Guest Blogger: Jodie Renner: Style Blunders in Fiction

30 Oct

Jodie is back to discuss how each of us can improve our writing.

Style Blunders in Fiction

No, I’m not talking about the fashion police coming after you. I’m talking about those little errors and bad habits that creep into your manuscript, weaken your message, and add up to an overall feeling of amateurish writing. The good news is that, unlike the more critical creative flow of ideas for plot and characters, these little bad habits are easy to correct, resulting in a much more polished, compelling manuscript.

1–Take out wishy-washy qualifiers 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.”

2–Show us, don’t tell us how your characters are feeling. Avoid statements like, “He found that funny,” or “The little girl felt sad.” Show these emotions by their actions, words, and body language: “Eyes downcast, shoulders slumped, head down, she refused to answer as she pushed her food around the plate.”

3–Avoid colorless, overused verbs like walked, ran, went, saw, talked, ate, did, got, put, took. Get out your thesaurus (or use the MS Word one. Hint: look up the present tense: walk, run, eat, say, etc.) to find more expressive, powerful verbs instead, like crept, loped, stumbled, stomped, glimpsed, noticed, observed, witnessed, spied, grunted, whimpered, devoured, consumed, gobbled, wolfed, munched, or bolted.

4–Avoid –ing verbs wherever possible. Use -ed verbs instead – they’re stronger and more immediate. “He was racing” is weaker than “He raced.” “They searched the house” is more immediate than “They were searching the house.” Rewrite -ing verbs whenever you can, and you’ll strengthen your writing and increase its power.

5–Keep adverbs to a minimum. Instead of propping up a boring, anemic verb with an adverb, look for strong, descriptive, powerful verbs. Instead of “He walked slowly” go for “He plodded” or “He trudged” or “He dawdled.” Instead of “She ate hungrily” say “She devoured the bag of chips,” or “She wolfed down the pizza.” Instead of “They talked quickly,” say “They babbled.”

6–Use adjectives sparingly and consciously. Instead of stringing a bunch of adjectives in front of an ordinary, overused noun, find a more precise, expressive noun to show rather than tell. Overuse of adjectives can also turn your writing into “purple prose” that is melodramatic and overly “flowery.”

7–Dialogue tags – Stick with the basic he said and she said (or asked) wherever possible, rather than “he emphasized” or “she reiterated” or “Mark uttered,” etc. These phrases stand out, so they take the reader out of the story, whereas “said” is almost invisible. However, I like dialogue tags that describe how something is said, as in he shouted, she murmured, he grumbled, she whispered. You can often eliminate the dialogue tag altogether and just use an action beat instead: He picked up the phone. “That’s it. I’m calling the cops.”

8–Describe the stimulus, then the response: When writing an action scene, make sure your sentence structure mimics the order of the actions. The reader pictures the actions in the order that she reads them, so it’s confusing to read about the reaction before finding out what caused it. So describe the action first, then the reaction:  Instead of “He yelled when the dog bit him,” write: “The dog bit him and he yelled.”

9–Avoid the passive voice: For greater impact, when describing an action, start with the doer, then describe what he did, rather than the other way around. Use the more direct active voice wherever possible. Instead of “The house was taped off by the police,” write “The police taped off the house.” Also, avoid empty phrases like “There is”, “There was,” “It’s,” “It was.” Jump right in with what you’re actually talking about.

10–Avoid negative constructions wherever possible – they can be confusing to the reader. Instead of “I didn’t disagree with him,” say “I agreed with him.”

11–Avoid frequent repetition of the same word or forms of the same word. If you’ve already used a certain noun or verb in a paragraph or section, go to your thesaurus to find a different way to express that idea when you mention it again. Also, avoid repetition of the same imagery. Whether you’re describing the setting, the weather, or the hero or heroine, vary your wording.

12–Avoid formal sentences and pretentious language. Rather than impressing your readers, ornate, fancy words can just end up alienating them. As Jessica Page Morrell says, “if a reader is constantly consulting a dictionary when reading your prose, you’re dragging him from the story. Words in manuscripts such as capacious, accretion, plangent, occluded, viridian, arboreal, sylvan, obdurant, luculent, longueur, rubescent, and mendacious always pull me from the story. Just say no to showing off.” As Morrell points out, “Simple words are close to our hearts and easily understood…. simpler words are unpretentious, yet contain power and grace….Pompous words are alienating, boring, and outdated.”

