I would prefer not to

I was discussing with an editor friend of mine the other day some of the infuriating comments I had received from publishers about a rejected manuscript. I have had a couple in a row now saying more or less the same thing—great story, great writing and we’d love to take it if only you could change a few things. The few things being essentially take out all the imagery, introduce snappy smart-ass dialogue instead of description, cut the number of important characters who the reader will get to know down to two, and get rid of all the passive voice. In other words, rewrite in such a way that my story resembles, in everything but irrelevant details, a hundred other stories that have made money for their publishers.

Keep the language and the concepts simple, they advise, because no reader likes having to think about the meaning of an image. Don’t describe because it’s boring, instead have the characters chatter incessantly about the snow, the rain, the scenery, the car crash etc. Get rid of all adverbs and all dialogue tags except for ‘said’.

Not only is this the tyranny of the mediocre, it’s also plain ignorant. Adverbs are perfectly good parts of speech. Like everything, they can be over-used. But they are not intrinsically evil. If I want to indicate that a character whispered a comment, I will say, “she whispered.” I will not say, “she said.” Or “she said in a whisper.” There is a perfectly good verb that condenses ‘to say in a whisper’ into one word: whisper.

Banning the passive voice is another directive that gets on my nerves as it is often through a misunderstanding of what the passive voice is. I was told, as an example, to change “George was reading the book” (passive) to “George read the book” (active). George was reading is past continuous not passive. It is no less active than any straight past tense and it doesn’t mean the same thing. The passive would be “The book was read by George.”

Take “George was reading the book when the doorbell rang.” Compare it with “George read the book when the doorbell rang.” Doesn’t make sense.

These blanket instructions are not intended to help make a particular manuscript better, just to turn all manuscripts into the same, homogenised product. The same is true of dialogue. It has to be clever, smart, snappy. Regardless of the situation. I’ve just been reading a novel that typifies what editors insist upon. It starts with a guy getting knocked down by a van. Because an opening has to be action-packed, right? Instead of the guy’s unspoken impressions as the van hits him, the reader is given an internal monologue of ‘humorous’ quips and observations. To my mind this is misplaced and unrealistic, and it’s not even funny. It’s life reduced to clichés, situations reduced to tropes, and characters flattened to cardboard cut-outs.

I am coming more and more round to the opinion that publishers, editors, agents are looking for a product not a book, a brand not an author. I try to step back from what I write, try to use the advice I’ve been given to make the story better. I can always see how to make it different, it’s the ‘better’ that is so subjective. Does ‘better’ have to mean easier to read, as in taking what was written for 16-18 year olds with an adult reading age and making it suitable for ten year olds who have to be cajoled away from their comic books with promises of similar action and wise cracks? If that’s making it better, then I’m afraid I don’t share the same fundamental ideas about what makes writing good. In fact, to me it looks suspiciously like an encouragement to dumb it down.

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Jane Dougherty

I used to do lots of things I didn't much enjoy. Now I am officially a writer. It's what I always wanted to be.

48 thoughts on “I would prefer not to”

    1. What makes me mad is that these are editors doling out this rubbish. And it’s supposed to make a point about writing ‘style’. Keep it ‘active’, let the smart arse quips fly. And what happens when you’re writing about a funeral, or a massacre?

  1. In other words, reduce it to the common denominator of drivel that everyone else is writing, publishing and reading, because publishers think that the general reader is not intelligent enough or incapable of reading and enjoying what you are writing, as is … And you are correct, Jane – publishers, etc., have always been more interested in books as products that will sell and make lots of money, for them. It is a business, after all. But very frustrating for those of us who believe a book should be well-written and appeal to those who really do appreciate good books and stories that are well-told. If the book sells well after that then that’s great. But we should never compromise our writing and our stories for the sake of “maybe” selling a few more copies. Good post, Jane! Thanks for writing.

    1. Thank you, Susan 🙂 I feel as though I’m banging my head against a brick wall at the moment. Of course, I know publishers aren’t philanthropists; they’re in it for the money. But why try and shoehorn every single story into the same mould? Doesn’t it occurr to them that there is a market for good, well-thought out and thought-provoking books as well as for pre-digested pap?

  2. Thanks for the great post! I see this too, and I’m also seeing it on contest entries where the judges write back similiar things–Take out all the passive language. No adverbs and use only said. These black and white, blanket rules are not what makes great writing.

    1. Thanks Mindy! It’s so short termist. Don’t they see that they’re driving all the innovative writers into self-publishing? They can hurl their patronising insults at the ‘self-published slush pile’ but the stuff they publish is no better. It’s just more streamlined and has more of the commas in the right places.

  3. It’s a question of aiming for the lowest common denominator rather than raising standards. Advice such as you received is not only insulting to authors but denigrates readers as well.

    1. It’s insulting to everybody’s intelligence, but they see it as the path of least resistance. Less work at an editorial level and it won’t put off the kind of readers who just want to have their reading matter pouring into them painlessly.

  4. “Adverbs are perfectly good parts of speech. Like everything, they can be over-used. But they are not intrinsically evil.”–Exactly! Thank you so much for putting into words all of my complaints! I know we’re not the only ones who feel this way.

    And readers don’t want to “think” about meaning of imagery. Wow, the publishers think we’re all a bunch of idiots, don’t they?

    Great rant! Really enjoyed getting fired up!

    1. It’s good to let off steam once in a while, but I’d rather be ranting about how many publishers are beating a path to my door than about how many of them want me to write something different. Thing about the imagery is they say it takes the reader away from the character because they have to think about what exactly the author means. I mean, think! A reader having to think? What is the world coming to?

      1. I know, right. Readers are intelligent people. And they are individuals who all want different things. Some want action scenes and others want character driven plot, etc. etc. etc. I think publishers have lost sight of that. This cookie cutter mentality is destroying traditional publishing.

      2. We know that the big traditional publishers use agents as gatekeepers. Logically, if the gatekeepers field all the non-cookie cutter material, the pubishers will never even have an option on it. The agents are just looking for the latest big trend, not good writing or exciting story. The reasoning is that publishers need agents to manage their slush pile, to weed out all the unsuitable stuff that will waste their valuable time if they have to wade through it all. While agents persist in weeding out anything that doesn’t conform to type, that’s all that will ever reach the publishers. I’d love to know how some of the more innovative writers like Patrick Ness managed to con an agent into taking him on. There must be some with open minds.

      3. I’m sure there are some good agents out there who really want to push a good writer. Or a talented person who can spot something “big” coming up. They must know how to make a sale. Sometimes, I think I missed my calling as an agent, but I probably wouldn’t enjoy the politics surrounding that position.

      4. I wish you had decided to become an agent. So many of them don’t seem to know anything about books or writing, they just seem knowledgeable about what is already selling.

  5. Hang tough. The publishers are panicking as the industry is morphing. Editors are under the gun to bring in only those that will sell quickly and well – if they guess wrong, job over.
    Books have been reduced to profit producing products.
    Stories and literature are another animal. Has to be told as it has to be told – may be a long term race horse instead of a short track quarter horse. Fine tune the work, yes, but let it be true to itself
    (as we all try to figure out what is to be done. Great comments here, too)

    1. That’s the sad truth. The industry is on flux, and it’s my guess that there are as many useless editors and small publishers as there are not very good writers fighting for a piece of the profits. With a bit (lot) of luck things will settle down and we might see more of a meritocracy that we ever have before.

  6. Hi Jane! I understand your frustration. It’s like they have this check off list that they go through mindlessly to create easy to sell cookie-cutter books. I guess originality is not ‘in’ right now. :/

    1. You know, I even had a rejection to a query listing the things the editor liked (the characters) and the things she didn’t like, difficult plot, too much passive voice, slow action, and I hadn’t even sent in the ms with the query! She hadn’t even read the story but she already knew what was wrong with it!

  7. It’s refreshing to see these thoughts in writing. I’ve had many discussions over the years about use of ‘passive/active voice’, ‘adverbs’ and the ‘said’ tag, and it drains me. I’ve been through the process of re-writing to conform, and it takes the spark out of the work. I’d much rather rebel and let the story stand out. As you indicated, moderation is the key. Isn’t that the case with all good things?

    1. I’m glad I’m not alone in this. I’ve never gone so far as to do a complete rewrite to suit an editor. It’s bad enough trying to get the all-important opening scenes to conform to action versus character development. Do these people never read real books? As if the only thing an intelligent reader can appreciate in a story is thundering action and sparky dialogue. What happened to writing beautiful prose?

  8. I’ve long believed that today’s reader has been grotesquely disrespected by publishers. It burns me to think that people in publishing are dumbing down and homogenizing writing to cater to readers whom they believe to be helpless dopes. I write for my readers. I give them credit for having sense enough to know good writing from garbage. I wish publishing ‘experts’ would respect readers for having sense enough to decide for themselves what’s ‘good for them’ and what isn’t.

    Good post.

