Dr. Noelle Sterne
Pets can be wonderful—I loved my orange and white cat. But when I received an editorial critique before publication of my short story “Casey,” I was horrified to learn it sheltered a whole menagerie of unwanted editorial pets —words, phrases, and grammatical constructions.
“Casey” is a story about a middle-school boy who discovered he had healing powers. Receiving the acceptance email, I was elated. Then the editor emailed me again and let me have it: “Every author has pet words and phrases. Part of my job is to point them out so you can get rid of them.” She attached the manuscript and highlighted a herd of my pet words and phrases, in oxblood.
I’d rewritten this story until it shone like Waterford in sunlight—so I thought. But if I wanted the piece published, I saw I’d have to swallow my martyred hours and get back to work.
The favorites my editor skewered may be more subtle than the common ones we’ve all read about and used: passive tense carelessness (“The computer was powered up by the writer.”), adverbial exploitation (“really,” “definitely,” “very,” “weakly”), and modifiers grasping for anchoring nouns (“Writing this article, the errors were glaring.”). Instead, here, blushingly, I let out my top four pet words and phrases so you can train your own from “Stay” to “Delete.”
And or But
And do you start a sentence with a conjunction? But I’d always thought this pet conveyed a gracious transition. My editor pointed out my penchant for beginning sentences with these offenders. In the first twelve pages, she circled seven instances. Here, with introductory context, are three:
- Casey’s mother talking about a neighbor’s boy: And Clive has a lot of friends, he’s good at sports, I think he’s in the band too. And he’s so smart. I just wish some of it could rub off on Casey.
- Casey thinking about the girl he idolizes at school: And when he was blessed enough to pass her in the hall between classes, he peeked at her chest.
- Casey thinking about Clive: But who could argue with his perfect answers, perfect grades, perfect manners not only with every grown-up but even with the other kids?
And I could go on.
The conjunction isn’t needed to make these points. In fact (another pet?), without the conjunction, the sentences are stronger and cleaner. My editor added, not unreasonably, that occasional use of a conjunction is fine. But too much is too much. And I had to admit she was right.
Now and Then
These conjunctions may seem to add to the flow, which accounts for their elevation to pethood. My editor, though, highlighted without mercy:
- Casey at his job in the supermarket: He’d finished the vegetables and fruit and now headed for Aisle 9, Pet Supplies.
- Morton, whose dog is ill, on taking him to the vet: But she saw now she might not be able to avoid going.
- Casey as he feels his schoolmate Clive’s head injury after Clive falls: He could hardly see now, his head hurt so much.
It’s true that “now” can add to the sense, but if you mentally delete the “nows” above you’ll see they’re usually unnecessary. When I searched and destroyed, I found twenty-two(!) instances of the pet “now” and reluctantly shooed them out to pasture.
Then there’s “then.” Like “now,” “then” seems to give just the right hint of time passing. This pet, though, clung persistently to my manuscript, especially to start sentences:
- Casey looking at a can of dog food: But then the picture pulled him.
- Morton, trying to help her sick dog, Binky: Then, carefully avoiding his paw, she tucked her special blanket around him.
- Corinne listening to her ill baby: Then she heard three more hiccoughs.
- A paramedic at Clive’s side: Then he shook his head, looking down.
I ferreted out and fixed twenty-eight of these rascals. Simple deletion tightened the writing and accelerated the action.
The Verb with the ‘-ing’ Tail
This pet, seemingly so innocent, sidles up and settles because of its mellifluous and possibly logical sound and sense. In pedigreed grammatical circles, it’s called the “past continuous” with the gerund verb form. The phrases, though, should make our editorial guard dogs yowl:
- Casey’s father was finishing his coffee.
- Binky was sitting on his hind paws on her bed.
Once you’re addicted to this construction, it can rule you. But (or And or Then) I couldn’t stop myself from a variation:
- The baby kept rasping and gulping.
- Clive’s blood kept seeping out, forming a pool on the cement floor.
After the editor commented on a couple of these, I combed the manuscript and nailed thirteen embarrassments of “was/kept ___ings.”
Rarely does this form add anything to narrative or tone. When you substitute the simple past (“finished,” “sat,” “rasped”), nothing is lost. “Was” and “kept” aren’t inherently bad words, but with substitution or deletion of the simple pasts, you gain directness, conciseness, and forward movement.
Despite unremitting revisions, the same-start pet of beginning consecutive paragraphs with the same word may sprawl lazily across your pages. I checked all thirty-five pages and found fourteen sluggish reps:
- Casey felt his cheeks grow hot. He wasn’t slacking off, like some of the boys in the back who were supposed to unload the cartons off the truck. They sat outside for fifteen minutes at a time, sneaking smokes, watching girls.
- Casey jogged over to Aisle 15, Baby Needs. Waiting there, blocking the aisle, were two carts stacked higher than the dog food.
Varying the openings demands innovative retraining and revision. For example, after cajoling myself with special treats, I revised the second example above:
- “’Fifteen,’ Casey repeated silently, ‘Baby Needs.’ He jogged over.”
Consistent Pet Discipline
Throughout “Casey,” my repetitions of unacceptable writing behavior shocked me. Nevertheless, none of these pet words and phrases is willfully unruly, ungrammatical, or illiterate in itself. It’s the overuse that needs a firmer hand and pen. Of all these pets, and others I kept finding (oops), in the final draft I retained a few instances that seemed appropriate and enhanced the meaning. (After I sent the revised manuscript, my editor patted me on the head anyway.)
Pets can be wonderful, snuggling with you on the sofa, romping with the kids, snoring at your feet. But they shouldn’t be allowed to loll and nestle in your pages. Discipline your pet words and phrases and show them who’s pack leader.
When you practice the training tips here, you’ll assert your dominance as an alpha writer. You’ll train your pet words and phrases not to run wild and trample all over your manuscript. Your pets will behave better, obey on command, and loyally play their part in giving your readers the pleasure and power of your words.
© 2017 Noelle Sterne
Author, editor, writing coach, writing workshop leader, and spiritual counselor, Noelle has published over 400 writing craft articles, spiritual pieces, essays, and short stories. Publications include Author Magazine, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Children’s Book Insider, Coffeehouse For Writers, Funds for Writers, InnerSelf, Inside Higher Ed, New Age Journal, Pen & Prosper, Sasee, Story Monsters Ink, The Write Place At the Write Time, Unity Magazine, Writer’s Journal, Writing in a Woman’s Voice, The Writer, and Writer’s Digest. Academic editor and coach, with the Ph.D. from Columbia University, she helps doctoral students wrestling with their dissertations and publishes articles in several blogs for dissertation writers. Her book Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books) contains examples from her practice, writing, and other aspects of life to help readers release regrets, relabel their past, and reach lifelong yearnings. Her book Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping With the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2015) further aids doctoral candidates to award of their degrees. As part of pursuing her writing Dream, Noelle’s mission is to help other writers reach their own and create the lives they truly desire.
Author, Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams. Unity Books, 2011.
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