Are These Bad Habits Creeping Into Your Writing?

Benjamin Dreyer, the Internet's Copy Editor in Chief, Would Rather You Didn't

By  Benjamin Dreyer

Many writers rely more heavily on pronouns than I’d suggest is useful. For me this sort of thing comes under the heading Remember that Writing Is Not Speaking. When we talk, we can usually make ourselves understood even amid a flood of vague “he”s and “she”s. On the page, too many pronouns are apt to be confounding. I’d strongly suggest to the point of insistence that you avoid referring to two people by the same pronoun over the course of a single sentence; to be frank, I’d suggest that you avoid it over the course of a single paragraph. (I know a few authors of same-sex romance novels who are regularly driven to tears by this sort of thing.)

The repetition of characters’ names is certainly one possible fallback, and though you as a writer may initially think that that third “Constance” over the course of seven sentences is overkill, I as your copy editor strongly believe that your readers will be happier not to have to puzzle over which “she” you’re talking about; I think of this as basic skeletal stuff and believe that it’s all but invisible to readers. On the other hand, if your paragraph is awash with names and pronouns and you think it’s all too much, hunker down and do the sort of revision that eliminates the need for an excess of either. It can be tricky, but it’s worth it, and it may well net you a leaner, stronger bit of prose.

• If your attempts to distinguish between unnamed characters of no particular importance lead to describing what “the first woman” then said or did to “the second woman,” you might want to step back and give these women, if not names, at least distinct physical characteristics that can be expressed in one or two words. The redhead. The older woman. Something.

• One writer of my beloved acquaintance possesses, it seems, only one way to denote an indeterminate number of things: “a couple.” And not even “a couple of.” No, it’s a couple hours, a couple days, a couple cookies, a couple guys. Over time I attempted to introduce her to concepts like “few,” “several,” and “some,” but she remained largely unpersuaded, and I largely stopped nagging her about it. I urge the rest of you to strive for variation.

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• When you’ve come up with that piquantly on-the-nose, distinctive, wow-that’s-perfect adjective, you may—as I’ve noticed—be so pleased with it that you unwittingly summon it up again right away. If an idea is, say, benighted on p. 27, some other idea oughtn’t to be benighted on p. 31.[1] Consider jotting down on a pad your favorite five-dollar words as you use them to ensure that none of them appear more than once per manuscript.

Keep an eye on the repetition of even garden-variety nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs of only moderate distinction, which you might not want to repeat in proximity—unless you’re doing this with a purpose, in which case: Do it.

Here, for instance, is a marvelous example. I’ve always cherished it, and I like to haul it out whenever I can, as it celebrates the skill of a writer who’s not often complimented on his writing.

When Dorothy stood in the doorway and looked around, she could see nothin but the great gray prairie on every side. Not a tree nor a house broke the broad sweep of flat country that reached the edge of the sky in all directions. The sun had baked the plowed land into a gray mass, with little cracks running through it. Even the grass was not green, for the sun had burned the tops of the long blades until they were the same gray color to be seen everywhere. Once the house had been painted, but the sun blistered the paint and the rains washed it away, and now the house was as dull and gray as everything else.

When Aunt Em came there to live she was a young, pretty wife. The sun and wind had changed her, too. They had taken the sparkle from her eyes and left them a sober gray; they had taken the red from her cheeks and lips, and they were gray also. She was thin and gaunt, and never smiled, now. When Dorothy, who was an orphan, first came to her, Aunt Em had been so startled by the child’s laughter that she would scream and press her hand upon her heart whenever Dorothy’s merry voice reached her ears; and she still looked at the little girl with wonder that she could find anything to laugh at.

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Uncle Henry never laughed. He worked hard from morning till night and did not know what joy was. He was gray also, from his long beard to his rough boots, and he looked stern and solemn, and rarely spoke.

It was Toto that made Dorothy laugh, and saved her from growing as gray as her other surroundings. Toto was not gray; he was a little black dog, with long silky hair and small black eyes that twinkled merrily on either side of his funny, wee nose. Toto played all day long, and Dorothy played with him, and loved him dearly.

Gray, gray, gray. Nine of them over the course of four paragraphs. They don’t make a lot of noise—would you have noticed them had I not set you looking for them?—but they get the job done.[2] Even a “he walked up the stairs and hung up his coat” might, if you’re so inclined, benefit from a tweak—easy in this case: Just change “walked up” to “climbed.”[3] I’ll extend this advice even to the suggestion that you avoid echoing similar-sounding words: a “twilight” five words away from a “light,” for instance.[4]

• Also be wary of inadvertent rhymes, of the “Rob commuted to his job” or “make sure that tonight is all right” sort. By “be wary,” I mean: Don’t do them.

Writers’ brains, I’ve noted, have a tendency to play tricks when the writer isn’t paying attention, and in copyediting I’ve occasionally run across weird little puns, echoes, and other bits of unconscious wordplay. Every time I read Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” I’m stopped in my tracks by this:

She watched while Mr. Graves came around from the side of the box, greeted Mr. Summers gravely, and selected a slip of paper from the box.

Somehow I can’t imagine Jackson stooping on purpose to such a thudding little joke.

• With all the nodding and head shaking going on, I’m surprised that half the characters in modern fiction haven’t dislocated something. By the way, characters who nod needn’t nod their heads, as there’s really not much else available to nod. And the same goes for the shrugging of unnecessarily-alluded-to shoulders. What else are you going to shrug? Your elbows?

• If everyone in your world is forever pushing their eye-glasses up their collective noses, please send everyone and their eyeglasses to an optician’s shop.

• How often do you stare into the middle distance? Me neither.

• A brief, scarcely exhaustive list of other actions that wise writers might do well to put on permanent hiatus:

the angry flaring of nostrils
the thoughtful pursing of lips
the quizzical cocking of the head
the letting out of the breath you didn’t even know you were holding
the extended mirror stare, especially as a warm-up for a memory whose recollection is apt to go on for ten pages

Also overrated:

blinking
grimacing
huffing
pausing (especially for “a beat”)
smiling weakly
snorting
swallowing
doing anything wistfully

“After a moment,” “in a moment,” “she paused a moment,” “after a long moment”… There are so many moments. So many.

This may be a particular peeve of mine and no one else’s, but I note it, because it’s my book: Name-dropping, for no better reason than to show off, under-appreciated novels, obscure foreign films, or cherished indie bands by having one’s characters irrelevantly reading or watching or listening to them is massively sore-thumbish. A novel is not a blog post about Your Favorite Things.[5] If you must do this sort of thing—and, seriously, must you?—contextualize heavily.

• For fiction written in the past tense, here’s a technique for tackling flashbacks that I stumbled upon years ago, and writers I’ve shared it with have tended to get highly excited: Start off your flashback with, let’s say, two or three standard-issue had’s (“Earlier that year, Jerome had visited his brother in Boston”), then clip one or two more had’s to a discreet “’d” (“After an especially unpleasant dinner, he’d decided to return home right away”), then drop the past-perfecting altogether when no one’s apt to be paying attention and slip into the simple past (“He unlocked his front door, as he later recalled it, shortly after midnight”). Works like a charm.

• You writers are all far too keen on “And then,” which can usually be trimmed to “Then” or done away with entirely.

• You’re also overfond of “suddenly.”

• “He began to cry” = “He cried.” Dispose of all “began to”s.

• My nightmare sentence is “And then suddenly he began to cry.”

*

Yet Another Shirley Jackson Reference

A few years ago[6] I had the unforeseen-except-perhaps-in-work-related-dreams honor of copyediting my favorite author, Shirley Jackson, whom I’d not previously had the pleasure of working with because she died when I was in the first grade. Random House had contracted to publish a book of some of Jackson’s previously uncollected and/or entirely unseen stories and essays,[7] and I happily nominated myself to attend to whatever dusting off and polishing up the material needed.

Unsurprisingly, the previously published stuff demanded little of my time: It had been well attended to by the magazines that had been a regular and lucrative source of income for Jackson—Woman’s Day, Good Housekeeping, and McCall’s, believe it or not, not to mention The New  Yorker. Some minor fussings-about aside, those pieces were republished essentially as they had been seen in Jackson’s lifetime.

But much of the unpublished material had been presented to us in photocopies of Jackson’s characteristic all-lowercase first drafts—I imagine her clattering away at her typewriter in bursts of determined creativity, not bothering to reach for the shift key—and no writer dead or alive deserves to have their material sent to press without at least some review.[8]To say nothing of capital letters.