Resources: Thanks, But This Isn’t For Us, by Jessica Page Morrell; Manuscript Makeover, by Elizabeth Lyon; How NOT to Write a Novel, by Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman.

Jodie Renner is a freelance manuscript editor, specializing in thrillers, romantic suspense, mysteries, and other crime fiction. Check out Jodie’s website at and her blog, dedicated to advice and resources for fiction writers, at, as well as Crime Fiction Collective, of which she is a founding member.


Posted by on October 30, 2011 in Guest Blogger, Writing


28 responses to “Guest Blogger: Jodie Renner: Style Blunders in Fiction

  1. Kaitlin

    October 30, 2011 at 9:01 am

    Great suggestions! I try to follow most of these, and thank heavens for reiterating that ‘said’ is an invisible word – I read my manuscripts and think “gah! There’s so much ‘said!'” but even when I study other people’s writing there’s a lot of ‘said’.


    • Jodie Renner

      October 30, 2011 at 2:37 pm

      Kaitlin, you can replace a lot of those “said”s with an action beat, like: He picked up his coffee mug. “So what are your plans for today?” We know it was him speaking, and the action beat helps us visualize what they’re doing as they’re saying all these things.


  2. Barry Ergang

    October 30, 2011 at 9:50 am

    With regard to Number 11, one risks falling into the trap of “elegant variation” and, via use of a thesaurus, of using the kinds of sesquipedalian words (like “sesquipedalian”) you caution against.

    See A DICTIONARY OF MODERN ENGLISH USAGE by H.W. Fowler for a discussion of elegant variation.


    • Jodie Renner

      October 30, 2011 at 2:53 pm

      Barry, a lot of times, avoiding repetition is just a matter of using another fairly common word, or just rephrasing your sentence a bit. And of course, use your thesaurus critically – will your readers quickly grasp your desired imagery or emotion? If not, don’t choose that word. You want the ideas, action and feelings to flow naturally, not have the reader stop and wonder what a specific word means, or question its appropriateness both for the situation and the tone, voice, and point of view. When describing a scene through the POV of a child, for example, use words a child of that age would likely use.


  3. Teresa Reasor

    October 30, 2011 at 10:52 am

    These are excellent suggestions!! I’ve shared your expertise with other loops.
    Thanks for posting.
    Teresa Reasor


  4. Gayle Carline

    October 30, 2011 at 12:02 pm

    While I agree with these, I was lurking on a readers’ discussion group when a topic came up. (Paraphrasing), “Why do all the writers act like they’ve got a damn thesaurus attached at the hip? Everyone strolls or races or stomps, etc. Doesn’t anyone just walk anymore?” Is it possible we’re overdoing the colorful?


    • Jodie Renner

      October 30, 2011 at 3:02 pm

      Gail, two points on this:

      1. Paint as vivid a picture as possible of the scene, using as many different senses as possible, including emotions, in order to suck your readers firmly into the story world. “Hurried” or “strode” or “shuffled” pr
      crept” tells us a lot more about what’s going on, and how the character is feeling and reacting, then “walked.”

      2. Don’t bore your readers. For that, they need variety and fresh words and imagery, not over-worn, tired words.

      On the other hand, it’s best not to get carried away with ridiculous variations, and when the character is simply walking, go for it!


  5. JoAnn Haberer

    October 30, 2011 at 2:21 pm

    All great advice, especially when re-writing. I slog through a first draft without regard for style, but in the editing stage I toss those “ing” verbs and adverbs like month-old milk. Thanks for the succinct list. It’s a good “cheat sheet” to keep close at hand.


    • Jodie Renner

      October 30, 2011 at 2:55 pm

      Good point, JoAnn. For the first draft, just get your ideas down quickly before the muse leaves you. Don’t agonize over word choice at that stage. Lots of time to do that in the revisions stage!


  6. Marc Simon Pearson

    October 31, 2011 at 2:01 am

    Jodie, thank you for all these suggestions. As everyone else as said the suggestions will be really helpful in the editing stage and I will be printing them off to look through when the time comes. I am finding that in my first draft all the above has been done and look forward to chopping them out and making the writing more powerful. and interesting to the reader.


    • Jodie Renner

      October 31, 2011 at 7:43 am

      Thanks, Marc. And we’ll all be looking forward to reading your more riveting, powerful novel, after your revisions!


