Fundamentals: Word Choice

Word choice issues don’t fit in as grammar or punctuation problems, as they may not be “technically” wrong. However, many word choice problems will bore, annoy, or confuse your readers. Here is a rundown of the most common issues.

Repetition of words, phrases, or ideas

Writing takes longer than reading. Writers often repeat themselves because they don’t realize that a reader will have read the same thing only seconds or minutes beforehand. Repetition can also happen when working on a piece, quitting, and picking it up later.

The easy way to solve this problem is read your story aloud before you post it. Don’t just read it in your head—actually read it aloud. You might also try word cloud generators or other tools that list the frequency of all the words in your manuscript.

Don’t: He walked out of the room. He walked down the hall. He walked into the bedroom, then walked to the window, then climbed out.

Do: He walked out of the parlor and crept down the hall. He tiptoed through bedroom, past the sleeping rottweilers, and climbed out the window..

This applies to repetitive ideas as well as words.

Don’t: Beneath John’s hat brim, his face bore the creases of long days working in the sun. He smiled and grabbed my butt, wrinkles turning his browned face into an aerial view of eastern Utah. When I slapped him, his face fell like an old leather handbag full of doorknobs hitting the floor. I wasn’t going to take that kind of behavior from any man, much less a man with skin like a crumpled paper bag.

OK, got it, he’s got a wrinkly face. Is there anything else interesting about him?

Do: Beneath John’s hat brim, his face bore the creases of long days working in the sun. He grabbed my butt, grinning with jagged, rotten teeth. I slapped him, and his shoulders fell with his smile as he jerked away from me. I wasn’t going to take that kind of behavior from any man, much less a creepy old circus magician.

Repetitive sentence structure

When all sentences are the same length, the prose becomes boring to read. Vary the structure.

Mix short sentences with long, flowing sentences. Short sentences have impact. Long sentences are wonderful when you have a clear idea to communicate to the reader and want them to follow it through to the end. Sentence variety is another issue that can usually be discovered by reading aloud.

Don’t: “She was a thief. You got a belief. She stole my heart. She stole my cat. Then we broke up. I met someone new.”

Do: “She was a thief. Believe me, she stole my heart and my cat. I ended up leaving her, and eventually I met someone new.”

More examples

Passive voice

Passive voice is caused by a reversal of the verb and subject from the more conventional active voice. Nothing is technically wrong about these sentences, but passive voice results in extra words, and typically an over-use of the verb “to be”, often in the form of “was” or “were”.

In passive voice, the object (the gold medal) comes before the verb (won).
Don’t:
A gold medal was won by the snowboarder.

In active voice, the subject (the snowboarder) comes before the verb (won).
Do: The snowboarder won the gold medal.

Don’t: The laser gun was fired by the solders.
Do: The soldiers fired the laser guns.

Passive voice can also result in misplaced modifiers, resulting in nonsense (Robert didn’t drink the fridge, he drank the beers).
Don’t: There were beers in the fridge that Robert drank.
Do: Robert drank the beers from the fridge.

More examples

Overuse of filler words

The fact is, the list of words that don’t really need to be there is very long indeed.
Wait.
The fact is, The list of words that don’t really need to be there is very long indeed.
Wait.
The fact is, The list of unnecessary words that don’t really need to be there is very long indeed.

Filler words and phrases muddy your prose, making it hard work for your reader to wade through. Besides obvious phrases such as “due to the fact that,” “the fact is,” and “in order to”, there are countless other filler words that sneak by more easily. In general, if you can remove one of these words, and the story still makes sense, you probably should:

a bit, a lot, actually, all, almost, anyway, apparently, basically, definitely, especially, essentially, even, honestly, just, like, literally, obviously, only, perhaps, probably, quite, really, seriously, simply, so, something, truly, very, well

Use stronger, more specific words if you can:

If someone is very tired they are exhausted
If someone is really sure they are convinced
If someone is suddenly attacked they are ambushed

Be specific rather than approximate:

If someone is about six feet tall they are six feet tall
If someone is perhaps forty years old they are forty years old
If someone is a bit under the weather they are under the weather

Overuse of vague words and phrases

Closely related to filler words, vague words add meaning, but often not enough. Look out for vague adjectives like “beautiful, nice, good, kind” etc. Look out for vague nouns like “thing, something, somewhere, somewhat” etc. That’s not to say you should remove these words altogether, but be aware of them.

Don’t: The Mona Lisa was a beautiful painting.
What makes her beautiful?
Do: The Mona Lisa’s soft, knowing smile, blushing cheeks and deep eyes struck a chord in my soul.

Don’t: Something about the room troubled him.
What was this ‘something’?
Do: In the bedroom, a velvet painting of a clown family loomed over the bed.

Don’t: He leaned against a tree and began to smoke.
It’s descriptive, but it’s not specific. The more specific, the more real it will be to the reader (as long as it’s not ridiculous). Compare the different images here:
Do: He leaned against the rough bark of a bristlecone pine, pulled out a Marlboro, and lit it with a match in his cupped hands.
Do: He leaned against the gray trunk of a weeping willow, packed some tobacco in a corncob pipe, and lit it with a stick from the campfire.
Do: He leaned against the bigleaf maple in the shade of its red canopy, carefully positioned the brass hookah, and lit the bowl with a miniature blowtorch.

Overly realistic dialogue

Everyone wants their dialogue to be realistic right? The problem is that no one actually wants to read realistic dialogue. Small talk, throat-clearing words (“Well,”) and pauses (um, uh, y’know) are normal in real life, but reading it is dull.

In the distant past, long-winded and relaxed conversations were the norm in literature, but if you look at the classics that are still widely read (from Pride and Prejudice to Tale of Two Cities to Huck Finn), you’ll find that they keep the plot and dialogue moving briskly. Today, readers are so used to prose and dialogue without fluff, they will be annoyed or bored by it.

Don’t: “Well, the thing is, um, so, you know, the other day I saw my ex-wife at the bookstore.”
One of those openers is more than enough to convey hesitation, or you can leave them out entirely.
Do: “The other day I saw my ex-wife at the bookstore.”

Don’t:
Bill waved to Dan as he approached. “What’s up?”
Dan took a seat at the cafe table. “Not much. Nice weather though.”
“Yeah, sunny and warm. Did you see the big sportsball game?”
“Oh yeah, our team scored so many points. Good game.”
Bill squinted. “Anyway, here’s how the diamond heist is going down.”

There’s no need for all the filler! Just get straight to the good stuff.

Do:
Dan glanced around and joined Bill at the cafe table.
Bill squinted. “Here’s how the diamond heist is going down.”

Stilted Dialogue

Another common issue with dialogue is that it can be “stilted” meaning that it is robotic, stiff, or awkward, much like walking on stilts when compared to natural walking. The best cure for this is to read your dialogue aloud, because your ear will know (if it doesn’t, study some award-winning books and see how they write tight dialogue). Overall, you’ll find that stilted dialogue typically doesn’t use enough contractions, has too many opening and closing phrases, and doesn’t sound the way people actually talk.

Don’t:
“How are you doing today, Mr. William B. Williams?”
“How am I doing today? Why, I am very well, thank you, Ms. Joan Rutherford. And how might you be on this fine evening in May?”
Good grief! Unless this is for comedic effect, we need to tighten that up.
Do:
“How are you, Will?”
“Good enough. You?”
Do:
“How are you, Mr. Williams?”
“Very fine, Ms. Rutherford, very fine indeed.”

Purple Prose

Purple prose is a name for overly-complex writing that distracts the reader and breaks their immersion, rather than immersing them deeper in the story. Typically the author is trying to show off or trying to seem smart and poetic, but they end up working against these goals.

Purple prose typically includes overwrought ideas that could be more simply communicated, long-winded descriptions, mixed metaphors, and unnecessarily large/complex words, all of which distract the reader and break the immersion such that the reader is paying attention to the words and not imagining a story.

I’m not going to try and write purple prose, because I don’t want it polluting my brain. Here’s an example from this article:

The mahogany-haired adolescent girl glanced fleetingly at her rugged paramour, a crystalline sparkle in her eyes as she gazed happily upon his countenance. It was filled with an expression as enigmatic as shadows in the night. She pondered thoughtfully whether it would behoove her to request that she continue to follow him on his noble mission… 

Let’s take a stab at rewriting it so it’s not ridiculous.

