the book doctor: tips on style




Many of the manuscripts we are sent have great ideas for stories. What they don't have is a readable style. Below are tips on some of the most common stylistic problems we encounter in manuscripts.

Most of the problems created by using these poor techniques can be avoided with stringent editing. While there are times when all of the things mentioned here will be desirable, when they appear not from choice but from lack of choice, they work against it.


  • Remove passive verb constructions.

The wind was humming through the trees. A hammock had been tied to the bottom branches. In its capacious depths, Mattie was curled up, reading a book.

Where possible, use an active verb form. This gives immediacy to the scene, adds a bit of forward movement, and shortens the sentence:

The wind hummed through the trees. A hammock swung from the bottom branches. In its capacious depths, Mattie curled up and read her book.


  • Avoid generalities.

The meadow was full of grass and flowers.

As a reader knows that these are in a meadow, there is no need to say it. Be specific:

The meadow glowed, red poppies stitched against the silver shiver of new grass.


  • Use details that reveal something of plot and character.

Sally opened the door and dumped the groceries on the kitchen table.

This tells us little about Sally, who does just what everyone else in the world does:

Sally kneed open the door, tripped over the cat and deposited the groceries on the kitchen floor. 'Stuff it,' she told the cat, and left them there.


  • Avoid adjectives and adverbs that judge, and stick with those that describe.

The vicious man in the hideous black coat towered menacingly over the frightened boy.

Using value-laden qualifiers pushes the reader out of the story. Your job is to provide enough information that the reader can read your work and think, 'Gee, that must have been scary!' without your having to point it out and put flashing stars around it:

The black-coated man towered over the boy.


  • Avoid trite expressions.

Jennifer giggled and skipped down the path.

Actually, kids don't giggle and skip that often, and unless she has heard a joke and is using a skipping-rope, Jennifer probably doesn't do these things either:

Jennifer meandered down the path.


  • Show, don't tell.

Buster didn't care when other children laughed at his dog.

Because he doesn't notice, or because they're not important, or why? Show Buster responding to the laughter directly:

'Let them laugh,' he told Towser, scratching his ugly dog's ears. 'Who needs them?'

He was happy.

How do you know?

He punched the air. 'Yes!'


  • Write from the protagonist's point of view.

Kevin cowered in the corner. The obnoxious kid, who was so big he must have been in Grade Two, looked very pugnacious.

Kevin, who is not yet in Grade Two, would not use words like 'pugnacious' or think of himself as 'cowering.' He probably wouldn't think in formal relative clauses, either.

Kevin squeezed himself into the corner. The mean kid must have been in Grade Two, he was so big. He looked like he wanted a fight.


  • Don't patronise your readers.

Do you know what a mouse is? It's a teeny weeny, furry animal with a long, long, tail.

Assume they are at least as smart as you and know many of the same things.

The mouse had lost the tip of his tail in a discussion with the kitchen cat.


  • Avoid cute.




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