Friday, April 10, 2020

The Spit Shine: Things to Check Before You Submit (or Publish) Your Novel

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

There's a lot to remember when revising a novel, so here's a list of words to check before you declare that novel "finished." 

I love checklists, especially ones that I can use to easily improve my manuscript. My master editing list is always a favorite, and I like to bring it out at least once a year for the new readers. For long-time readers, I've added a few new words as well.

One of the last things I do with a novel before I call it "done," is to go through a list of words I know I overuse (or misuse), words I shouldn't use many of, words that often spell trouble, and words to avoid. I search for each one and decide if I really need it, or if the sentence would be better without it. It's boring and tedious, but it does force me to focus on those little edits that can really tighten a manuscript.

I call it the spit shine.

This long list has developed over years from various books, posts, conferences, etc. on how to write and edit. I've found it very helpful in cleaning up stragglers and tightening the prose.

Even better, after you've done this a few times, you'll stop using a lot of these words, because you've trained yourself out of it. Your early drafts will be tighter and need less editing.

One caveat though--don't cut a word simply because there's a "never do X" rule attached to it.

Sometimes a "bad" word says exactly what you want it to say, or provides the best rhythm for word flow, or works as a judgment word for your point of view character.

Just because a word is on this list does NOT mean it has to be changed at all costs. It just means think about why and how you're using it and if there's a better way to say what you want to say. Usually you can. But if you can't (or don't want to), leave it.

Words Commonly Goofed

These are words that are often misused. You could add homonyms to this list, but those are just too difficult to search for. Imagine how many their, they're, and there are in a manuscript. Yikes.

Who vs that
Few vs less
Farther vs further
Which vs that
Only and just (are they modifying the right word)
Bring vs take
In vs into
On vs onto

(Here's more on Laying it on the Lie: Commonly Misused Words)

Words to Avoid

These words you can almost always cut without losing anything from the sentence. Often there's another word that makes them redundant.

In order

(Here's more on Tightening Your Novel With a Preposition Patrol)

Words to Rethink

These are words that often show up in told prose or explanatory prose. They can also signal a telegraph of out of sequence stimulus/response.


(Here's more on I Told You: Mental Signposts That Tell, Not Show)

Words That Often Spell Trouble

These are words that keep readers out of the moment or aren't as active as they ought to be. Adverbs, passive verbs, passive writing.

Was, were (especially the was -ing forms)
Have, had
Will be
To be

(Here's more on The Real Problem With Passive Voice in Fiction)

Words That Often Indicate Weak Prose 

Some words read just fine, but if you tweak them a little, it can strengthen the story and turn a lot of "good" sentences into great sentences.


Now the Hard Part

Search your manuscript for each word and examine the sentence. Ask:
  • If I cut the word, does the sentence read better? 
  • If I reword the sentence to eliminate the word, does it read better? 
  • Is there a stronger verb or noun I could use? 
  • Can I rewrite the sentence in a more active fashion? 
  • Can I be more descriptive or am I relying on boring words?
  • Can I rewrite it so it's more in the voice of my character?

Yes, it's a pain, and it does take a ton of time, but weak words creep into our writing without us even realizing it. It's amazing how much better a scene reads after you've gone trough this list and edited the weak areas. Checking smaller sections at a time does make it easier--I break the manuscript into quarters before I edit, and sometimes I'll review three chapters at a time.

A little extra polish can make the difference between good writing and great writing. And that can make the difference between "you're a talented writer but..." and "let's talk representation."

ETA: Tech Tools for Writers made a macro using this list (and others) to help writers spot troublesome words for those interested.

Do you have a spit shine list? Are there things you check last before submitting your work?

*Originally published February 2010. Latest update April 2020.

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Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. I am working on always having a thesaurus nearby so that when I'm thinking of using a common word I try and use something similiar but still fits!!!

    Great post!

  2. Eeek. Guess that means I get to start compiling another list.

    I'm already having to go back and create my character bibles. And maps. (Ulgh! Both are a pain to make when you're already sitting on most of a written novel.) The style sheet's actually fun, but it's distracting, because it makes me want to compare the grammar mechanics of my work with someone else's.

    Thanks for that handy word list! I'll have to use it as a starting point when I get to that step in drafting.