    1. Thanks Rebecca. I agree 100%. I can understand editing to iron out inconsistencies in plot, to maybe reorder scenes to make the action flow better, but I hate it when editors tell you that a reader can’t understand whose head the writer is in if it isn’t the same one as at the beginning of the chapter. Changing pov might be irritating if it’s done really badly, but even when it’s done clumsily it’s rarely confusing, it just doesn’t read like good writing. A good editor would point it out and a good writer would change it. They just seem incapable of judging good writing and being prepared to go with the author to tidy up the loose ends. They want it all neat, antiseptic, undemanding, and all ready to go to print before they’ll accept a ms.

  9. There’s a big contradiction in the ‘advice’ dished out to authors. Don’t use description because the reader should fill in the gaps with their own imagination, then in the next sentence, make it easy for readers because they’re incapable of thinking for themselves.

    The old adverb/passive//he said/she said debates have come about from a few witterings by established writers and jumped on by anyone with an opinion. Don’t use semi-colons is another bit of horses**t given out by people who know best.

    After eighteen months of reading a constant stream of worthless advice and tips I’ve started to develop a blind spot and deafness in boths ears. Write the way you enjoy writing. So long as the finished product is intelligable and the story a good ‘un it’s a novel worth reading.


    1. I’d forgotten the semi-colon. Never ever use a semi-colon in dialogue because people don’t speak in semi-colons. As if they speak in commas.
      The thing about this advice is that it’s more insidious than the rubbish spouted by the promotion ‘experts’ who claim how your heap of crap can be a bestseller. The agents and the publishers apply it, as if it’s Gospel. Break the POV switch rule and you haven’t a hope of getting a publisher.

  10. Brave post. Although I’m a freelance editor, I do tire (aka fall asleep when I read the same comments), too much passive, show not tell, no adverbs, too much description, need to use said.

    I think some of those are valid, depending, on style, plot, genre, blah blah. Said is good on a lot of occasions. Using alternatives (barked, screamed, chuckled) can appear overly contrived. Especially if there are more murmurs, chortles, orders, giggles etc etc than saids.

    The main requirement of this formulaic writing is, I think, to keep up the pace of a novel. But does Proust?

    I think it’s worth knowing about and taking with a pinch of salt. Unless of course you want to write a bog standard best seller …

    The problem is, it’s the fashion of the moment. Ten or twenty years time, who knows?

    1. You’re right, of course, that all these things have a role in producing a good piece of writing. Adverbs in the wrong hands can be lethal, dialogue tags need to be sensible not hysterical, and a story does have to have momentum. But that doesn’t mean no adverbs, only allow said as a tag, and keep up the action willy nilly. It is fashion and it will change one day. I just hope it changes before we’ve all forgotten why anybody ever rated Proust in the first place.

  11. Thx for interesting post, Jane. Have been reading Penelope Fitzgerald and Henry Green lately looking into these issues you have mentioned here. You might check one or both out.

  12. Jane, your frustrations are shared by many. There’s a lot of rubbish advice masquerading as “rules” for writing. Show, don’t tell, but don’t be too descriptive. Hmm. Doesn’t make sense, does it?

  13. Hi Jane – just about everything you have written here was taught to me in grad school including this: “I am coming more and more round to the opinion that publishers, editors, agents are looking for a product not a book, a brand not an author.” I didn’t want to make the changes either.

    I had about 8 out of 10 poems rejected for publication when finally I discovered a pattern. Every poem I submitted to online publishers was rejected, while every poem submitted to a print magazine was accepted. Outside of being two different kinds of readers, I realized that my community workshops were actually increasing the likelihood of publication in local and regional magazines.

    I’ve noticed in some other recent posts that you are having some success with poetry and flash fiction. I think you should keep at that if you can. Each time you publish, you are building a market for your work. Publishers will be much more interested in you when you come with a ready made market. Here has been my question of late. If it’s my writing and I come with a ready made market, why should the publisher take such a big cut of the profits?

    1. That’s what a lot of writers are asking. It looks as though to accompany the millions of writers who are ‘having a go’ at selling a book by publishing it themselves, scores of small publishers have sprung up to try and cream off some of the more likely-looking manuscripts. That should be a good thing, more democratic and lets all support indie publishers who are picking up the authors the big publishers won’t look at. Trouble is, many of these small publishers (not all) don’t know what they are doing. It’s increasingly common to see publishers asking for a perfect ms because they will do no editing, a business plan because they will do no marketing, and an established author platform because they will do no promotion. If you sign up with a ‘publisher’ like that you need your head looking at.

