20 March 2018

Dubious Writing Advice

My story “Montezuma’s Revenge” appears in Passport to Murder (Down & Out Books), the Bouchercon 2017 anthology edited by John McFetridge, and I participated in the convention’s group signing. As author of the second story in the anthology, I sat at a long table sandwiched between Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine editor Janet Hutchings (author of the first story) and Hilary Davidson (author of the third). Hilary was quite the draw, and adoring fans wanting to spend extra time with her caused the line to back up in front of Janet and me. At some point one of the autograph seekers, whether truly interested or just trying to kill time before talking to Hilary, asked about writing short stories. I said I always start with apostrophes.

Knowing whether you want to use many apostrophes or only a few has a significant impact on your writing. If you choose to use many apostrophes, your work will be filled with contractions, an informal style best suited to first-person narration. If you desire few apostrophes, you will write in a formal style best suited to third person.

That’s one of the many tips, tricks, and techniques I’ve stumbled across during my long literary adventure. Much of my formal education came erratically—a class here, a semester there—and I did not graduate college until I was 48. Though my B.A. is in professional writing, I was writing professionally long before graduation, and most of what I know are things I taught myself along the way.


I agreed to join SleuthSayers shortly before the Toronto Bouchercon, and during the convention, Robert Lopresti suggested I use this forum to discuss my loathing for a particular overused word, a tirade he’s witnessed and written about in Criminal Brief (January 9, 2008):
“Michael hates got with a passion and while I don’t feel that strongly about it, I agree it needs to be considered carefully.”
Got is a lazy word used by lazy writers, and it can almost always be replaced by a better, more descriptive word or phrase. Without context, it has so many possible meanings that it has no meaning at all.

For example: “Bob got to his feet” could mean “Bob stood” or it could mean “Bob rolled out of bed and dragged himself across the floor to where he’d left his prosthetic limbs the night before.”

How about “Bob got his new T-shirt dirty,” which could mean “Bob received his new T-shirt dirty” or “he dirtied his new T-shirt while dragging himself across the floor.”

Or, “Bob got his revolver,” which could mean “Bob comprehended the philosophical and moral implications of his reliance on weaponry to mask his underlying fear of diminished masculinity following prostate surgery” or “Bob retrieved his revolver from the nightstand.”


It was may be the worst two words with which to begin a sentence, and is an even less desirable way to begin a story. Sure, Charles Dickens did it, but few of us are Charles Dickens. It was adds nothing to a sentence, delays getting to the meat of the matter, and is the literary equivalent of a math problem, where “It was a dark and stormy night” translated into a simple math problem becomes:

It = a dark and stormy night.
Solve for It.

Almost every sentence that begins with It was can be revised into a more active, more powerful sentence. Thus, “It was a dark and stormy night when Bob shot the neighbor” could easily become “On a dark and stormy night, Bob shot the neighbor” or “Bob shot the neighbor on a dark and stormy night.”

“It was blood” could become “Blood oozed from the gunshot wound” or “Blood stained his neighbor’s shirt.”


Two t words continue to vex me: that and then.

That is sentence filler, often unnecessary for comprehension.

Remove that and “Bob knew that his neighbor was dead” becomes “Bob knew his neighbor was dead,” an ever-so-slightly better sentence.

Then is more a personal bugaboo than something I see other writers use and abuse. My characters tend to do something and then do something else. Thus: “Bob dropped the gun and then hobbled from the house on his prosthetic feet,” which is better written as “Bob dropped the gun and hobbled from the house on his prosthetic feet.”


I picked up my newest trick from Marvin Kaye, fiction editor of Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine, who writes about had in the magazine’s submission guidelines:
“I have a special problem with the word ‘had,’” he writes. “Boiled down, here is what’s wrong with some (not all) compound past tenses—except for fiction written in present tense, our convention is to put things in the simple past. The reader, of course, translates the action into it ‘just happening.’ But as soon as a compound verb is introduced, such as ‘she had already bought the book,’ the action is shoved a little into the past [...]. Thus, in this magazine, unnecessary ‘hads’ are deleted, so that the above would be rendered as ‘she already bought the book,’ which now seems to be ‘just happening.’”
Remove had and “Bob had shot his neighbor and had fled the scene” becomes “Bob shot his neighbor and fled the scene.”


