.html.

    Thanks, Kristen, for all your excellent posts! I’m a freelance fiction editor and an avid follower of your blog.

    Jodie Renner Editing

  43. And I just bought THE EMOTION THESAURUS. Thanks for the hot tip! 🙂

  44. Thanks for another instructional and helpful post, Kristen. And thanks for recommending a resource I never knew existed; a thesaurus that focuses specifically on emotions. Such a resource should be a major help to us newer writers.

  45. Personally, I loathe when writers follow all the rules at the expense of the story. There is nothing worse for me than reading a perfectly formatted novel with no flavor. Sure the puctuation is perfect, and the setting is there, and not a single exclamation mark in sight. But, the story is so boring I have to put it down. I think some rules are made to be broken if done well and proper grammar, punctuation, and formatting can only get an author so far. Perhaps this is a bit of a rant, but I just finished a book (barely) that was so dry it was like sand in the eyes to try and read.

  46. Great post, Kristen. Due to my days as a writer for “Barney & Friends”, I’ll admit it. My name is Cheryl, and I’m an exclamaholic in recovery. We relied on excessive punctuation to energize the performance of our young actors. In spite of our valiant efforts, they were still accused of being Stepford robots.

    Just like an actor or dancer needs to stay in classes, writers have to constantly review and update their skill sets.

    I’d like to share a CMS rule my editor drummed into my head while working on “Ivey and the Airship”. The name of a ship (vessel) should be italicized, but in the case of “airship Monarch”, the word airship did not need to be capitalized or italicized.

    I bow to those of you have mastery over our complex and often confusing rules of grammar, and will be forever grateful to the editors who clean up our manuscripts – and bloggers who give us a kick in the pants over slacker writing. 🙂

  47. I hate adverbs more than I can say. When I edit I can almost always remove them. When I edited the first chapter of my first novel I had to remove “slowly” and “carefully” over thirty times each. Yea, I was pretty embarrassed. In your example of “whispered conspiratorially,” I see that as a minor “tell.” I would delete the adverb and write an adverbial phrase to describe “conspiratorially.” What does that look like? What does it sound like? I would probably suggest something like “she whispered, darting her eyes around the room.” Or perhaps, “She leaned close and put her hand over her mouth as she whispered into my ear.”

  48. Pretty good advice on the adverbs. . .and all the rest . . . IF you’re NOT writing Nashville lyrics. If you are, then doing the opposite of every peeve you mentioned is required.

    • becca puglisi on June 29, 2012 at 1:14 pm
    • Reply

    Great points, Kristen. I’d like to add the As-You-Know-Bob technique, where characters discuss things that everyone in the story already knows as a way to get crucial information across to the reader. Took me forever to get over that one!

    1. Oh, Gaaaah! I’m with you, Becca. That artificial dialog between two people who already know the information drives me nuts.

      Find a nosy, ill-informed airhead and have the conversation in front of her.

  49. Jodie, thanks for your reply regarding em dashes. But aren’t they the cousin to the ellipses? One shows you’re letting a thought wander and one shows you’ve been interrupted. I realize that bestselling authors use the em dash, but I have to wonder why one is acceptable and one isn’t. I find myself adjusting my writing so that I avoid both if I can.

    1. Staci, I think Kristen is referring to the overuse of ellipses to show a character hesitating. Bestselling authors use both dashes and ellipses, but the ellipses much less frequently. A dash indicates (among other things) a sudden interruption. Ellipses (…) are used to indicate a hesitation or a thought tapering off. Both are fine if used in moderation.

      1. I guess I misunderstood. If we can use them when appropriate and not be looked at as sophomoric writers, then I’ll change the way I write (again) and use them sporadically as they are intended. Thanks for clarifying.

        1. All of these we can use sparingly and when appropriate. But if we aren’t careful they can turn into lazy writing. It’s like garlic. We can use it. It adds flavor, but if we dump a cup of it in the mashed potatoes it will ruin it. Make sense?

          1. Makes perfect sense to me, Kristen! 🙂

            …now if I could just figure out how to get my photo on here instead of that geometrical design…?

          2. Are you trying to tell an Italian that you can use too much garlic? No, in all seriousness, it makes perfect sense. Thanks, Kristen, for another great blog.

