Thursday, May 18, 2017

Overused Words

One of the last things I do when I’m finishing a short story is read for overused words. Most of these are easy to recognize—awesome, literally, really, and the like. They have migrated into the written word from casual conversation, trendy TV comedians, and the younger generation. I hear these the minute they come out of my mouth, or fingers on the keyboard. But these are not the words I’m most concerned about.

Each of us has our own distinctive verbal tics and habits, and those are the easiest to miss. We think they sound right, so we don’t hear the repetition, or echoes as I call them. To ferret out these habits of writing, I search on Find/Replace, and consider each sentence or phrase that pops up. Most of them I rewrite, tightening the passage and excising unnecessary words.

In a recent short story, I found I had used  -thing words almost 40 times in 6,000 words. These are so common as to be almost invisible—nothing, something, anything, as well as thing. Removing these forced me to be specific, editing flabby phrasing into a more muscular passage. (I almost used the word “robust,” but that’s one of the overused words I’m trying to avoid.)

One immediate benefit of highlighting a poor verbal habit, such as overusing looked, is that it forces me to examine the character more closely and think hard about what she or he is doing. Is she admiring the view, sneaking a peek at a stranger, or staring at an old friend now so changed she almost didn’t recognize him? Why does it matter that he is “looking” at a person or scene? Is he calculating the next move, or is he trying to identify the person? Making these changes doesn’t necessarily mean more detail, but it does mean greater precision.

I’m fortunate to have three beta readers who together spot my verbal tics and bring them to my attention. As I go about revising those passages, I usually identify other infelicitous expressions. By the time I’m finished, the manuscript is tight and clean, and reads smoothly, without echoes or awkwardness or repetitions.

“Overused” words is a popular topic on various sites for writers, and I visited several. To read a list of words considered overused in writing today, go to:

To read my fiction, go here:

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Front Matter

Recently I’ve come across a number of self-published books that all have the same flaw. The writers have hired editors and proofreaders, book designers and formatters, and cover designers. But they have still failed to get one part of the book right. And this is the arrangement of the front matter.

The extent of the front matter may vary; not every book needs a preface or an introduction. But the order in which the required items appear has been well established, and serves a purpose. The front matter leads us into the work by offering important clarifying detail. Arranged correctly, the front matter orients distributors, booksellers, and librarians, and provides necessary information in the expected place. They know where this information is located. Only, now it isn’t.

The front matter on too many self-published books has me flipping back and forth among the first few pages looking for the critical details (copyright, publisher, ISBN, etc.). The experience is disorienting. But learning the correct arrangement of the front matter is simple—just examine a book published by a traditional publishing house. All of them use the same setup, the one prescribed by manuals such as The Chicago Manual of Style. My copy dates from 1982. Another option is Words into Type, from Prentice-Hall.

The front matter consists of everything before the main text, which begins with Chapter 1, opening on the right-hand page. Traditionally, everything begins on the right hand page—opening chapter, section title (and following first chapter in the section), division title. After the first chapter, each chapter can begin on the recto (right-hand page), or verso (left-hand page), but the writer should be consistent about this throughout the book. Here is the standard list of front matter for a print book and its arrangement.

Half title (recto)
blank (verso) or series title or list of previous publications

Title page (recto) with title and author and occasionally the title of the foreword, along with the name and location of the publisher and date.

Copyright page (verso) with copyright notice, foreword or preface copyright notice, publisher and additional publisher’s information (if a special imprint), ISBN, Library of Congress Control Number (if known), jacket or book designer’s name, place of manufacture, edition. This is also a permissions page if the list of permissions is short enough to be placed here. If not, place a note here referring the reader to the end of the book for the list of permissions. This will also be indicated in the Contents. Some publishers put the list of previous publications here.

Dedication (recto)
blank (verso)
Contents (recto)
blank (verso)
Preface (recto)
Foreword (recto if the first page of text; if not, either recto or verso).
Introduction (recto)
Section title (recto)
Blank (verso)
Chapter 1 (recto)

Pagination doesn't usually begin until the first page of text, be that a preface or foreword or introduction or chapter 1. But some publishers begin pagination on the Contents page. If the front matter is paginated, the choice is roman numerals. Arabic numerals begin on the first page of chapter 1. But some publishers begin the Arabic numerals on the title page.

If you’re putting together an eBook, you have more flexibility. You can omit the half title and blank pages, and combine some of the others. The Title page can include the dedication, followed by a copyright page with list of permissions. A series title can also go below the title on the first page.

The back matter in a book of fiction is the place for links to websites, other books, and teaser chapters for your next book.

The front matter is important for providing a lot of technical information, and the point is to make sure anyone looking for it can find it. This may sound confusing at first, but putting things in their expected order makes the entire publication appear more professional.

To find my books (with front matter), go to: