The other day while editing a fiction manuscript I came across yet another character described as “nondescript”—a not uncommon literary dereliction of duty. Then a bit later I came upon the stale use of “the good doctor.” That jaunty old chestnut appears all too regularly and invariably gets on my nerves. 

You’ve heard again and again how empathetic, sensitive, and creative writers are, while editors are sometimes regarded as narrow-minded nit-pickers. But editors have feelings too (sort of).

I polled independent book editors to learn which minor—or maybe major—editorial gaffes regularly appear in the course of their editorial duties. What makes their teeth grind or brow furrow? What words or phrases do they long to strike out, and what makes them want to toss out an entire manuscript?

Nitpicky or not, authors are advised to heed the following editorial guardrails for their own good.  (Don’t poke the bear!) Read on, sensitive author, and learn what you should not do. 

How do I describe my character?

Gabriel Thibodeau objects to the description “beautiful without even knowing it,” saying, “If I see a character described this way one more time, my brain will most certainly tuck itself right to bed henceforth and forever.” 

Anne Horowitz adds: “A quirky thing that I’ve seen some writers do, in describing movement, is to break characters up into body parts:

  • ‘He walked down the hall, his eyes scanning the open doorways while his right hand gripped the knife.’
  • ‘She held the cigarette between her index and middle fingers while her upper body leaned out the window.’

Sort of cubist?”

Emily Murdock Baker finds it weird when writers describe “most of what a person is wearing but not all of it: ‘She wore a black blazer and a green blouse’— And … nothing else?”


So many times I have come across a whole paragraph composed of two words: “He blinked.” The average person blinks fifteen to twenty times per minute, yet fiction writers often memorialize blinks that are apparently indicative of … inner turmoil? shock?

Heather Lazare has a request for authors, “Can people please stop ‘quirking an eyebrow’? This is a contemporary romance and historical fiction hazard, specifically, but I’m sure it shows up elsewhere.” 

Also, Heather adds, “I fix this every three months on a new manuscript: ‘She nodded no,’ but they mean, ‘She shook her head no.’ Nodding is an assent, shaking is a dissent (in the US).”

As our time is limited today, we will not even go into the rampant overuse of winks and smirks. However, also on the list of physical-emotional reactions that put off Gabriel Thibodeau:

  • “knowing it in their heart”
  • “feeling their heart beating in their throat”

Yes, and sometimes the quest for telling physical reactions can actually get really gross, with twisty stomachs and odd gulps and unusual things throbbing.  

Meanwhile, Judy Sternlight winces “when writers include unmotivated stage directions along the lines of, ‘He raked his fingers through his hair again,’ or ‘She paced around the room.’ ” Says Judy, “I put in a little note sometimes: Why is he rubbing his hair? His scalp itches? His head is sweaty? What feeling in his body or mind is causing this action, or can you find a more specific physical reaction?”

Group action

I dislike when characters respond in unison, and also when they share reactions:

  • “Not again!” they yelled.
  • “They watched Desdemona’s face. They could see anger and hurt feelings battling against practicality.”

Keep it simple

Many objections were expressed by editors who thought authors at times get a bit too big for their britches, one example being when characters “alit”—often before a “mansion.”

Anne Horowitz objects to “striding” rather than walking, and to “donning” clothing instead of just putting it on.

Adds Mike Levine, “A close relative of Anne’s ‘donning’ of clothing that makes me smack my forehead with my palm—the same use of ‘sport,’ though the object of the verb expands well beyond clothing to pretty much anything: cosmetics, accents, hairstyles, injuries.”

Meghan Houser can’t stand it when writers use “in order to” when “to” would do—which is almost always. Heed her words: “Causation doesn’t need formal wear.”

One linguistic habit  Janet Benton always questions is “a number of.” “Ten,” she asks, “or two million?”

Michelle Wildgen says not to use “whilst” unless you’re actually British, and to avoid “seemingly” pretty much any time.

Brooke Carey advises non-Brits to not use “towards” instead of “toward”: “You just don’t need the extra s, but so many people think you do!”

She adds, “I’m also generally not a fan of ‘amongst’ or ‘amidst’ when ‘among’ and ‘amid’ are just fine.”

Writers are notorious for hitting the bottle, but editor Brooke doesn’t like the way drinking is frequently described in their writing. Seeking vindication from her peers in her hatred of the term “liquid” when just naming the type of liquid would suffice, Brooke says, “Typically this usage is preceded by an overly specific term to describe the color, e.g., ‘the amber liquid’ or ‘the turquoise liquid.’ This is most often used when writers are describing a woman drinking wine, as if describing the act of drinking wine in excruciating detail makes a scene more literary.”

“Don’t do this,” he emphatically hissed.

Near universal among editors polled was a dislike of decorative dialogue tags.

Says Pamela Erens,I dislike dialogue tags of all kinds. Just say ‘said’! Everything can be ‘said,’ as far as I’m concerned, all down the page, with an occasional ‘told her’ or ‘responded’— if one is really desperate.”

Brooke Carey agrees: “In journalism school, we were taught only to use ‘said’ as a dialogue tag, and I feel that has saved me and my clients from embarrassing ourselves.”

Note the exasperation as Emily Murdock Baker discusses writers futilely seeking alternatives for “asked” and “said”: “Breathed, whispered, shouted, yelled, etc.—Do you really need that, or is that word doing the heavy lifting your prose and dialogue should be doing?”

Emily is on a tear: “Ditto adverbs coupled with dialogue tags. I felt extremely vindicated when I came across Stephen King’s section on the scourge of adverbs in his wonderful book On Writing.

Spelling/grammar no-no’s

One editor reports constantly sees writers using “peak” or “peaked” when they mean “peek/peeked.” “Over the weekend I even saw it in something published,” she says. “I’m actually not sure if in eleven years I’ve ever edited something where either word was used correctly.”

A classic editorial complaint is the misuse of “lay” and “lie.” Says Anne Horowitz, “I’m always seeing characters who decide to lay down for a nap, or who had laid down for an hour. So it makes me happy when writers know when to use and how to conjugate this word.”

Anne is saddened, however, “by too many uncoordinated sentences with dangling phrases that don’t connect to the sentence’s grammatical subject”:

  • Walking toward us with her hair blowing in the breeze, I saw for the first time how beautiful she was.
  • Never a city girl, the constant traffic noise set me on edge.

Odd stylings

Emily Murdock Baker bemoans the random capitalization of Words! “So many of my Boomer clients do this, and I have no idea why. It’s usually nouns, and the first time I asked a client if he took German, he was very confused. They seem to think it’s kind of like using italics.”

In many manuscripts I’ve noted odd Sweethearts and incorrect Sirs, but I also regularly come across Mom and Dad being used the opposite of correctly.

  • No: “I love my Mom,” said mom.
  • Yes: “I love my mom,” said Mom.

Scare quotes

Quotation marks are sometimes used around a word or phrase when not required, with the intention of emphasis. Says Michelle Wildgen, “Top of my list is quotation marks around commonly known phrases, as in, ‘He is a “big deal.” ’ It always reminds me of the time my father-in-law asked me if I was familiar with ‘kale.’”

And finally, these are not one word:


Whew! I feel so light and breezy and so much better after getting all that off my chest. I hope my colleagues do as well.


What quirky stylings or regular errors in prose do you come across that really bug you? Share with us on Facebook!