  50. Kristin, I’ve recently discovered your blog and love it. Thanks for all the good posts. As an editor, I have one more crutch to add to your list. Writers who tell their story through dialogue tags—she cajoled, he exclaimed, etc. I see this a lot with beginning writers. I’m adding your site to those I recommend on my blog. Blessings, Edie

  51. And then there’s those other kinds of wishy-washy qualifiers that weaken a story, like: quite, sort of, almost, kind of, a bit, pretty, somewhat, rather, usually, basically, generally, probably, mostly, really, etc. Forget “He was quite brave,” or “She was pretty intelligent” or “It was almost scary.” These qualifiers dilute your message, reduce the impact, and make the imagery weaker. Take them out. Even “very” is to be avoided – it’s like you’re saying the word after it needs reinforcing. “She was beautiful” packs more punch than “She was very beautiful.” 🙂

    1. That one is on my list of pet peeves when I critique other people’s work. To me the worst of the lot is “slightly.” I have been known to scribble a paragraph about that word on the back of the page.

      1. Ben, I’m always flagging or deleting these qualifiers in my editing. What’s left is so much stronger!

        1. People think I’m a nazi, but I get on them about over using the “to be” verb as well, especially when they describe something. I point out to them how they can change to an active verb and make their description really pop.

  52. Very good – I posted the link on fb for other writer friends to read!

  53. What a great article. I’ve pimped, er, posted links to it everywhere. When I edit, these are some of the things I nitpick about all the time, sometimes till my writers complain about it. Well, they complain until they reread the work after they calm down a bit. Then they usually (not always) decide I might possibly have had a point.

  54. Excellent advice. What about the difference between actions and dialogue. I’ve been told to use dialogue as much as possible. Do you agree?

    • Jonathan on June 29, 2012 at 3:42 pm
    • Reply

    Thanks for the pointers, but I’m skeptical about avoiding exclamations points that much.
    I’ve heard the same advice about avoiding exclamation points from other people too.

    Using a period instead of an exclamation point can change the voice of a character.
    For instance:

    1. Lacy grinned. “Ha, ha! Nice try.”

    2. Lacy grinned. “Ha, ha. Nice try.”

    The second one implies a fake laugh while the first one implies a real one.
    Context can help with implying the precise tone, but most of the time it won’t
    change whether the laugh sounds fake or real.

    There’s other cases too. When someone is furious, they might use a menacing tone but not yell
    or do a mix (start yelling but end with a menacing voice at a regular volume.) In a tense situation, an
    exclamation point can indicate a panicked thought where a period in the same place would indicate
    a calmer, more calculating thought.

    I don’t understand the aversion to exclamation points.

    1. The main aversion is when they are redundant, like in the case of the adverb.

      Then he spotted them, the hoard of zombies headed straight for them. “Get out of the house!” he yelled.

      Um…yeah.

      Often in a situation we know it is yelled or stressed. We don’t need coaching. The prose is strong enough. But what is worse than the ! is when the writer needs to add in the tag “,he yelled” because I guess I didn’t get that with the use of an exclamation point.

      Again, we can use them, but less is really more.

        • Jonathan on June 30, 2012 at 3:05 am
        • Reply

        Thanks for the explanation. I understand now.

  55. You got me, Kristen! Ellipses and exclamations are my weakness…

  56. Add me to the list of writers who just bought The Emotion Thesaurus. Amazing! Thanks so much for the tip.

  57. Kristen,
    I love this post! As an editor and a reader, one of the things that makes me want to throw a book across the room (or fall asleep reading it) is repetition. It slows the story down when an author repeats the same information in chapter one, and chapter two, and chapter three. (Get it yet?)
    Thanks for sharing your list! I agree with all of them.

  58. One of my pet peeves is the overuse of questions that the protagonist is thinking: “Shall I do this? Or that? If this happens and then the other thing, what should I do next? What is Such-and-such thinking right now?” It makes me nuts. There is a bestselling author who hooks me in time and again with the promise of a good story, but the writing annoys me so much that I have finally taught myself to associate “No!” with her name–which includes an N and an O–so I’ll quit bringing her books home.

    I feel peevish to be complaining about her, though. She’s a better writer than I am!

