Self Editing for Fiction #9 ~ Sophistication

Sliding off of his bunk, Richard slipped on a dirty T-shirt that lay on the floor and hastily acquired a fresh pair of boxer shorts from his bedside table before circumnavigating the accumulated piles of junk strewn all over his bedroom floor to find out who the f*ck was bothering him at this ungodly hour. Ricky was not the tidiest of people, and certainly not a morning person.
As he looked at his Rolex Cosmograph Daytona wristwatch, he went into the kitchen and splashed some water over his pounding head. If only that f*cking jerk would stop ringing the doorbell! he thought.

This passage I cobbled together contains quite a few style sins. I will list them in order.

‘as’ and ‘-ing’ constructions: starting too many sentences with these is nowadays regarded as hack writing by some industry professionals – plus, the simultaneity they sometimes suggest makes many of them technically impossible. In the first sentence Richard dons a T-shirt and rummages in his bedside table *at the same time* as he slides off his bunk. Similarly, in the second paragraph he’s looking at his wristwatch all the while he’s going to the kitchen and splashing water over his head. There are, of course, instances where they are suitable, but be careful not to overdo their use, and look out for simultaneity paradoxes.

Word order: it is always worth checking for ambiguity: Richard ‘slipped on a T-shirt’ can be read two ways – he can put it on or actually lose his footing. ‘Slipped a T-shirt on’ is an easy fix here (though other fixes in the first sentence are also required).

Profanity: is usually best kept to a minimum and (generally) restricted to dialogue only. The reader soon tires of serial cussing for the sake of it – a single F-bomb in the entire novel can have far more effect on the reader than a hundred of them. Soft profanity is generally advised in Interior Monologue and Point of View, such as ‘heck’, ‘hell’, or even a more active adjective, such as ‘persistent jerk’ in the second paragraph.

Exclamation marks: avoid using them unless a character is shouting in dialogue – and never splice a load of ’em together!!!

Consistency: be careful not to confuse the reader by switching from Richard to Ricky – as a reader I’m often wrong-footed by contractions or nicknames given to the character’s name (usually in another character’s dialogue).

Overt explanation: any reader with a brain will infer that Richard is untidy and a late sleeper without being told as much – don’t make the reader feel patronized by stating the obvious.

Product placement: is even a sin of many iconic thriller authors – they seem to be unable to resist regaling us with Jimmy Choo, Rolex, and/or their favorite vehicle and exclusive resorts. The odd placement is acceptable but making the novel read like a Vogue magazine irritates more readers than it impresses. Here is an excerpt from the salient Self Editing for Fiction Writers courtesy Renni Browne and Dave King:

“… We once worked on a manuscript in which the hero drove a Porsche Targa. Evidently this was the author’s dream car, because he mentioned it every chance he got. After forty or fifty pages of “hopping in the Targa,” and “taking the Targa to the Hendrick’s,” and “running the Targa out to Long Island,” one of our editors took to writing “Just call it the car!” in the margins. …”

Other considerations:

Avoid using certain types of vernacular in your narrative – e.g. ‘Sliding off of his bunk’ does not need the of at all; always check for redundant vernacular as you edit.

Avoid using repetitive beats: I once became so tired of reading about an MC making coffee every other scene, I wrote in an edit where the coffee machine exploded…

Once is usually enough: try to avoid telling the reader things more than once – credit them with having a brain; check for repetition as you edit.

~ ~ ~

It’s hard to make the example above into killer prose, so I won’t bother – but here’s a less crappy version:

Ricky slid off his bunk, grabbed a dirty T-shirt from the floor and slipped it on. He rummaged in his bedside table for a fresh pair of boxers, then circumnavigated
the junk strewn over his bedroom floor. Who the hell could be bothering him at this ungodly hour?
He peered at his wristwatch, went into the kitchen, and splashed some water over his pounding head. If only that persistent jerk would stop ringing the doorbell…

~ ~ ~

There are many more aspects of sophistication and I welcome any feedback about them in the comments field.

Next up: Self editing 4 fiction #10 ~ Opening Moves

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  1. I don't agree with some rule about not using 'as' or a gerund phrase at the beginning of a sentence being somehow declared (not sure by whom) as 'hack writing'. If it logical, as in the actions are simultaneous, there is nothing wrong with doing so. There is something wrong with making up arbitrary rules that have nothing to do with correct grammar. Like any structure, it shouldn't be over-done and must be used correctly.

    1. The "hack writing" statement was taken from Renni Browne and Dave King's book on editing - though I agree that there are instances where simultaneity qualify their use. Grammar is not the issue, rather suitability. Sorry about the late reply, I didn't get a notification.

  2. Good tips, Stef. "Off of" is a crime--who started that, anyway? And nothing says "sophistication" like Cary. ;-)

    1. Thanks! Who knows where that came from?

  3. I hate seeing profanity or taboo language in literature. The context should convey those emotions.

  4. The style is pretty flaccid, and I'd red-pencil the whole thing. It lacks tension. It does, however, convey some interesting stuff about the character. He's a slob. He wears t-shirts. He's irritable and profane. But the thing that jreallyumps out in this is the author's choice of the Rolex. Not just a Rolex, but a Rolex Cosmosgraph Daytona. He's trying to make that watch say something about the character, So rather than wasting my time with the Daytona Cosmograph nonsense (it isn't a product placement, Ian Fleming) gimve the reader something else. "He glanced at his Rolex. The watch gave him pleasure even now. He was a guy who could afford a Rolex and he was damned if he wanted to be disturbed at this time of day." Or something along those lines.
    But as I say, this is a rather trenchant example of bad writing for a ton of reasons, most discussed above. The construction is weak, but the worst sin is that it wavers in its voice. If you're choosing a profane rude voice, make it believable. Otherwise it's just unpleasant. I need something I can root for.

    1. I agree - even more so if it is introducing a character.

  5. This is an incredibly helpful post. Thank you for sharing!

  6. I've just discovered this and all the previous posts on editing. Very timely. Excellent stuff.