Sneaky Prose Killers

Sneaky Prose Killers


Thanks to for the intro and outro music.

Visit to see “Typewriter Tuesday,” a brief video of a 1915 Corona 3 typewriter (like Hemingway’s first typewriter).

ASK THE AUTHOR: From Dave Fessenden via In my first novel, the editor changed a few passages of dialogue to more “relaxed” phrasing. Normally, that wouldn’t bother me, but since it is a historical novel, I wondered if these editorial changes were valid. Isn’t informal wording more 21st century? How do you do dialogue that is “natural” without becoming anachronistic?

AARON: Good question. This, for me, falls into an editor changing the voice of a project, and they really shouldn’t be doing that. If, however, the goal is to write authentic dialog in a historical novel, I say you write it the way they would say it in that time period. It may be a little more stiff, but that’s okay. I think you’d be a better judge of that than would I. I don’t really read historicals or write them.

POPS: That’s a nice, straightforward, simple question–one with a convoluted answer. Here’s my take on it. First, the writer must always keep the reader in mind. Dialogue can be so real as to be incomprehensible to the reader. For example, if you do a historical set in the days of Beowulf they your characters will be speaking in Old English which modern English speakers can’t understand. (To hear what Old English Beowulf sounds like click here):

Dialogue style is influenced by the character’s upbringing and education. It is possible to have different styles in the same book. Stephen King’s Dreamcatcher is a great example. His characters spoke the same language but never sounded the same. They even cursed differently based on their education. Even in a historical, some characters will have a more relaxed speech than others. For example, a judge speaking to a low born defendant. So, was the editor correct to make the changes? I can’t say without knowing the character and seeing the changes. Bottomline: you can always write STET on the offending passage. (For our listeners, STET means “let it stand,” and is used to instruct the editor/printer to ignore the correction.)

Firsts in Fiction


Some time ago, I sent an early draft of the first book of my Hand of Adonai series to my agent. I’d expected a rave review; instead, I got a disappointing e-mail. “It’s too telling,” she said. “Your characters are too passive.” She sent me a list of these words and suggested I comb through the draft looking for these sneaky prose killers. Of course, the manuscript was riddled with them. Since then, I go through each of my drafts and look for these. It’s perhaps the longest stage in revision for my writing process, but it’s also the process that best benefits my prose. Here’s a list of the words and when and why they’re bad.

Al: Just so everyone is (ahem) on the same page, Aaron, unpack what the editor meant by “passive,” and “telling.”

Watch/notice/observe/look: These weak verbs usually mean inactive characters. What’s more boring than watching paint dry? Reading about someone watching paint dry. “Notice” is often used to call reader’s attention to important information through the eyes of the character. But if we’re already in the eyes of that character, it simply becomes a superfluity.

Al: Have any examples of the wrong and right way to handle these words?

Just: A sneaky adverb. Okay in dialog (rarely and sparingly), but virtually never in prose. Seldom is the word necessary, and it can be eliminated in most cases.

Al: This might be a good time to talk about the exceptions made in first person narration. In first person, the narrator is usually the protagonist or the protag’s side kick (Sherlock Holmes). First person presents a different playing field, especially if the protag is unique in language, background, etc. Think Huck Finn, Tom Sawyer, or contemporary novels like Sue Grafton (“A” is for Alibi).

Then: While sometimes necessary, most prose will benefit if it’s eliminated. Especially bad when paired with other no-no words (i.e. “He walked toward her just then” contrasted with “He walked toward her”).

Al: The word is not evil, just often overused. As with many of the sneaky prose killers, the become invisible to the writer. My rule is, if you can take it out and the sentence still works, then omit the word. If the removal breaks the sentence, then put it back in. (Notice I used “then” properly, but it still can be deleted to read: If the removal breaks the sentence; put it back in.

This next one is my personal bane.

That: Another tricky one that is allowable in dialog sparingly. (i.e. “It’s not that bad.”) Most commonly, the word is used to introduce a dependent clause. Common grammarians (as opposed to really special grammarians) will tell you to eliminate it in these cases (i.e. “He wanted her to know that he loved her” becomes “He wanted her to know he loved her”).

Al: I still struggle with this next one.

Feel/feeling/felt: These verbs are weak for the same reasons that watch, notice, and observe are. It indicates passivity, and often times creates a voice that’s more telling than showing. While a certain amount of telling is necessary to move the story forward, too much of it will get your novel thrown in the recycling bin. Instead, consider an action that shows the feeling. “She felt sad.” Becomes, “She lowered her head. No way would she let him know he’d upset her.”

Al: Let the emotion be an actor not just a description. “She felt like she was about to cry” is better if we show the emotion instead of telling the reader about it. “She pursed her lips, blinked back unbidden tears, and stuffed the sob in her throat to a dark place deep in her gut.”

There: While necessary in some cases, this becomes prosaically offensive when followed by “is” or “was” or “were.” This construction indicates a sentence in the passive voice. Editors seldom appreciate the passive voice because it feels very telling. “There was a chair in the room” becomes “Oliver walked around the lone chair in the room.” If you’re still shaky on identifying the elusive passive voice, tune in next week. I’ll give you a short crash course in grammar to better elucidate the murky topic.

Al: For now, just note the difference between “The ball hit the batter,” and “The batter was hit by the ball.” There are rare cases in which passive is preferred. It’s call “the victim’s passive.”

Knew/know: Again indicates a passive character. Sometimes necessary, but could be indicative of a needed change.

Maybe: You’ll see this pop up in dialog, but it should be avoided in nearly every instance of exposition. The word weakens the power of the prose by making it wishy-washy. Most often, writers use this while establishing interior monolog. “Maybe he was mad at her” (passive) “He had no right to be mad at her” (active). Both reveal the inner workings of the characters mind, but the latter carries a stronger emotive context.

See/saw: See notice/watch/observe. “He saw Lauren smile” becomes “Lauren smiled.” We know the characters saw this, so the introductory clause is superfluous.

Hear/heard: See above. “He heard a shrill whistle of a train deep in the foothills” becomes “A train whistle shrilled deep in the foothills.” The reader understands that the character hears this, so the setup of “he heard” becomes unnecessary.

Could/couldn’t: A word that generally accompanies see, notice, hear, etc. “He could see the tops of her slippers” becomes “Snow and ice crusted the tops of her slippers.” The elimination of this word provides more opportunities to show rather than tell.

“ly” adverbs: See my earlier post here.

Was/were: Generally indicate passive voice, which you know by now is a no-no.

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