Jane glanced across the table at Jack and brushed her long brown hair behind her ear. She blinked her eyes slowly, trying to make them sparkle in the candlelight, a move that her sister had said “always worked.”

Jack drained his mug of brown ale and wiped the foam and slop from his grizzled, squared-off jaw. “I’ve been thinking you should get going.”

She fumbled her wine goblet, sloshing a bit over the rim. Get going! He was trying to give her a brush-off? She fingered the stiletto concealed in her dress. If he wasn’t going to take the bait, she’d have to find another way to get those jewels.

Fundamentals: Grammar

Grammar is invisible to a reader, up until it strays from the standards of the English language. At best, poor grammar will confuse your readers; at worst, it will annoy and frustrate them.

In the same way that you need to know traffic rules to successfully drive a car, or you need to understand music notation to be a successful composer, you need to understand grammar to be a successful writer—no matter what your definition of success is!

Participle phrase misuse

By far the most common grammar problem we encounter in critiques is participle phrase misuse. It’s so frequent that we have a separate article on it.

Sentence fragments

Sentence fragments are also known as incomplete sentences. Sentences can be as short as one word, but they need to have a verb and a subject. It may be tempting to write without using complete sentences because. It. Feels. Dramatic. but it will quickly annoy or confuse your reader.

One-word sentences, like “Move!”, have only a verb (action word), and the subject (usually “you”) is implied.

Don’t: Bob pushed Tim away from the soda machine. Hard. “Move!” he yelled.
“Hard.” is a sentence fragment—it is not a complete sentence. Only verbs can be one-word complete sentences.

Do: Bob pushed Tim away from the soda machine. “Move!”
“Move!” is a complete sentence—it’s a verb issued as a command.

Two-word sentences have a verb and a subject.

Don’t: My dog Barfy ate his dinner. Super fast. Then Barfy barfed.
“Super fast.” is a sentence fragment.

Do: My dog Barfy ate his dinner super fast. Barfy barfed.
“Barfy barfed.” is a complete sentence because it contains both a subject (Barfy) and a verb (barfed).

More on sentence fragments.

Subject/verb agreement

This is very simple stuff that can usually be caught by reading your story aloud. Most people know this stuff intuitively because it will “sound wrong”.

Don’t: “I were running in the woods. I thought monsters was chasing me.”
Do: “I was running in the woods. I thought monsters were chasing me.”

Long sentences with large separations between subject and verb can still be troublesome.

Don’t: “The gray dog, that is, the oldest one of the hundreds of sled dogs, were resting inside his dog house.”
Do: “The gray dog, that is, the oldest one of the hundreds of sled dogs, was resting inside his dog house.”

More on subject/verb agreement.

Pronoun antecedent problems

Pronouns are words like “he” and “she” and “they” and “it”. They are used as placeholders for another word (usually a person, place, thing, or idea). When in doubt, play it safe and re-use the original word rather than the pronoun.

Don’t: “Stan and Bill went fishing. He caught a red snapper.”
In this case, we don’t know WHO caught the red snapper.
Do: “Stan and Bill went fishing. Stan caught a red snapper.”

Don’t: “The Bloods and Crips were ready to rumble. Then they ran off.”
Which gang ran off?
Do: “The Bloods and Crips were ready to rumble. Then the Bloods ran off.”

More on pronoun reference issues.

Mismatched verb tenses

A verb is an action word. The “tense” of a story is usually past or present. The tense affects the form of the verb that you use. Make sure to be consistent throughout the story and stick to one tense unless you need to change it to be clear about when something happened.

Past tense: “The judge sentenced me to twenty years. I swore my revenge. I broke out of jail, found the judge, and threw a pie in his face.”

Present tense: “The judge sentences me to twenty years. I swear my revenge. I break out of jail, find the judge, and throw a pie in his face.”

Future tense: “The judge will sentence me to twenty years. I will swear my revenge. I will break out of jail, will find the judge, and will throw a pie in his face.”

Note that the past perfect tense is used when describing an event that happened before the current point in time in a story.