Don’t be Bob. Don’t shoot the neighbor on a dark and storm night, especially if your prosthetics will slow your escape.

Eliminate six simple words from your literary vocabulary (or significantly reduce their use)—got, it was, had, that, and then—and you’ll see a significant improvement in your writing. Your stories will be cleaner and your pacing faster.

Oh, and count your apostrophes to determine if your writing is formal or informal.

For more dubious writing advice, join me and several hundred other writers and fans at Malice Domestic, April 27-29. I’ll be moderating “Make It Snappy: Our Agatha Best Short Story Nominees,” where I’ll be trying to ferret out how and why Gretchen Archer, Barb Goffman, Debra H. Goldstein, Gigi Pandian, and Art Taylor wrote their Agatha-nominated short stories. I will also be a panelist for “Precise Prose: Short Crime Fiction” and will be signing copies of the Malice anthology, Mystery Most Geographical, which contains my story “Arroyo.”


  1. Michael, this is great. I loved it.

    "Had" is useful to distinguish between the "present past" and the "paster past." I am working on a story which begins in typical past but after a few paragraphs explains what happened to the characters an hour earlier. "Had" suddenly appears to make it clear that we have gone backwards. (And yes, "suddenly" is another bad word.)

  2. Excellent advice. Wish I HAD it when I first strated writing.
    Here are a couple words I cannot stand -' literally', 'actually' and I'm not crazy about 'apparently'.

  3. Lots of good advice and congratulations on the latest anthology outing!

  4. Started the day with a great laugh. Thanks, Michael.

    I've never heard the apostrophes advice before, so you can bet it's going into my workshops immediately.

    And more congratulations on the anthology.

  5. rosemarymccracken20 March, 2018 09:35

    Great tips, Michael. Thank you!

  6. Thanks for the informative and entertaining post. I am definitely someone who started out using many of those words in my writing, but I've been able to eliminate most of them, just by becoming aware of them. So your article will help a lot of new writers. Now if I could just rid "had" from my writing, I would be on a roll.

  7. Good advice - lessons I re-learn every time I go through a draft I thought was finished.

  8. The "paster past," Robert? Had is useful to make the transition from "present past" to "paster past," but is it mandatory?

    "Yesterday, she had shot the dog." vs. "Yesterday, she shot the dog."

    Actually, excising -ly words can be tricky, O'Neil. I once literally changed a character's gender while excising -ly words when I turned Sally into Sal. Apparently, I did something wrong.

    Steve, there's an apostroFEE you'll incur if you use my apostrophe advice in your workshops. You'll owe me two conjunctions and an adverb to be named later.

    Thanks everyone for your kind comments.

  9. Michael, it's just common cents that I'd pay your apostroFEE. And and we'll name the adverb surely...or shirley.

    (Someone needs to get back to work ;-)

  10. I got that it had been a bad idea for many people to have run rapidly through past weather forecasts in search of that which they found it increasingly harder to define then.

    Thanks for a fun post!

  11. Great post! And Eve, I'm laughing at your krazy mixed-up sentence.

  12. Enjoyed this post and the great advice! Re: "had." I find the past perfect tense useful when the event occurred prior to the main action, such as a flashback. If the flashback goes on for a while, the continued use of "had" in every sentence is cumbersome and unnecessary. Simply using "had" at the beginning of the paragraph is usually enough to set up the time frame in the reader's mind, and the flashback can continue in regular past tense.

  13. Throughout my ongoing education, the best teachers always worked to make learning a joy. You did that here. Thank you for a fun, informative post.

  14. Thanks, y'all, for all your kind comments.

  15. As always, I learn from you! Thanks for this article!


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