  3. Great list!!!!
    Another thing is to look out for your own personal list of overused words. I just finished a book that used an uncommon word over and over and over again. Everytime I saw it I wanted to pull my hair out.

  4. Early risers today! Three comments so fast.

    I've read books like that. I've written them, too, probably, LOL.

    I'm actually about to do the map for book two. Did one for Shifter, did a rough one for S2, but it never occurred to me to do a nice one for the publisher. I'm not sure if it's easier or harder to do them after the fact. On one hand, you have to find all the references you made in the book and make sure they're consistent on the map, on the other, you have a guide so they start out consistent.

    I used to compare myself to Dave Duncan a lot, but that was when I was trying to figure out why his prose sounded so great. I just love the way he writes, and while I didn't want to copy him, I wanted to know how he managed it. It was a great learning experience, actually. I have one of his books all highlighted with notes and stuff.

  5. The word 'that' is my nemesis. 'Just' isn't far behind. I'm using the Find function also and one of my critique members nails me by highlighting every time I use those words which is really helpful -- although slightly embarrassing!

  6. Kristi, I have a friend who does that for me. My pages always come back in so many pretty colors, hehe. Makes me cringe, but I love her for it.

  7. I am so glad you started this whole revision series as I'm nearing the end of my revisions. This has been so helpful.

    Gary Corby's post is fantastic too, I had no idea you could do that with autocorrect.

  8. There's a way to make this easier!

    Check out the AutoCrit Editing Wizard. It finds all those problem words for you and gives you an estimate of whether you have 'too many' or 'just the right amount'. It saves me a ton of time and definitely reduces the boredom factor :-)

  9. The only problem with that, is that the number of them doesn't matter much. It's how you use them that does. An "acceptable" number of them when 90% of those are used in badly written sentences is bad. An "unacceptable" number used in well-written sentences is good.

  10. Janice, you have no idea how many of your posts I have saved for reference. Thank you so much for sharing your experience. I'm just beginning revisions, and already my head is swimming! Thanks again!

  11. I believe you can set Microsoft Word's Find… Replace function to also check formatting, so it might then be possible to find a word you overuse and replace it with a highlighted version throughout your work.

    Honestly, I prefer using square brackets, myself, instead of highlighter. I'll bracket notes, words that aren't quite right, awkward-sounding sentences, data that needs to be verified, names that need filling in—anything I'll need to come back to. Because square brackets aren't used in fiction. :-) Makes it a breeze to find things later with the "Find" function.

    I've recently started dabbling with highlighter, but I still think I prefer square brackets.

    • • • • •

    On the topic of learning from author styles, I'm a big fan of Kathy Tyers (Christian sci-fi). My username, Carradee, comes from her Firebird series (and is a Jamaican bird, for that matter).

    When I started writing, we were very similar in our writing. Oddly enough, I found entire sentences and descriptions that matched up between her novels and writing I'd done before I'd even known about her books. Every one of her books has an unusual name and a plot element that I'd dabbled with somewhere before I'd known anything about her book.

    She's also an author who has both an original and a revised version published of a few of her novels. The original Firebird and Fusion Fire were even expanded into three books. Our original similarities meant I got a lot of help comparing her original and revised versions.

    I still use techniques I picked up and loved from her. I doubt anyone but me can see our similarities now.

  12. Darn, that's a long comment. *blushes* I'll trash it if you want.

  13. What a great list! And now, I think I'll go delete half my MS! (No not really. Just a little bit of it.) Having a few of those words helps it sounds like the character, so I've allowed a little bit to stay in, but not much;)

    As for the Microsoft word find, I've heard it doesn't work on Macs. *snaps fingers* Darn!

  14. Thanks for this list, Janice. I use search and find to clear out the clutter when I revise, but this list is much longer than mine. I'll save this one to use when I revise again.

  15. Um, Microsoft Word "Find" works fine on Macs—at least with Office 2004. Macs can also use a handy program called Scrivener, which I recommend you try if you use Mac OS 10.4+. (No, I'm not an affiliate.)

