Ten Commandments for Smooth Writing

by J.E. & Mary McReynolds


Thou shalt send most adjectives and adverbs to a place outside the camp. They are usually not needed or wanted. They may even be unclean.

Hemingway was told early in his career to excise most of the adjectives in his prose. His novels became bestselling masterpieces. No one missed the adjectives that he banished. 

Thou shalt not make characters one-dimensional.

Bad characters who are all bad are boring and unrealistic. Good characters that all good are boring and unrealistic. People are not one-dimensional. The scripts for Titanic and Avatar ignored this commandment. The bad guys were all bad. The movies suffered for it.

Thou shalt vary thy cadence.

Alternate short sentences with longer sentences, but not in a mechanistic or predictable fashion. Readers are attracted to short sentences, but too many in succession make the manuscript choppy. Some writers think longer sentences prove their talent and intellectual capacity. They are wrong. Nobody is fooled.

Thou shalt embrace dialogue.

Nothing moves a story along faster than dialogue: people speaking directly to each other, with or without quotation marks. Readers feel good that they’ve covered a particular number of pages in a relatively short time. They are happy with themselves and the world. Help them achieve this bliss by giving them dialogue instead of exposition.

Thou shalt not search for attribution alternatives.

He said. She said. They said. Searching for alternatives to “said” often leads to derision. This is not absolute. Once in a while, use an “uttered” or “noted.” Avoid archaic alternatives such as “ejaculated” or “expostulated.” Some attribution is not needed in a stream of dialogue. Enough said. 

Thou shalt ignore much of what you were taught by elderly English teachers in high school.

Yes, you can end a sentence with a preposition. This is legal in 49 states. 

Thou shalt audit thy work before letting others read it.

Audit means to hear something said out loud. Read your work to yourself aloud. Listen for how it sounds. You might pick up on something that sounds wrong. 

Thou shalt not get in an all-fired hurry.

When finishing a draft, let some time pass before you go back and read it. The passage of time injects objectivity into the equation. If you don’t wait, you lose that advantage; you’ll just read it the way you wrote it, which sounded great and clear when when you were writing but not great or clear enough to sign off on the work.

Thou shalt not overuse words in a short span of prose.

Look for reasonable alternatives – synonyms – for nouns that appear more than once in a short passage, but be careful. It’s OK to use “deluge” as a substitute for “rain” in a passage with a lot of references to ongoing precipitation. It’s not OK to write about bananas and describe them as “elongated yellow fruits.” That was actually done once by a bad writer.

Thou shalt “show” more and “tell” less.”

Show: As his mother switched off the light and left the room, Michael tensed. He huddled under the covers, gripped the sheets, and held his breath.

Tell: Michael was terribly afraid of the dark.

The “show” version illumines what’s happening in detail. The “tell” version states a condition with no explanation for why the condition exists.

Mary Hicks McReynolds lives in Northwest Arkansas with her husband, a retired professional journalist. McReynolds has authored three novels, a non-fiction historical book and a collection of poetry. She earned her BA in English and MA in Creative Studies from the University of Central Oklahoma. A career in health care marketing and public relations rounded out her writing skills with awards in attendant disciplines. 

James E. McReynolds is a retired professional journalist, having worked at newspapers for nearly 40 years. He lives in Northwest Arkansas with the novelist and poet Mary Hicks McReynolds, his wife of 43 years. He is an Oklahoma native and graduate of Oklahoma State University. 

Both James and Mary have received numerous awards for their fiction and non-fiction writing.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: