Now that I edit for a couple of publishing houses, I have the inside scoop on what publishers hate to see. So I’ll pass them on to you! Fix these things before you send your book into a publisher, and you’ll look more professional and easier to process. Which makes it easier for them to say “yes” to your book.
— Head hopping: Okay, you are only allowed to be in one character’s head at a time. In fact, in most books, you’re only allowed to be in one character’s head throughout the whole book. Yet writers send in stories where the narrator is in multiple heads in the same scene. This is not only confusing and known to cause dizziness and nausea, it’s lazy writing. The only reason you need to get in a character’s head is to tell me what he’s feeling instead of taking the time to show me. You can say, “Bob was confused.” That’s telling. Or you can say, “Joanie had to laugh. Bob’s eyebrows were almost fused over his nose, and he kept opening and closing his mouth, trying to formulate a question. He finally said, ‘Wait, what?’ in a total stoner voice.” That’s showing. Showing involves readers in the scene. Plus, what if the reader didn’t know what Bob was thinking? If you’re in his head too, then when Joanie is confused by what he’s thinking, you’re thinking, “Oh, she’s worrying over nothing.” It distances you from Joanie’s feelings, and it removes a lot of the tension and worry.
RULE: ONE POINT OF VIEW PER SCENE
— Words ending in -ly: I’m not really sure why there is so much hatred for the poor adverb, but people in publishing hate them. And I see why, to some degree. It’s another aspect of lazy writing, of telling instead of showing. It’s so much faster to say, “She said smugly,” than to describe how someone looks and sounds when they’re smug. But description is what makes the reader “see” your scene, so taking the lazy adverb road doesn’t invite your reader deep into the scene. I personally use them when the short-cut is warranted, when I don’t need the reader to really “see” this part of the book and don’t want to waste words on the description, but I minimize them. And if it’s not worth the words, maybe the scene isn’t either?
RULE: MINIMIZE WORDS ENDING IN -LY.
— Intrusive narrators: Okay, I’m hitting the show/tell thing hard today, but it’s so important! Don’t tell me, “He was confused. He didn’t know what Joanie wanted from him.” Have him say it to Joanie, for Pete’s sake. Or have him say it himself internally, in italics: “Why can’t she just tell me what she wants? he thought, kicking the chair across the room.”
RULE: DON’T LET THE NARRATOR TELL THE READER; HAVE THE CHARACTERS TELL OR, BETTER YET, SHOW.
— Weird punctuation: Back in my magazine-editing days, when I was working with grammar-Nazi journalism majors (I was a lowly English major), I was once accused of having a bad case of hyphenitis. Yes, I like hyphens. I don’t like the ambiguity of guessing whether a hyphen is needed. I mean, look at the difference here: short-haired girl vs. short haired girl. Without that hyphen, the poor girl would be short and hirsuite. But … I see their point now. Authors get on a punctuation kick and won’t let it go. Em dashes in every sentence. Semicolons everywhere. Multiple exclamation points. All caps. Underlining. Ellipses out the wazoo. After a while, you’re looking for the hyphens instead of paying attention to the story. Listen, too much punctuation is distracting from the story. Minimize it whenever possible. Some publishers have rules: one semicolon or exclamation point per page. No colons at all. No all caps.
RULE: MINIMIZE PUNCTUATION, ESPECIALLY ELLIPSES, EM DASHES, SEMICOLONS AND COLONS. ELIMINATE UNDERLINING AND ALL CAPS. ITALICS ONLY FOR INTERNAL DIALOG.
— Double spaces; multiple returns: We are into the age of computers, folks. Forget the typewriter rules. One space after a period, exclamation point, etc. One blank line between scenes (but check the publisher’s website; some prefer four **** centered in the space). All of those extra spaces have to be stripped out, which is annoying. The computer will space the sentence properly.
RULE: NO DOUBLE SPACES; ONE LINE SPACE BETWEEN SCENES.
— Dialog tags vs. dialog beats: Have I covered this one? I tell it to authors so often, I feel like I’m repeating myself here. The current style is to minimize dialog tags (he said, she exclamed) in favor of dialog beats. What’s a beat? It’s a physical action that lets you know who is saying the dialog. For example: “‘What do you want?’ Pippa glared at Sam, her hands closed into fists.” You know Pippa said it because of the beat that follows. Never use tags and beats in the same sentence! And if it’s obvious who is saying what — only two people in the conversation, for example — don’t use either. The reader can infer who is speaking based on what/how they’re saying it.
