Monday, October 11, 2010

Five Ways to Make Every Word Count: A Guest Post by Literary Agent Sammie Justesen

As a literary agent and publisher, I see mistakes from hundreds of authors. Certain basic errors mark writers as careless or unwilling to edit their work.

I hope these five tips will enhance your writing repertoire.

Avoid Vampire Verbs

Nothing sucks life from your writing like a lazy verb. The worst offenders are “to be” verbs, such as was, were, are, have been, and is. In most cases you can rescue a weak sentence by using a strong verb to eliminate passive voice. Yes, this takes time, but your writing is worth it, right?

Avoid anemic verbs that describe emotions instead of showing. Vague words like felt, feel, thought, and think inhabit weak sentences. Compare these two examples:

Weak and distant: “I felt so bad I thought I’d never get over that cold.”

Vivid: “My head throbbed, my nose turned red, and I spent three days in bed.”

Other feeble words include: went, looked, and seemed. The sentences below sound like excerpts from a primary reader:

I felt horrible. I felt like walking out.

The girl looked sad. The restaurant looked busy.

She seemed confident. The weather seemed nice.

I went down the street to Claire’s house. I went to bed early.

I thought about going down the street to Claire’s house. I thought about leaving.

You can do better than this! Show specific actions that reflect what each character is thinking, feeling, or doing. A few simple rewrites will rescue your prose from the vampire syndrome.

Adverbs are Sometimes Horribly Ineffective

An adverb changes or identifies a verb, adjective, or another adverb. Perhaps you’re tempted to let adverbs prop up wimpy verbs and adjectives. For example, in the above heading, I used the adverb “horribly” to enhance the adjective. This made things worse. Perhaps I should’ve said: “Adverbs Suck.”

In some cases, an adverb tells (instead of showing) how a character does something, as in: “The woman talked rapidly.” We might revise this to: “She spit the words rapid-fire.”

Banish the following adverbs from your vocabulary: very, really, just, totally, absolutely.

The best policy for adverbs is to sprinkle them like hot pepper. Two or three per page is enough.

Check for Overused Words

Everyone uses pet words and phrases out of habit, both in speech and writing. I recently edited a memoir wherein the author chose one single, bland adjective at the beginning of a paragraph, and then used it in every sentence. He would describe a beautiful lake, his beautiful wife, and a beautiful sunset, all in one block of text. He didn’t notice the repetition. To prevent this syndrome, identify your favorite words and use the “find” function on your computer to check for overuse.

Don’t Repeat Yourself: Cut the Clutter

Thousands of fiction and nonfiction authors, especially those with teaching backgrounds, tend to repeat information as though readers aren’t smart enough to grasp a concept the first time around. Authors find ingenious ways to repeat themselves by saying the same thing twice in different words. These writers focus on one thought and beat it to death. Like a pedantic instructor, they want to use everything they know about a topic, even if the reader already understands.

Annoying, isn’t it?


Twittering helps you practice using vivid words to address a topic with 140 characters. I tweet several times a day, for fun and to market one of my books ( You needn’t be brilliant, or even coherent, on Twitter, because you always get a second chance.

Whether you’re writing a two-word quip, a 140 character Tweet, or a compete book -- Make every word count.


Sammie Justesen is a founding partner of Northern Lights Literary Services LLC, a literary agency representing fiction and nonfiction authors. Prior to opening the agency, Justesen worked for many years as an independent writer/editor for publishing houses such as Mosby, Springhouse, Lippincott, and Prentice Hall. She has published a medical guide, technical articles, poetry, and short stories, and is the author of Speaking of Dialogue, a how-to book for writers. Writer's Digest (the popular magazine for writers) has twice featured Northern Lights Literary Services as one of 25 agencies open to new writers and building a client list.

Learn more about Speaking of Dialogue HERE.
Sammie's website:


Nancy Owens Barnes said...

Sammie, thanks for reminding us about the importance of editing our work. I especially think the tip about using the "find" function in our word processing programs is helpful to writers. I often use it to underline the passive verbs in my manuscript. I can then go back through the manuscript to rethink and revise them one at a time.

Beth Bollinger said...

Thanks, Sammie! These are great reminders. I love the idea of doing word search for my favorite words. Sometime it would be great to have you review tips on contacting agents too. That was such a great IWL meeting last year, when you talked about that!

Jan Cline said...

Great advice and good check list for editing. I have done the word search thing and been surprised - both ways.

Mary Jane Honegger said...

I know I’ll be on the lookout for those “vampire verbs” before they suck the life out of my writing! Thanks for sharing your expertise with us.