  59. This all seems so basic but I find myself making the same mistakes in every draft and it’s not till I go back and edit that I see it. That or it has to be pointed out to me. These reminders are very welcome. Need to print the list and put it on my wall to refer to when I’m writing.

  60. I’ve started reading The Emotion Thesaurus. What an awesome resource for both fiction writers and editors like me! Thanks for telling us about it, Kristen! 🙂

  61. How about italics to represent the character thoughts?

  62. I’ve probably done a few of those things, but 9 times out of 10 I’m the only one who’s read anything I’ve written.

  63. Reblogged this on pagansilvertree and commented:
    If you have any aspirations of being an author, you have to read this. And please let me know when I’m doing this. >.<

  64. Um, guilty here of an occasional italics. But not often, and I’m working on it. I don’t remember all the rules of your contest, but I’m commenting with slim hope. I’m glad I stopped by, because this is a very useful post.

  65. I think I saw another blog post today relating to qualifiers, but with the phrase “with a”.

  66. Most of these tips apply equally to fiction and non fiction writing. Good stuff!

  67. All things I’ve tried to banish from my own writing. Thanks for the Emotion book recommendation; I’ve been looking for something like that.

  68. This was a super helpful post. My current WIP had about a zillion italicized words, and I had no idea I had been using these (like a crutch) for emphasis. I knew that exclamation points were a big no-no, so I thought I could circumnavigate around that problem by using italics instead. Argh! By the way, I just finished an on-line Body Language & Emotion writing class, and I purchased The Emotion Thesaurus a few days before the class began. This book was SO helpful. <— And yes, if I could have italicized "SO", I would have 🙂 Time to retrain myself! Sigh!

  69. The mortal sins of slack writers – but it’s amazing how much of it is about.

    • Stella duncan on June 29, 2012 at 10:22 pm
    • Reply

    I can not take writing advice from anyone who uses the word “um” as you have, and not once but twice. It’s like picking your nose while giving a lesson on manners.

  70. This is a good list…as a guideline. However, in the interest of a good story, writers have to know when and how to break these rules. Pick up a book from JK Rowling, Harry Turtledove, or William Fortschen, turn to any page, and you’ll see multiple examples of these being ignored.

  71. Faboo post. And I’m sorry if Stella Duncan can’t see past two “ums” (which I didn’t notice)! Kristen’s laser vision is incredible as anyone who has worked with her knows firsthand. These are good reminders. As with anything, it’s good to know the rules before you break them.

    So many people have no idea. Thanks KL.

    1. You’re, um, a, um peach. Um, yes. You are and I um adore you *hugs*.

  72. I am a fairly new author and am guilty of a couple of these… Yikes! Sarcasm aside, I have bookmarked this post for future reference and will pick up the thesaurus tomorrow at BAM.

  73. The um comment was rather odd. I always assume that if a person writes um they are doing it deliberately. It’s not like going to toastmasters and being critiqued for using Um and Ah for placeholders while you try and think of the next thing you are going to say. Most of the things mentioned in the blog are done inadvertently by writers and when excessively overdone become bad repetitive habits and if you are really negligently careless and don’t properly fix them up they become irritatingly annoying and ridiculously stupid, you know.

  74. Thank you Kristen! More great advise (as a newbie I need all the help I can get!) These are some things I’m guilty of. I will also be checking into the emotions thesaurus. Also sharing this article on my blog and just tweeted about it too also (Look Staci, I’m doing my social media homework as well as my blogging)

    • Geoff Lynas on June 30, 2012 at 4:56 am
    • Reply

    Enjoyed the blog which I found on Zite. I guess it is always useful to highlight the general case for new writers in the knowledge that as their experience grows and they become more confident in their own judgement, they will recognise when it is entirely appropriate to break any and all of these,’rules’. See Cormac McCarthy on dialogue. Also Patrick Ness, Carnegie winner for last two years and his (admittedly irritating) use of bold fonts. Please excuse clumsy punctuation etc. in this reply. Very rushed.

    1. Well, if you look back at the post, this is why I use phrases like “most of the time” “try to strengthen” etc. When we see these oopses, they can be a red flag that we used a weak verb or got lazy with the prose. BUT, there will be times that we need to use that ellipses or an adverb or two. But, if we will be mindful to get rid of the superfluous stuff, then when we DO use these devices, they will be literary tools, not sloppy writing.