Past tense: “I took my dog outside to poop, and he dropped a big one.”
Past perfect tense: “I had taken him out to poop the day before, but he didn’t go.”

More on tenses.

Using the wrong word

We can all think of examples that sound foolish, but we’ve also all been guilty of either mistyping or misunderstanding words. There are so many of these, but here are a few of the most common:

Affect – a verb (action word). – The movie didn’t affect me.
Effect – a noun (a thing). – I loved the movie’s special effects.

Could of, would of, should of – these are wrong
Could have, would have, should have – these are correct

i.e. – means “that is”. – He was a moldy soul, i.e. he never bathed.
e.g. – means “for example”. – He was rotting, e.g. mushrooms grew on his toes.

It’s – a contraction of “it is” or “it was”. – It’s cold out today.
Its – a possessive pronoun. – The dog chased its tail.

Lie, lay, lain – to recline or to rest.
I lie on the couch. I lay on the couch. I had lain on the couch.
Lay, laid, laid – to put something down.
I lay a new asphalt driveway. I laid a new asphalt driveway. I had laid a new asphalt driveway.

Lose – a verb meaning to misplace something. – Don’t lose your marbles over this.
Loose – an adjective meaning sloppy or untied. – His necktie was too loose.

To – specifies a direction, or is used with an infinitive verb. – I flew on my dragon to the castle. It is nice to have a dragon.
Two – the number (2).My dragon burnt up two soldiers at the gates.
Too – meaning “also.” – The king and queen got torched too.

Their – indicates possession. – Their house is falling down.
They’re – a contraction of “they are.” – They’re the weirdest people I know.
There – a place. – Don’t go in there, honey.

Then – indicates what happens next. – We went in the mausoleum then the crypt.
Than – used for comparison. – The zombie was nicer than the mummy.

Weather – what the climate is up to. Hey Larry Bird, how’s the weather up there?
Whether – indicates a choice. – Larry couldn’t decide whether to ball or retreat.

Your – indicates possession. Your dog is ugly.
You’re – contraction of “you are”. Therefore, you’re ugly too.

Here are a longer list and another list of commonly-confused words.

Fundamentals: Punctuation

Punctuation is invisible to a reader, up until it strays from the standards of the English language. At best, poor punctuation will confuse your readers; at worst, it will annoy and frustrate them.

In the same way that you need to know traffic rules to successfully drive a car, or you need to understand music notation to be a successful composer, you need to understand punctuation to be a successful writer—no matter what your definition of success is!

Dialogue punctuation

This is by far the most common punctuation issue in fiction writing. English has standard methods for punctuating dialogue.

In nearly all of the world, dialogue is set off with double quotes “like so” and not with single quotes.

You should always create a new line (hit enter on your keyboard) for each new speaker or actor. This helps prevent the reader from getting confused as to what is happening or who is speaking.

If you have a speaker tag (“he said” or similar) then you need to end the dialogue line with a comma. Don’t capitalize the speaker tag—it’s all one sentence.

Don’t: “Put down the rocket launcher.” He said.
Do: “Put down the rocket launcher,” he said.

Even when ending with an exclamation point or question mark, don’t capitalize the speaker tag.

Don’t: “You put yours down first!” She replied.
Do: “You put yours down first!” she replied.

If you don’t have a speaker tag, then use a period (or !/? mark) and capitalize the next line.

Don’t: “I want a divorce. To the max,” she pulled the trigger.
Do:
“I want a divorce. To the max.” She pulled the trigger.

If you have a speaker tag in the middle of a line (as often happens), don’t break it into three sentences.

Don’t: “Once I find my organs.” He muttered. “you’re gonna be sorry.”
Do: “Once I find my organs,” he muttered, “you’re gonna be sorry.”

If you’ve got a long paragraph of dialogue, put the speaker tag as close to the beginning as possible so that the reader knows who is speaking.

Don’t: “You see, there’s no way out. Now let me explain my villainous plan. <several more lines of dialogue>,” Goldmember said.
Do: “You see,” Goldmember said, “there’s no way out. Now let me explain my villainous plan. <several more lines of dialogue>.”

The modern convention is to write dialogue tags with the speaker first.

Don’t: “Ahoy,” said Jim.
Don’t: “Ahoy,” said he.
Do: “Ahoy,” Jim said.
Do: “Ahoy,” he said.

More on dialogue punctuation.

Overuse of exclamation points

One exclamation or question mark per sentence is enough, and exclamation points should be saved for when they are truly necessary.

Don’t: “You lost the launch codes?!!?! Dammit!! We’ve got to nuke them first!!!!”
Do: “You lost the launch codes? Dammit! We’ve got to nuke them first.”

In general, exclamation points should only be used for exclamations, which are sudden cries or remarks that express a feeling or reaction (e.g. “Hey!” and “Stop!” and “Get him out of there!” and “Dang it!”)

More on this subject.

Comma splices (run-on sentences)

When you have two complete sentences that can stand on their own, they must be joined in one of three ways: a new sentence (1), a coordinating conjunction with a comma (2), or a semicolon (3).

Don’t: “That dog is vicious, he bit my grandma.”
Do (1): “That dog is vicious. He bit my grandma.”
Do (2):
“That dog is vicious, and he bit my grandma.”
Do (3): “That dog is vicious; he bit my grandma.”

(1) Usually splitting into separate sentences is the best approach.

(2) Coordinating conjunctions you can use include the “FANBOYS” – for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so. For example, “That dog is vicious, so he bit my grandma.” Note that these can change the meaning of your sentence.

(3) In general, you should avoid the use of semicolons (and colons) in contemporary fiction writing. Unless the reader can parse these esoteric punctuation marks automatically, they will break the reader’s immersion in the story.

More on run-on sentences.

Too many commas, or not enough

Use commas only when needed to make the meaning clear. Comma use is a broad topic, but in general use commas for the following purposes: to separate items in a list, to join a dependent clause to an independent clause, and to separate absolute phrases.

Don’t use too many commas
Don’t:
“I put on my black, wool, ski mask, and walked, into the bank.”
Do: “I put on my black wool ski mask and walked into the bank.”

Use commas to separate items in a list
Don’t:
“I robbed the bank with a gun a knife and a T-shirt cannon.”
Do:
“I robbed the bank with a gun, a knife, and a T-shirt cannon.”

Use commas with introductions or endings
Don’t:
“Well I don’t believe you.”
Do: “Well, I don’t believe you.”
Don’t: “That bank story is a joke Billy-bob.”
Do: “That bank story is a joke, Billy-bob.”

Use commas for interjections and non-essential bits of info
Don’t: Billy-bob who was rather tired today sighed heavily.”
Do: Billy-bob, who was rather tired today, sighed heavily.”

These are the most common issues, but there are many more rules on comma use.

Hyphens versus dashes

Fiction writing typically uses three sizes of dashes and they all do different things:

Hyphen (-) is used for certain compound words, such as compound adjectives and compound adverbs. When in doubt, use a dictionary to look up the compound word to see if it’s hyphenated. More details here.

Don’t: I am twenty one years old today, and my stupid ass friends are coming over to party
Do: I am twenty-one years old today, and my stupid-ass friends are coming over to party.

En-dash (–) is wider than a hyphen (the width of the letter N) and is used in specific situations: separating numbers, and showing opposing sides. You can make an En-dash with Alt+0150 on your keyboard (Option+0150 on a Mac). More details here.

Don’t: The score of the Brazil-Germany soccer game was 7-1.
Do: The score of the Brazil–Germany soccer game was 7–1.

Em-dash (—) is very wide (the width of the letter M) and is one of the most versatile punctuation marks. You can make an Em-dash with Alt+0151 on your keyboard (Option+0151 on a Mac). They are typically used with no spaces on either side, as shown below. More details here.

Em-dash in place of a colon
Option 1: My family only eats one thing: stale beans.
Option 2: My family only eats one thing—stale beans.

Em-dash in place of parentheses for emphasis
Option 1: Ronald lit a cigarette (the one I had poisoned) and took a deep drag.
Option 2: Ronald lit a cigarette—the one I had poisoned—and took a deep drag.