RULE: MINIMIZE DIALOG TAGS; USE BEATS INSTEAD
— Unnecessary description: This is tricky, because didn’t I just say description was imperative to pulling your reader into the scene? Why, yes I did, BUT … sometimes, and I’ve done this, we have fall-back phrases. My characters tend to shrug all the freaking time. They must all have amazing neck muscles. Other writers constantly tell you the character is smiling or nodding. If the character just said, “I agree,” wouldn’t we infer he’s nodding?
RULE: LEAVE OUT UNNECESSARY DESCRIPTORS; PICK ONES THAT REALLY TELL THE READER SOMETHING INSTEAD
— Monotonous sentence structure: You just can’t start every sentence with, “He did this …” “She did that …” Vary the types of structures you use. Short, short, long, short, compound, short … Sometimes I change the first sentence into a dependent clause (“He glared at Joanie. He stalked from the room” would be “Glaring at Joanie, he stalked from the room.”) Just watch for dangling modifiers! (“Glaring at Joanie, she stalked from the room.”) If you like really long, compound sentences, make sure you break a few up in each paragraph. Otherwise, you might just lull your readers into sleep.
RULE: MIX IT UP WHEN IT COMES TO SENTENCE STRUCTURE
Okay, there will be much more on this to come. I’ll keep you posted as I run into more things publishers hate. Publishers are picky, so follow these simple rules and make them pick you.
(By the way, do as I say and not as I do with ellipses/em dashes: No spaces on either side–like this…or this. I just like the spaces, but publishers hate them because they mess up the computer spacing. You end up with the dash at the start of the next line. Because readers can change the font/size on their e-readers, publishers can’t control wonky spacing anymore. So leave the spaces out.)
I swear, it’s like you’ve been in my brain. These are some of my top annoyances. I think I write a variation of this article several times over in the commentary of every manuscript I edit. It is so incredibly frustrating.
I know, we all make the same mistakes. As editors we have to remember that for this writer, this is the first time they’re hearing about it. Now if they keep doing it, I get irritated!
It’s so good to see articles like this out on the net! I had a creative non-fiction class that went over many of these. Sad about semi-colons, though, they’re my buds! Ah well…maybe that will change in the future?
I’m definitely sending this article to my aspiring author friend…and hope she actually reads through it and doesn’t think she’s too good for the advice. 😛
Thank you for posting this!
Thanks, Norra! I wish everyone could get published. Anything I can do to help, I’m happy to do!
Someone at Critique Circle pointed me to your blog – and it’s great. (Notice the use of a single dash with spaces around it? I love those!)
Thanks for this info. I tend to get a little crazy with the punctuation, and I have people WHO JUST DON’T KNOW ANY BETTER tell me I shouldn’t use colons or semi-colons, and why are my sentences so complex sometimes?
So it’s helpful to me to get it from the source–the poor editor at a publishing house telling me FOR $DEITY’S SAKE CAN’T YOU WRITE SO OTHER PEOPLE CAN UNDERSTAND?
I will go back now to my MS and–reluctantly–work on making it better.
Sorry I can’t write more – must dash.
I am the queen of complex sentences, so the colon/semicolon ban kills me! But you gotta play the game, right?
Thanks for youir comment!
Thanks for this informative article. Quick question:
– Intrusive narrators: Okay, I’m hitting the show/tell thing hard today, but it’s so important! Don’t tell me, “He was confused. He didn’t know what Joanie wanted from him.” Have him say it to Joanie, for Pete’s sake. Or have him say it himself internally, in italics: “Why can’t she just tell me what she wants? he thought, kicking the chair across the room.”
What the difference between italicizing “why can’t she just tell me what she wants?” and head hopping (assuming the narration is from Joanie’s POV?).
Head hopping is when the author gets into the heads of more than one character in the same scene. If you italicize something, it is assumed to be internal dialog of the character. So head-hopping is a problem, because if you have italicized thoughts for two different characters, you might get confused about who’s thinking what. It’s okay to get into characters’ heads, but make sure you have a scene change and only tell your readers what one character at a time is thinking.