  7. Bill MacDonald

    October 31, 2011 at 10:27 am

    Sad to hear someone describe words like “capacious, accretion, plangent, occluded, viridian, arboreal, sylvan, obdurant, luculent, longueur, rubescent, and mendacious” as “ornate and pretentious”. Well, except for “obdurant”, which isn’t a word; perhaps Ms. Morrell meant “obdurate”. The other words are simply good vocabulary words.

    If the point is not to use such words too much, or incorrectly, then I agree completely. But surely there is a way to say that without stigmatizing the words themselves as “pompous”. Writers can be pompous, when they use words inappropriately in a vain attempt to convey some sort of superiority. But I would hate to see a budding writer come away from this article renouncing forever the use of beautiful, effective words like “plangent” or “mendacious” because they appeared in a list of “pompous words”.


    • Jodie Renner

      October 31, 2011 at 10:52 am

      Thanks for your comments, Bill. Unless you’re writing literary fiction and trying to appeal to a more discerning, intellectual readership, the main goal of popular fiction is to grab the reader and keep him/her reading by moving the story along at a good clip. If the reader has to stop frequently to wonder what a word means or to look it up, he/she will likely get frustrated and just put the book down. The main objective of fiction, and of any kind of writing, is to communicate a message or tell a good story, by using an appropriate tone or mood. Unusual words can interfere with communication or be jarring if the rest of the tone is quite casual or straightforward.

      It’s true that it’s not the words themselves that are “pompous”, but a writer risks being considered so if he/she overuses words that are not in the average person’s vocabulary. A few sprinkled here and there, if their meaning is fairly evident by the context, are always fine, though, and some readers delight in discovering a new word for their vocabulary, especially if they don’t have to stop reading to go to the dictionary to find its meaning.


      • Bill MacDonald

        November 1, 2011 at 9:12 am

        Thank you, Jodie. It sounds like you and I generally agree on the main point: words should be chosen thoughtfully. Certainly one consideration would be the intended audience; if you’re writing for the James Patterson crowd, it makes sense to avoid using any word that your average fifth grader wouldn’t know. But don’t you think it insults the intelligence of aspiring writers to tell them, as Ms. Morrell did, to categorically reject certain words as “pompous”? Yes, budding authors often stray too far over the line into purple prose, but I think they can handle being told, as you say above, to use such language sparingly, rather than not at all. Pomposity is irritating because it shows prejudice; the author is in effect implying that those ordinary words that the hoi polloi uses are not good enough for him. But rejecting less-than-ordinary words just because they are less than ordinary shows prejudice just as clearly.

        In this context, the world is not really split between “literary fiction” and “popular fiction”. Ernest Hemingway won the Nobel Prize for Literature, right? But I bet he never used the word “luculent”. On the other hand, you can’t get much more “popular” than Stephen King, and I just picked “The Shining” up and thumbed through at random and found words like “officious”, “postulant”, “travois”, and “supplicant”. Perhaps a better distinction would be between “mindless reading” and “mindful reading”. (Hemingway, King, Dickens, Rowling, L’Amour, Tolkien, Rice, Follett, Michener — all enormously popular writers who gave their audiences credit for enjoying mindful reading. Maybe two are considered “literary”.) In both cases, a good writer will want to choose the right words for the story and the audience, and a writer who does not do so is being disrespectful of both. By rejecting the use of entire categories of words, Ms. Morrell is essentially telling people not to bother aiming to produce mindful reading.


  8. Ian Walkley

    October 31, 2011 at 3:35 pm

    Great tips, Jodie. The cause and effect one is one particularly that I get trapped into and am much more careful about these days.
    And I happen to agree about the pompous words. Fine in literary fiction, but the important thing with commercial fiction is to get people to read books, and people don’t have time or inclination to be bamboozled by overly-erudite prose.


    • Jodie Renner

      October 31, 2011 at 4:43 pm

      Thanks, Ian, and I agree with you completely about the esoteric words and pretentious language – they don’t really have a place in popular fiction. Readers of bestsellers and other commercial fiction just want to escape by getting immersed in a great story, rather than worrying about deciphering the meaning of words. Literary fiction is different, of course – that readership tends to enjoy a more leisurely, cerebral pace, with more challenges to the intellect. But all of my “craft of fiction” advice pertains to writing a contemporary, popular novel, and reaching the maximum number of readers possible.


    • Bill MacDonald

      November 1, 2011 at 9:26 am

      This is sort of like saying, “The important thing with a commercial restaurant is to get people to eat food, and people don’t have the time or inclination to be bamboozled by useless hoity-toity extras like flavor and wholesomeness.” Yes, McDonalds is very popular, but that does not mean that every eatery that serves quality food is doomed to failure.