Em-dash in place of commas for emphasis
Option 1: I returned to the scene of the crime, ten years later, and dug up the jewels.
Option 2: I returned to the scene of the crime—ten years later—and dug up the jewels.

Em-dash to show someone being cut off by another speaker
Option 1:
He got down on his knees. “But honey, I’m sorry, I…”
She cocked the revolver. “Shut your face!”
Option 2:
He got down on his knees. “But honey, I’m sorry, I—”
She cocked the revolver. “Shut your face!”

Note how the use of the em-dash changes the effect of each sentence.  Also, while em-dashes are fun, make sure not to over-do it. Like exclamation points, make sure to use them sparingly so that their impact isn’t diluted.

Colons versus semicolons

In general, you should avoid the use of semicolons and colons in contemporary writing unless you absolutely have to. Many readers can’t parse these esoteric punctuation marks automatically, so a colon or semicolon risks breaking the reader’s immersion in the story. Writing is often stronger and easier to read if it’s broken up into separate sentences instead of joined with colons and semicolons.

That said, here’s how to use them correctly.

Use semicolons to link together related ideas.

Join two related sentences (independent clauses):
Don’t: Clifford bent down the branch, he wanted to launch the trapped cat.
Do: Clifford bent down the branch; he wanted to launch the trapped cat.

Connect list items that contain commas to avoid confusion:
Don’t: Watch out for hazards, namely, potholes, children, pets, and animals, zombies and ghosts, and angry police officers.
Do:
Watch out for hazards: potholes; children, pets, and animals; zombies and ghosts; and angry police officers.

Use colons only after a complete sentence to define an example or a list.

Don’t: I dislike: dogs, frogs, logs, and bogs.
Do: The things I dislike all rhyme: dogs, frogs, logs, and bogs.
Do: I dislike dogs, frogs, logs, and bogs.

More on semicolon and colon use.

How to share your work in Google Docs

Sharing your work in Google Docs is easy!

First, find the big blue “Share” button in the upper right corner:

A box will pop up with sharing settings.  To share with specific people, enter their email addresses in the “Add people or groups” box.

To share with anyone by sending them a link (e.g. for sharing on Discord), click “Change” in the bottom left:

The box will change.  If you want people to be able to leave comments on your writing within the document (highly recommended), change “Viewer” to “Commenter”:

Finally, click “Copy link” to copy the link to your clipboard.  Paste it anywhere else (email, chat, etc.) with Ctrl+V

How to format your story in Google Docs

Setting up your Google Doc for easy writing and reading only takes a few seconds.  You reader will thank you, and your future self will too!

These are industry-standard practices for manuscripts, but if you plan on submitting to an agent or publisher, please check to see if they have additional guidelines.  For further information on manuscript formatting, please see this example at Scribophile.com.

The Basics

  • One inch (3 cm) margins on all sides
  • Text aligned (justified) to the left side only
  • A legible 12-point font — usually Times New Roman or similar.
  • Line spacing set to “double spaced” — or “1.5x spaced” if you want it tighter
  • No indent on the first paragraph in a new scene
  • Indent set at 1/2 inch (1.5 cm) at every following paragraph, including dialogue lines
  • Full line breaks are only when starting a new scene — not on every paragraph
  • New chapters begin on a new page, using a page break
  • Only use a single space after sentences, not two spaces

An example is shown below:

Step By Step Guide For Google Docs

Below, we will go through how to make these changes step by step.

First, go to View > Show Ruler to display the ruler if you can’t already see it.

If you are working on an existing document, you may need to select all text using Ctrl + A or from the menu, Edit > Select all.

Select all text and set the font size and type in the menu bar.  Monospaced fonts like “Courier” are no longer widely used in literary manuscripts.

Set the line spacing to double-spaced or 1.5x-spaced in the menu bar:

Set the justification to left-align, if it’s not already:

Use the top square of the ruler tool to set the indent for all paragraphs to half an inch (0.50) or 1.5 cm.

Format your scenes with no indent in the first paragraph, and subsequent indents on all new paragraphs.  Start a new paragraph for each new speaker in dialogue, or each change of subject in non-dialogue.

Also, make a full line break for a new scene, and begin chapters on a new page.

An example is shown below: