Snares, Pits, and Caltrops – The things to watch out for, avoid, or be clever about – Part One

The last time I talked about editing, I expanded on the high-level discussion and gave my four suggestions of editing must-do’s. This time, I want begin getting into the text itself and talk about the things that all writers need to watch out for. Now, you’ll notice that some things can be used. I’ll talk about that too.

We’ll begin with Adjectives and Adverbs.

Adjectives and Adverbs are sometimes words.

Adjectives are words that you have to be careful using. You can make lovely sentences with them. They describe all kinds of things. That’s their job. To describe words, specifically nouns. And we should allow them to do their job. However, just as you don’t fix something that isn’t broken, you can’t use adjectives unnecessarily. The same goes for adverbs.

There are two things to ask yourself when you’re using adjectives and adjectives.

1. Is there a noun whose meaning is both the noun I’m using and its adjective (or verb/adverb)?

2. Am I using an adjective or adverb instead of describing a scene?

If you can answer YES to either question, you don’t need to use adjective or adverb.

For example: He ran quickly down the road to get home.

In place of “ran quickly” you could use sprinted or raced. In stead of running quickly through halls, we rush through them.

Many of our adjective/noun and adverb/verb combinations have words that not only encompass the combination, but they also imply the emotion and tension that we want. Rushing down a hall implies a greater sense of urgency that walking quickly. Pacing implies worry far better than walking back and forth.

In this case, we’re getting rid of words we don’t need, an important aspect of editing, and adding more meaning to the words we have on the page.

Sometimes, using an adjective or adverb is lazy.

Example: He walked into the dark room. Inside, something was breathing heavily. He imagined some monstrous creature with large teeth and eyes.

Or, we could use:

As he opened the door his eyes were drawn into immense blackness. Within he could hear a thick rasp that stirred the hairs on his arms and seeped into his mind, planting tiny seeds of apprehension that quickly sprouted into images: large, bulging, silvery orbs framed by endless rows fangs.

Yes, there are adjectives and adverbs. Sometimes you need them. When you use them, maximize their effectiveness. Heavy breathing is okay. But what are you wanting the breathing to sound like? Usually when we say that, we mean either thick sounds or long breaths. Make up your mind. I decided it was a thick rasp. Not a thick, raspy sound. I can stop at rasp because we know what that is. It is noise, usually full of phlegm. To tell you how large it is, I showed it moving the hair on my character’s arms. In stead of him just imagining the large eyes, I spread that out into just what this noise was doing. Seeds can be of many sizes, and I wanted to give the impression of fear ballooning, so I gave you tiny seeds. Quickly sprouting doesn’t really have a single word and I needed to describe the eyes. I chose three words that would sound monstrous. And lastly, why just be satisfied with large teeth when I can have endless rows of fangs?

So I got rid of adjectives and adverbs that were keeping me from showing the scene and used ones that would have impact.

When you’re writing, replacing your unnecessary adverbs and adjectives takes practice. Write simple sentences and then re-write them, either replacing the word combinations with single nouns and verbs or by replace adjectives and adverbs with scene description and action. If you’re unsure of good words to use, keep a dictionary handy or search on Google. Do the same thing when you’re editing. Search word combinations to look for better terms and ask yourself if the words on the page truly convey the meaning you want.

What about Nouns and Verbs?

Sometimes we have our adjectives and adverbs in proper proportion, but the sentence still sounds wrong. One problem may be our noun-verb agreement.

Writing in past tense, we usually get lucky. Most past tense verbs are the same no matter what our subject is. Where we get caught are our auxiliary and irregular verbs. And we get caught because we lose track of the noun.

This is easy to do in complex sentences. We have a plural noun followed by a prepositional phrase in our subject. When we get to our verb, we’re using an auxiliary like be or do, and we match it to the singular object of the preposition rather than our plural verb. Or we have a series of nouns and get confused whether our verb is plural or singular.

Or we have a collective noun and treat it like a plural noun.

So, the noun/object confusion is easy. What is doing the action? The Queen of the bees is a singular subject: Queen. The rulers of the playground are a plural subject: rulers. When you’re editing is when you want to watch for this. It is also when reading aloud with a partner is a boon. One of you will catch the incorrect verb.

Series can be a little more challenging. Series connected with and will always be plural. Series connected with or are a little more complicated. Obviously, if all of the words in the series are singular, the verb is singular.

What if they’re mixed? What if you have as your subject: Ben, the people of Afghanistan, or Billy Mays? What about Bill Clinton or the cheetahs?

You always agree with the subject noun nearest the verb. Now, the first example is a trick. People sometimes get caught by words ending in -s. Don’t. There are not multiple Billy Mays. He was one of a kind. He’s singular. The cheetahs are plural even though Bill Clinton is not.

What about collectives?

Well, collectives act in sentences in unison, so they’re treated as a singular subject. The trick: knowing when you have a collective and when you have a plurality. Sometimes we treat a word as a collective when it is not.

Americans may be spoken of as a collective, but they are always plural. So are people. So even though we may use Americans collectively, it is always plural. Americans always run, not runs. So do people.

Your collective nouns are words like team, group, government, and collective.

The test: Is the term you are using a plural of another word? Can the term you are using be counted? If the first answer is yes, and the second answer is no, it is not a collective noun, so it will be plural. Americans will always have a plural verb after them. Team will always have a singular verb, even though you can have Team America.

A fun way to look at it: If you can describe your noun with the prepositional phrase “of zombies”, and it make sense – mostly – then it is a collective noun.


a herd of zombies
a pride of zombies
a group of zombies
a collective of zombies
a government of the zombies, by the zombies, and for the zombies

All of these words are singular and get the singular noun: remember, zombies is the object not the subject.

Enjoy your adverbs, adjectives, nouns, and verbs. Next time, I’m going to take the whole post to discuss the Passive Voice.



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