        • Geoff Lynas on June 30, 2012 at 9:54 am
        • Reply

        Agree totally, You need to have a grasp of what constitutes good practice before you can play with it to good effect.

    • DJ on June 30, 2012 at 6:56 am
    • Reply

    as she wrung his hands, wearily…

  75. This is exactly what I needed to hear.
    Thanks Kristen!

  76. Great summary of some major (& fixable) writing habits. Passed on the link on my LinkedIn page. I second your recommendation of the Ackerman/Puglisi book, too! Your site is now added to my blogroll at http://wrightwriter.wordpress.com. Looking forward to reading future posts!

    1. Awwww *hugs* THANK YOU, Heather. That’s really sweet. I appreciate it :D.

  77. Totally on board! I hadn’t considered the point about qualifiers, nor how their use could be insulting to a reader. Then I thought of those times I’d felt insulted a bit when reading and made the connection. Great post!

  78. I have an issue with #4 “Telling instead of showing.” Too much showing can destroy a story by making it needlessly long and boring. I think the best advice should be: learn when to show and when to tell. The world’s best writers employ a combination of showing and telling.

  79. I always wondered about exclamation points – thank you!
    As you continue to write, does it become easier to remember all of these things? Or have them become second nature instead of having to keep a list and go over everything? Just curious. 🙂

    1. All of us trip up on this stuff. It isn’t set in stone and we will break rules. These are really guidelines for tight writing and we will still have to clean up our prose from time to time. We take shortcuts or get lazy. It’s like we will always have typos. We hope to have a lot less as time goes on, but we never get beyond having to at least look for them. Make sense?

      1. Yes, makes absolute sense – thank you! It’s nice to hear it from a successful published author too. 😉

  80. Great article that made me smile – I have committed every single one of these offences… I’m lucky there isn’t such a thing as a Writers prison!
    Oh well, we learn by making mistakes!

  81. I always feel on-the-nose dialogue is insulting to intelligence. Too expository, too explain-y. I love it when an author gives me information by implication or inference. Subtext is a skill I’d love to study and master!

  82. Yes! Such a spot on list! Although I’m addicted to exclamation points so I get it all out in my comments!! LOL

    I recently wrote a tongue-in-cheek (er, maybe not the best word choice) post about Fifty Shades of Grey, and said I almost didn’t make it past the first sentence, because it was twice as long as it needed to be: “I scowl with frustration at myself in the mirror.”

    And this is coming from someone who LIKES reading guilty pleasures.

    • Marianne Sheldon on July 1, 2012 at 11:35 am
    • Reply

    Great advice. I’m guilty of…wait for it…wait…overusing…the…ellipse.

  83. Shared this with my writing group! We all struggle with these four taboos and you laid it all out so clearly, Kristen. We all need the reminder! Thank you!

  84. Great post! I had a writing professor in college who emphasized all these points and it’s made a huge difference in my writing. I’m a big fan of the “garbage” first draft when you get to use excessive adverbs and qualifiers. Then I go through and remove all the words I don’t need. It helps a lot.

  85. Great post! I had a writing professor in college who emphasized all these points and its made a huge difference in my writing. I’m a big fan of the “garbage” first draft when you get to use excessive adverbs and qualifiers. Then I go through and remove all the words I don’t need. It helps a lot.

  86. Thanks for this post, it’s really informative and interesting, I’m just starting out writing and have only managed to write a blog so far. But I have a few ideas for novels that I haven’t done anything with. Your tips will be invaluable to me, thank you

  87. Oh man… totally guilty of using italics in my work. And ellipses! And exclamation marks. Why, I’ve committed two of those three sins right now, in this post. I would have probably committed the third, if I could find a way to write in italics in this comment box.

    Thanks for the informative post. I’m generally pretty good with the ‘show, don’t tell’ side of things, but font, punctuation and formatting I still have difficulty with.

    1. I love using punctuation and font, too, so I do all this stuff……in my blog :D. Gets it out of my system, LOL.

  88. Good advice Kristen. I am in the process of editing my debut novel, What We Saw, at the moment. I find the ‘show, not tell’ rule difficult to adhere to completely in first draft stage, like you say, but it actually becomes rather fun to implement at the later stages. Thinking about ways in which you can display your characters emotions through actions is part of the game, I believe. That way, you could almost argue that ‘telling’ in the first draft is a beneficial prompt in the rewrite stage.

    Thanks for a thought provoking and informative piece!

  89. Thanks Kristen. I began writing this January and am guilty of all of these. I appreciated the example of “Show , don’t tell). Thinking of ways to convey to my readers the shortcomings of my character is clearer to me, now. I’ve so much to learn. So I’ll be visiting this site often. Thank you so much.

    1. Oh, I forgot to ask, could you give me an example of when it would be appropriate to use a qualifier? What would that look like? Your other examples are just the concrete guides I need. Thanks.

  90. Very helpful reminders to hear again and again. Thanks for the book recommendation, too.
    I have been using italics when I introduce foreign words. I am hoping this is correct usage?

    • Melissa Neumann on July 10, 2012 at 10:13 am
    • Reply

    I agree with all your points and admit I’m guilty of each at times. But admitting you have a problem is the first step to recovery.
    My biggest beef as a reader is an author who overuses the “as if” metaphors. I recently read a book littered with “as if” and I found myself mentally making tick marks in the margins counting. The last time I did that was in college during the dry lectures of a Middle Eastern politics professor who had the annoying habit of clearing his throat after every third word. My notebook margins were covered with tick marks and I never remembered the contents of the lectures. The same goes for that author’s book.

  91. I think the “Show, don’t tell” gets beaten over our head a lot because, just like you said, it’s just so much easier to tell people what’s going on then showing it. I hate it when an author likes to tell over and over again that the main character is beautiful, especially if it’s a woman. I read a book recently where basically every other paragraph was describing her looks and how everyone wanted her.

  92. Here’s a question. I’m currently editing my next novel The Deepening Dark, which has elves in who can communicate with mental telepathy as well as orally of course. Now I’ve always put thoughts, inner monologue or in this case, mental telepathy in italics to distinguish between mental and verbal communication. I find it marks the transition clearly, especially when elves mix mind talk with verbal talk. What’s your opinion?

    • chris conley on July 17, 2012 at 11:22 am
    • Reply

    Thank you for this. This helps a lot and makes a lot of sense.

  93. This hit the mark. Notice I didn’t say “This flew directly to the waiting heart of the critical target…”

  94. Great tips! Thank you. : )

    Cheers,
    Vineet

  95. Reblogged this on RAGHUBIR NEGI.WORDPRESS.COM.

    • C J Ragsdale on August 14, 2012 at 1:37 pm
    • Reply

    Oh, I LOVE this, so helpful. I haven’t had a lot of writing courses so I need all the help I can get. I had heard of most of these, but I have to admit I am guilty of too many elipses…

  96. Question ( and forgive if this has already been asked, reading this on a lunch break). If you don’t use an exclamation point, doesn’t it change the tone of the sentence? If you use, for example, a period then say ‘he/she yelled’ isn’t that telling rather than showing? What if you’re dealing with a couple who argues loudly all the time (like my next door neighbors or that couple no one ever like to go out with?).

    1. As a fiction editor specializing in fast-paced,suspenseful fiction, I always suggest exclamation marks when someone is screaming or yelling loudly or in pain or there’s some kind of urgency. If someone’s just burned their hand on the stove burner, “Ow,” just doesn’t convey the intended reaction!

      1. The key is use sparingly :D. I see it used instead of making the dialogue do the work.

        1. Yes, I definitely agree, Kristen. 🙂

  97. I use italics for thoughts. That seems acceptable.

  1. […] automatically denoted in the verb.This was from Kristen Lambs blog, you can read the rest here: 4 Writing Crutches that Insult the Reader’s Intelligence There are four basic rules, certainly something that I have attempted to imprint on my writers […]

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  3. […] From Kristen Lamb: I would wager that most of us do not sit up all night thinking of ways to treat our readers like they’re stupid.  Yet, it is a common problem, especially with newer writers who are still learning the craft. All of us can slip into these nasty habits, if we aren’t mindful. It’s as if we get so wrapped up in our story that we mentally stumble in that brief span from synapse to keyboard, and inadvertently end up treating our readers like they need to ride the short bus. So today, I put together a list of bad habits to make it easier for you guys to spot when you are coaching the reader. Read more… […]

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