  16. Most welcome all. And no worries on long posts. :)

  17. This is very good advice, but I'm surprised people haven't been using these WORD functions a lot. Maybe it's because I work with computers a lot (did a BSc in Software Engineering and presently doing a Masters in Computer Security), I've always used these Find/Replace functions in WORD, plus other really cool features :D

  18. A comprehensive list. What a great resource. You've given me more words to look for. Thanks!

  19. I've also found that using Find/Replace to make words you're worried about bold and red, you can easily flip through and see how many pop out at you. I do this with fantasy-based words/terms (like Saints and sinners!)that work in small does but are too much if there's a lot of them.

  20. Not only will this help me tighten up mt writing, it also serves as my review for the English part of college entrance tests! Haha, thanks!

    Great post, Janice :D

  21. Thank you. I'm cleaning up a few chapters today and this list will help me tighten up my MS even more. Great resource.

  22. I have a "spit shine" list similar to yours, not quite as long, but growing steadily. One item on it is not a common one. I got it from a writing colleague on It's called "You know, Bobs,"; basically an info dump that occurs at the end of a paragraph, most commonly after dialogue, where a piece of info or back story is abruptly dumped into the story and has the feeling of a know-it-all boring the reader with a mundane piece of trivia.

    EX: (You know, Bob), the killer always wears black so the blood of his victims isn't noticeable from a distance.

  23. I LOVE how you broke this down! I have a list of words and phrases I watch for but it's all jumbled up. I'm so taking a page out of your book :) Thanks!

  24. This is a good list; I have several types of lists like this bookmarked but this is good to have all together!

  25. Just added this post to my "editing" file. Thanks for the great list.

  26. This is a fab list and getting bookmarked; thank you for posting it.

  27. Gellie, double win!

    Kerry Ann, glad I pulled it out then :) Good luck on your clean ups.

    ChiTrader, I know the "As you know, Bob" infodump well. Good thing to watch out for.

    Raelyn, thanks! I found the smaller chunks make it easier. I feel like I'm making more progress when I can cross off a section.

    Stephsco, thanks! I have it saved so I can cross the off as I go. (well, I color them as I go and make them all black again when I'm done)

    LD, most welcome!

    VikLit, you're very welcome. Hope it helps!

  28. Check lists are awesome. Thanks for compiling this one. Another great thing to watch for is over-used sentence structures. My husband realized that I like to start sentences with ing words - a lot. Now I have to proof read for that, too. Yippy!

  29. Love this post. It is always good to have check lists to remember for you. I adore the control F so I can see just how obsessed I am with a first in my story. Once found I can go in and rework it.

  30. Great post Janice. Couldn't have come at a better time.

    I have a question and am hoping you and the other writers that follow this blog could answer it.

    Should the preposition "down" be taken out of a sentence when referring to action happening right then.
    Example: She sat down on the corner of the bed and cried.
    She sat on the corner of the bed and cried.

    My husband, who is not a native English speaker but speaks English fluently along with other languages (therefore an in-house grammar expert), says that when we see the action, the preposition "down" needs to be included. When we are describing a scene (no action) then it can be left off.

    I've seen it both ways and so would like more opinions from other writers. Thanks!

  31. Heather, a good thing to add. Those introductory clauses can start to sound repetitive with a lot in a row.

    Inkingdreams, control F is your friend :) I make liberal use of mine as well.

    PBuff, I cut it, since sitting implies down (unless you specify someone is sitting up). Like drop down to the ground. You can't drop "up" and the ground is "down" so it's unnecessary. But I've seen it used both ways, and if you prefer to keep the down you can. I'd go with whichever sounds better to your ear.

  32. EXCELLENT!! Just bookmarked this, Janice. THANKS!

  33. That was my instinct, too. Just that my husband was so certain that I started to doubt myself.


  34. Hi Janice ;o) Love the post!

    When I'm reading, the further/farther thing drives me nuts. It's my #2 pet peeve (behind misuse of the word 'prodigal').

  35. Christina, most welcome!

    PBuff, writing is funny sometimes. "Rules" aren't always the right way to go. My best friend is a linguistic anthropologist, and she talks a lot about how grammar is fluid. It's more about how language is currently used than the rules. You can be right about something, but if everyone else feels you're wrong you appear wrong and it looks like a mistake.

    J-Cheney, ooo that gets me too. Same with less/fewer. Oh and lie/lay. And decimate!!!! That's almost always used wrong and it makes me crazy. Don't even get me started on nauseous or peruse. Hmm, I have a lot of pet peeve words now that I think about it.

