Thursday, March 3, 2016

Editors Speak: Things that Make Our Eyes Twitch

The IFW Editors

A couple of weeks ago, our editors contributed to a conversation about pet peeves, which led to last week’s blog on commonly confused words. Our editors are concerned about things that happen in writing that confuse the reader or pull her/him out of the story. Following are some of the things our editors advised writers to avoid.


What drives me crazy is head-hopping. I've even seen it in published books—such as one from a best-selling author. In the middle of a dramatic scene, the main character is thinking of leaving her family and moving to the city to go to school. It was well written—until the author popped into the maid's POV to describe what the character looked like. At that point I tossed the book across the room.


Personification. Or, maybe I should say unintentional personification, because sometimes writers can intentionally use personification for comedic relief or for effect. But when you’re just reading along and see something like, “his knee didn’t notice the tree limb” or “the clock smiled down from the mantle,” you just scratch your head.


I hate excessive “shopping lists.” He opened the suitcase and found underwear bleached sparkling white, undershirts that matched the underwear, socks in every dark color, brand-name deodorant, a razor and a replacement blade, a yellow toothbrush, mint whitening toothpaste, and the strongest mouthwash on the market. After the first two items, the reader’s eyes glaze over—if they haven’t quit reading. Decide what's most important and never list more than three items. And, if none of them are important, skip the details!


Some writers fail to mention a character’s name on the first page, using “he” or “she” over and over. Perhaps they think this adds mystery or intrigue, but all it really does is prevent the reader from feeling any sort of empathy for the character.

The converse is just as distressing, such as when ten or twelve new characters are introduced by name on the first page. How on earth can we make sense of that many people, especially when we don't know who is the main character?


One of my pet peeves: Long, rambling sentences that go on and on and start with one subject but end up with an entirely different subject, like a vacation that gets sidetracked because the map has a crease in it, which happened frequently before the days of cell phones and GPS devices, which have changed the world as we know it--and, perhaps, changed the subject of our sentence as well.


One concerning thing that drives me crazy is the tendency of some writers to find up to a zillion ways to overuse prepositions in a sentence throughout a story until the sanity of the reader begins to melt into an abyss of blackness. YIKES! Cut the insanity! Cut the prepositions!


Too many adjectives. And adverbs. And ellipses. And exclamation marks. And sentences that begin with conjunctions.


This one recently became a pet peeve of mine: using unnecessarily large (read: pretentious) adjectives. I was reading a style guide that preached “simple and direct,” but every other word was annoyingly complex or obscure. Another pet peeve is using two or three adjectives in a series—to describe a single item—but the adjectives are all synonyms.


It annoys me when a character “gawks”: John noticed the wind rustling the leaves of the oak tree instead of Wind rustled the leaves of the oak tree. A “gawking character” exists whenever a writer places a character between a reader and the action. Another example: Angelica heard the truck round the bend and saw it come down the street. Instead, write: Tires squealed, then a pickup sped around the bend and down the street.


My pet annoyance is errors in paragraphing, such as when a paragraph includes dialogue (without tags) from one character and action from another. Example:

"Hey, Pops! Want to see me do a cartwheel?" He sucked on his pipe. 

 "Can you also do a split?" She sneezed six times, then nodded.

This should be written:

"Hey, Pops! Want to see me do a cartwheel?" 

 He sucked on his pipe. "Can you also do a split?" 

 She sneezed six times, then nodded.

Then we know who is speaking.


My peeve: Using "creative" dialogue tags that don't make sense:
“It was free,” I scowled. “What more do you want?”

“Extra jelly,” she laughed.

You can't smile, scowl or even laugh words! You can say them, scream them, and state them, amongst others. You can also say something, then smile, scowl, or laugh. But these are actions and require a sentence of their own. They are not dialogue tags!


We have tip sheets to address most of these situations, so if there are any you want to study in more depth, let us know and we’ll be happy to send you a tutorial.

Do you have the same pet peeves as us? Are there any annoying writing habits that aren't on our list that you think should be? Tell us your thoughts in the comments.


  1. Hi IFW Editors. I also don't like gawking characters and creative dialog tags. And, I don't like it when a person writes an entire paragraph telling what a person is wearing or looks like.

    1. Agreed, Janet! Thanks for your comment.