I assured the book’s editors, who happened to be two of Jackson’s grown children and literary executors, that being a lifelong devotee of their mother’s work and having read and reread her writing for decades, I knew Jackson’s voice as well as any copy editor could hope to know it. I promised them that the material was in safe hands and that I didn’t expect to do much more than correct the odd typo.

But: Once I got to work I realized that though the material was, throughout, first-rate—shockingly clean, I’d say, given that it seemed to have moved straight from Jackson’s brain to her fingers to the pages and never been touched again—it needed a bit, truly just a bit, of a helping hand.

Having no live author to query—though, to be sure, anything I wanted to do was going to be run past the heirs—I extricated myself from the horns of this dilemma by setting for myself respectful ground rules: I’d allow myself free rein with punctuation, turn the occasional unclear pronoun into a clearer noun (or, if a noun seemed uncalled for, do the reverse), and attempt otherwise never to delete or add more than two words—little words like the and that and which and and—at a time.

As it turned out, I was overwhelmingly able to stick to those strictures. Beyond that I found maybe a half dozen knotted-up sentences that were easily untangled—just as, I’m confident, Jackson herself would have untangled them on a second or third run-through. I also quickly discovered that Jackson went to the well of “suddenly” and “and then” rather frequently—there are quite a few fewer of both in the finished book—and occasionally put more pressure on the worthy semicolon than a semicolon can bear.

At one point I stared down a single paragraph for a good twenty minutes, willing its last sentence to be its first. Or was it the other way around? In the event, I eventually realized that the author was right and I was wrong and left the paragraph alone.

Once and only once did I venture to suggest that two substantive words needed to be added to fill out a sentence whose rhythm I couldn’t make peace with, and those two words[9] made it into the book, and I like to flatter myself that I’d ventured so thoroughly into the Shirley Jackson Place by then that the words were not mine but hers. To date, I’ve experienced no alarmingly blown-open windows or inexplicably smashed crockery, so I like to think that Shirley Jackson is content.


[1] I was recently advised of a novel in which the word “spatulate”—I didn’t recognize it either; it’s an adjective that means “shaped like a spatula”—showed up twice in two pages, referring to two entirely unrelated nouns. Oh dear.
[2] Hoorah for L. Frank Baum and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, of which these paragraphs are (nearly) the opening.

[3] Beyond eliminating the “up” repetition, you’ve also replaced a prepositional phrase with a more precise single-word verb, which almost invariably de-clutters and improves a sentence.

[4] How bothersome are these wee repetitions to civilian readers? I can’t say, not having been a civilian reader in decades, but as a copy editor I’m highly aware of them and will always point them out. Beyond that it’s up to the writer.

[5] Though apparently this book is.

[6] Now that I look at my records I can tell you that “a few years ago” was, to be precise, 2014, which I mention only because this is a perfect opportunity for me to remind you that when it comes to information, less is often more. A: It’s not particularly interesting that this story occurred in 2014, is it. B: The more specific a writer gets in providing details down to the nuclear level, the more likely it is that at least some of those details are going to be incorrect. “A few” is inapt to be incorrect.

[7] The collection went through a couple of titles before it was finally named Let Me Tell You, and it is now, as they say, available wherever better books are sold.

[8] Just thought I’d test-drive a singular “they” to see how it felt. It felt… OK. Not great.

[9] Now it can be told: “garden-variety.”

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From Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style. Used with permission of Random House. Copyright © 2019 by Benjamin Dreyer.

Benjamin Dreyer
Benjamin Dreyer
Benjamin Dreyer is vice president, executive managing editor and copy chief, of Random House. He began his publishing career as a freelance proofreader and copy editor. In 1993, he became a production editor at Random House, overseeing books by writers including Michael Chabon, Edmund Morris, Suzan-Lori Parks, Michael Pollan, Peter Straub, and Calvin Trillin. He has copyedited books by authors including E. L. Doctorow, David Ebershoff, Frank Rich, and Elizabeth Strout, as well as Let Me Tell You, a volume of previously uncollected work by Shirley Jackson. A graduate of Northwestern University, he lives in New York City.





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