      1. Yes, for certain. I have some prose poetry picture books, I’ve recently submitted to traditional publishers because the visuals are so important. If I can get a first book publication, maybe I will have a bit more say the next time around.

      2. If you could find an illustrator who fits your ideas, you could do it all yourself. Otherwise you have the additional problem of possibly finding illustrations by the publisher’s newest sure-fire hit artist foisted upon you whether you like them or not.

      3. I want to do it myself, but I’m told that a traditional publisher will probably not go with a first time children’s book author and first time children’s book illustrator the first time around. I found a publisher to submit to that claims they allow collaboration between writer and illustrator (unusual in the children’s market) but if the text is rejected, I’ll be back to square one. I’m not a quitter – so we may be sharing advice again 🙂

      4. That’s what I meant really. A publisher would want to match your poems to an illustrator of their choice. If you could team up with an illustrator of YOUR choice you could self-publish. Not easy, but if this publisher you have in the pipe-line doesn’t work out you can always try the hard way 🙂

  14. Great post, Jane. I’m not surprised at the response you’ve received from publishers. They are in a business that expects quick returns. For all the talk of nurturing authors and safeguarding the art of literature, many publishers are becoming fixated on blockbuster potential, which means every manuscript is judged on how wide a demographic appeal it has. I’ve worked for major corporations for over 25 years and I can understand the publishing mindset. They are looking to maximise profit by reducing the number of product lines (books) which reduces cost and allows them to focus on the cash cows (marquee authors). It’s what I would do in their situation when faced with shareholder pressure for ever more profits, but it doesn’t make it the best thing in the long term for the literary form.
    As a reader and a writer, I’m completely with you on the dumbing down of writing. I like books that make me think, therefore I try to write books that make me think. My style of writing is dialogue led and spare because that’s what I enjoy, but it doesn’t mean all books should be written this way. I do get bored by overly long descriptive passages or the overuse of adverbs, but I don’t agree they should banned completely, the same with passive voice and dialogue tags. It’s all to do with context.
    Keep plugging away. I really enjoy your style of writing and I know a lot of other people do too. I always advise people to write a book their way so they can look back and be proud at what they created. Yes, take on advice but make the decisions yourself, don’t be forced to do something you don’t agree with. Yes, it may not be a commercial hit, but if it’s purely money you’re after, there are a lot easier ways to make it in writing (as a commercial copywriter for example) than by writing novels.

    1. You’ve said it better than I have, Dylan. There’s a gulf between what makes business sense and what makes great writing. I do understand the position of publishers not wanting to spend time and money fostering a flop, and that book buying has spread to a larger, more democratic public than in the good old days of the snotty big publishers keeping out the riff raff. The possibilities for making money on fads rather than the once in a lifetime blockbuster novel has greatly increased for them. But there ought to be a compromise between the impenetrable Prix Goncourt style of literature that nobody reads, and the flash in the pan hits that sell millions and are forgotten two years later. It’s the imposition of style and content that irks me so much. I’ve even heard of a well-known publisher that dishes out tropes and has a call for subs writing a story out of them. They also impose a certain number of tropes to be included in each story they take on. They know what they sell and won’t take a chance on anything else. Though I don’t bemoan the tyranny of the public school elitism of the old style publishing, what I do regret is the passing of literary credentials in a publishers list. That they want to make their bread and butter out of the stuff that’s an easy sell is fair enough, but they also used to want to have titles that reflected their ability to find good literature as well. Seems that ‘good’ is not enough in the current market.

  15. HI, Jane. Loved this: “Not only is this the tyranny of the mediocre, it’s also plain ignorant. ”
    However, you obviously do not know what “passive voice” is, since your example was of a sentence in the past tense, not in passive voice.

    Here is an example of passive voice: “The book was read by George.”
    PV always involves something occurring TO someone or something instead of the action’s being more DIRECT with a NAMED actor/agent, as in “George read the book.”
    Passive voice is sometimes necessary, when we don’t know or don’t want to reveal who IS acting in that sentence: “The war was started last year” doesn’t say by WHOM, and maybe we don’t know who started it or don’t want to say right now.

    I agree that PV is useful, but you’d be better off understanding it before you get all up in arms about using it.

    Best to you,


    1. I think you’ve misread something here, Sally. The example I give is what this editor believes to be passive voice, I give my version after, which is, if you look: ‘The book was read by George.’ So I think I do actually know what passive voice is. Do I have permission to get up in arms about it now?

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