      • Ian Walkley

        November 1, 2011 at 12:57 pm

        Bill, I think the McDonalds metaphor is perfect for validating our case. McDonalds is one of the world’s most popular and successful brands (like it or not), and it delivers what people want. And interestingly, over time it is selling more healthy options. And as you point out, popular fiction writers do slip in some of those words we’re talking about. It’s about degree, not absolute, I think.


  9. Andrew E. Kaufman

    November 1, 2011 at 12:45 pm

    I agree with Jodie. The point is to tell a story and to tell it well. Period. In order to do so, one should use language appropriate for the genre. If we’re talking about suspense, the pace must be fast and fluid. Anything less will slow the reader down, bump them out of the story, and unless they’re very tolerant, make them want to put the book down…forever. That doesn’t mean you have to “dummy-up” your prose, and it has nothing to do with quality; it simply means using language that’s clear, concise, and economical. People who read suspense don’t want a vocabulary lesson–they want to enjoy themselves.There’s nothing wrong with that, and it has nothing to with quality. There are plenty of intelligent people who enjoy the genre, and they’re not the least bit insulted by clear and tightly written prose.


    • Jodie Renner

      November 1, 2011 at 3:03 pm

      Andrew, as always you have an incredible gift with words, and express your wise ideas so well! Thanks so much for chiming in on the discussion.

      And as I specialize in fiction, I also advise my clients to streamline their ideas to keep the pace “fast and fluid” as you say, to carry the readers along in the story, at a good, enjoyable clip.

      But each to his own. I also enjoy a good literary fiction once in a while, or one of the classics. A place for everyone!

      I’d love to continue this discussion, but unfortunately I’m going out for several hours and am already late!


  10. Jodie Renner

    November 1, 2011 at 2:59 pm

    Thanks, Bill, for your comments, and thanks, Ian, for checking back. I just can’t seem to wrap my head around equating high-quality, often bestselling fiction with McDonald’s food! Especially when I see the amount of work my clients put into creating the best-quality story they can, to entertain and thrill their readers!


    • Bill MacDonald

      November 2, 2011 at 8:01 am

      Ian — I agree, it is about degree.

      Andrew — You are creating a false dichotomy between the use of a wider vocabulary and “clear and tightly written prose”, essentially asserting that they are mutually exclusive. It’s just not true, and there are innumerable bestselling thrillers out there containing concrete proof. If that’s not what you are asserting — if you, in fact, agree with me that there is no reason to ban entire categories of words from popular fiction because they are “pompous” — then great, I am glad to discover that we agree.

      Jodie — You are a smart and fantastically diplomatic moderator; I bet you would lead a dynamite workshop. Thank you for allowing me space to leave my comments. One more thought for you to consider: I’m sure there are plenty of people out there who consider McDonald’s food to be “high-quality” and “bestselling”, even though you apparently have trouble seeing it. Look at the response to the re-release of the McRib! McDonald’s food is popular because it is designed to have wide appeal by offering intense peaks of pleasurable sensory input while eliminating challenges to the average person’s tastes, offers a comfortingly reliable experience every time, and can be consumed quickly enough to fit into people’s busy schedules. And because the ingredients are largely pre-prepared and can only be combined in a limited number of ways, the product can be churned out rapidly and regularly to meet and maintain demand. I wouldn’t take my wife to McDonald’s for an anniversary dinner, but in its own realm the food generally is high quality, and certainly is bestselling. I don’t think you should feel as uncomfortable with the comparison as you seem to be.


      • Jodie Renner

        November 2, 2011 at 9:44 am

        Thanks for all your articulate, well-thought out observations, Bill. Great discussion! And maybe I should revisit McDonald’s! Haven’t eaten there in years. LOL But I still maintain bestselling novels have a lot more variety and nuances – and a bigger thrill factor! And better for the waistline too! 🙂

        Thanks to everyone who commented on my post and contributed to this discussion, and to DP Lyle, MD, for hosting my blog posts. Thank you, Doug, for inviting me to post again! You have an excellent blog here. I just discovered your awesome Resources for Writers page!


  11. M.E. Anders

    November 4, 2011 at 9:53 am

    Jodie – thanks for the checklist for my revision process. I clipped it to my Evernotes folder for future reference. 🙂


    • Jodie Renner

      November 4, 2011 at 10:04 am

      Glad to be of help, M.E. I look forward to reading your novel some day!



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