  36. Wow, what a helpful list! Thanks Janice!! :) e

  37. E, most welcome :) This list grows every year. I keep adding to it.

  38. Thanks Miss Hardy! Sigh...but do you know the funny thing? I have been told that I should use 'simpler' words rather than more 'complicated' ones. I.e I'll use 'peered, glimpsed' etc but then be told just to use the word 'look'. I was told that big words can make my writing 'ponderous'. I've always liked the idea of being expressive and using a thesaurus but it seems some don't think it necessary.
    I guess in the end , so far you dont break any major rules, your story is YOUR story to be told, eh?

  39. Sifushka, oh, that's got to be frustrating. I'm so sorry. Well, it does depend on how and where you use them (like everything else). If you're using big words and they don't fit the character or the situation, they can jump out at the reader and in deed feel ponderous. If you have a literate narrator who uses big words all the time, then they'd feel right for that character. Though I use peer and glimpse all the time, so those ought to fit fine unless they're in spots that don't work from a definition standpoint. Peer doesn't mean quite the same thing as gaze, for example, but both would be synonyms for look.

    Your story is yours to be told however you think it should be. Rules be dashed. Though if you break the rules, it's always smart to know why you're breaking them. If you like the big words, use them, just make sure they fit the character and are being used properly for what you're trying to say.

  40. Great post Janice! Am putting it to good use. I do have a question-- can you show me an example of what you mean about the word 'since' sometimes being a telling 'flag? Am going through my WIP now and want to make sure I root out telling where it needs to be showing. Thanks!

  41. Angela, let's see... "Since he couldn't find his keys, Bob grabbed Jane's instead." Basically anything where "since" explains why someone is doing something as if in an aside to the reader. Frequently you'll see it as a clause of some type. Introductory or parenthetical. "He ran down to the creek, since he didn't want to go to the movies, and found Jack on the rocks."

  42. That makes total sense, thank you! Sometimes I can only 'get it' if I can see it :)

  43. It's funny how cutting out some things, makes you realize even more words can be cut. For instance, here's the original: "Since he suspected her retort to be born of those emotions, he decided to hazard revealing more. If she were truly to be a party to this, she deserved to know some of the truth."

    On one pass, searching for filter words, I'd cut it to: "Since he suspected her retort to be born of those emotions, he hazarded revealing more. If she were truly to be a party to this, she deserved to know some of the truth."

    Now that I'm searching for since (thank you!), it made me realize that the action clause it was showing a motivation for was telling something that I show in the next sentence, so now it reads:

    "He suspected her retort to be born of those emotions. If she were truly to be a party to this, she deserved to know some of the truth."

    I think the sense is still there, right?

  44. Angela, yep. The final reads much more smoothly than the original as well.

  45. Hi Janice
    Thanks for this wonderful post, I have referred back to it on numerous occasions, it's very useful!

    BUT... a question. In the "words to avoid", buried amongst the prepositions is the word 'sat'.

    Why? I've been pondering that one for a while now and can;t imagine why it's a no-no word.

  46. Jo, I've found sat is something I use a lot of, and it's a flat word. The book sat on the desk. They sat near each other on the couch. I can usually do a lot better if I revise to cut it (not always, but often). If sat isn't a troublemaker word for you, don't worry about it.

  47. Just started putting my first novel on paper, these tips are wonderful! I will refer to them often during the process. Thank you!

    1. Most welcome, glad they're helpful! Good luck on that first novel.

  48. Excellent post, information that, to me, is priceless. Thank YOU!

  49. Excellent post, information that, to me, is priceless. Thank YOU!

  50. Added your 'spit shine' list to my many files with editing lists. Thank you so much Janice, greatly appreciated!

    One day - I hope to combine all the many lists into one long helpful file :)

    1. Me too! Though I think that would make a book at this point, hehe.

  51. One thing I look for after each draft I do is:
    Did I start the paragraph right? Should I bring in the last sentence from the previous one, or leave out this first one? Did I end the paragraph right? Is it too soon or do I need to break up this paragraph?

    1. Good questions! We look at how chapters start and end all the time, but we don't always remember to share that love with our paragraphs. :)

  52. This is so helpful. Thanks Janice, for sharing. @sheilamgood at Cow Pasture Chronicles