From Scott:

Most of the errors and issues in a manuscript can be found rather easily. Even the editor in Microsoft Word can catch the easy ones: most misspelled words, glaring grammatical errors, and so on. You, the author, can correct more problems with some solid proofreading. Writers’ groups can offer additional support. An extra set of eyes can catch many of the problems that the writer will miss.

But there are many problems that hide in your work and are more difficult to spot. Since you wrote the novel, when you proofread it, your mind will often see what you want you wanted to say, not what is actually on the page. Some of these issues, while grammatically correct, make for weak writing. Today, we’ll address a few of these issues and discuss ways of correcting them.

The first issue to discuss is pronoun use. Overuse—and underuse—of pronouns can make for major confusion with your readers. To demonstrate, I’ll post a passage from my upcoming novel, A Matter Of Faith. First, I’ll show the passage with too few pronouns:

The sun climbed higher in the azure sky, bringing with it a noticeable rise in temperature. Jocane removed his helmet and wiped the sweat from his forehead. Jocane took a long drink of water before he called the sergeant’s second-in-command to him.

“How long before your cavalry returns?”

“I make it less than an hour, My Lord.”

Jocane nodded. “Good. Once we have a general survey of the area, we’ll know where to start sending our patrols. I want to… what is that foul stench?”

The corporal sniffed at the air. “I smell it too. Something has died.”

“Something big.” Jocane peered around the field. “The wind is coming from the south. Send a few men that way to find what’s causing the smell. Whatever it is, we need to burn it or we’ll have a pestilence.”

“At once, My Lord.” The corporal shouted a few orders, and six infantrymen left their positions to head away from the river. About a hundred yards away, the infantrymen stopped, spun in circles as if trying to find their bearings, then plunged into a grove of trees.

The corporal shook his head. “One thing we’ve had a problem with lately is poachers. There is a group of people out here who have been slaughtering deer, without permission, and leaving the carcasses behind. That could be the source of the smell.”

“Interesting.” Jocane scratched the back of his neck while staring at the ground. “I wonder if it’s all connected? Perhaps the brigands out here stirring up trouble are also your poachers.”

In this case, the passage needs more pronouns to make the words flow more smoothly. Think back to the old Schoolhouse Rock cartoon about pronouns. The character who sang the song started with the overuse of long names, which made the problem even more obvious. Then he repeated the passage with pronouns, and it all made sense. Here is the same section of my novel, but this time I’ll use too many pronouns:

The sun climbed higher in the azure sky, bringing with it a noticeable rise in temperature. Jocane removed his helmet and wiped the sweat from his forehead. He took a long drink of water before he called the sergeant’s second-in-command to him.

“How long before your cavalry returns?”

“I make it less than an hour, My Lord.”

He nodded. “Good. Once we have a general survey of the area, we’ll know where to start sending our patrols. I want to… what is that foul stench?”

He sniffed at the air. “I smell it too. Something has died.”

“Something big.” He peered around the field. “The wind is coming from the south. Send a few men that way to find what’s causing the smell. Whatever it is, we need to burn it or we’ll have a pestilence.”

“At once, My Lord.” He shouted a few orders, and six infantrymen left their positions to head away from the river. About a hundred yards away, they stopped, spun in circles as if trying to find their bearings, then plunged into a grove of trees.

He shook his head. “One thing we’ve had a problem with lately is poachers. There is a group of people out here who have been slaughtering deer, without permission, and leaving the carcasses behind. That could be the source of the smell.”

“Interesting.” He scratched the back of his neck while staring at the ground. “I wonder if it’s all connected? Perhaps the brigands out here stirring up trouble are also your poachers.”

In this case, I’ve replaced the characters’ names with pronouns in too many places. With the back and forth between Jocane and the corporal, and the mention of the infantrymen besides, it becomes unclear just who the author is referring to. And that is in a scene primarily focused on two characters. In a larger discussion, where four or five characters are involved, the situation gets worse. The key is to strike a balance. Once you mention a character’s name, as long as you continue to refer to the same character, you can use pronouns in place of the character’s name. In an extended scene, it doesn’t hurt to go back and mention the name once in a while. Just don’t overdo it.

Here is the passage the way it will appear when Faith is released in the coming weeks:

The sun climbed higher in the azure sky, bringing with it a noticeable rise in temperature. Jocane removed his helmet and wiped the sweat from his forehead. He took a long drink of water before he called the sergeant’s second-in-command to him.

“How long before your cavalry returns?”

“I make it less than an hour, My Lord.”

He nodded. “Good. Once we have a general survey of the area, we’ll know where to start sending our patrols. I want to… what is that foul stench?”

The corporal sniffed at the air. “I smell it too. Something has died.”

“Something big.” He peered around the field. “The wind is coming from the south. Send a few men that way to find what’s causing the smell. Whatever it is, we need to burn it or we’ll have a pestilence.”

“At once, My Lord.” He shouted a few orders, and six infantrymen left their positions to head away from the river. About a hundred yards away, they stopped, spun in circles as if trying to find their bearings, then plunged into a grove of trees.

The corporal shook his head. “One thing we’ve had a problem with lately is poachers. There is a group of people out here who have been slaughtering deer, without permission, and leaving the carcasses behind. That could be the source of the smell.”

“Interesting.” Jocane scratched the back of his neck while staring at the ground. “I wonder if it’s all connected? Perhaps the brigands out here stirring up trouble are also your poachers.”

You’ll notice that in places, even though I’ve switched from one character to another, I use pronouns instead of names. Since there are only two characters in the discussion, the change of paragraphs indicates a change of character. The reader can easily switch back and forth without being pulled out of the story. If this continued for several more paragraphs, I would go back and mention names once more, just to make sure the reader is clear on who is talking.

Sometimes this can be a difficult balance to strike: more pronouns, fewer pronouns, or do you have it just right? Ask other people to read it and give you feedback. Or read it out loud. Listening to yourself say the words will use a different part of your brain and give you a different perspective. There is also software out there that will read the words out loud for you. All of these things used together can help you feel comfortable that you have it right.

Another situation that can make for less-than-smooth reading is “said” tags. In my writing, I try to use “he said” and “she said” as infrequently as possible. Sometimes they will be necessary, but more often than not, they can be avoided. The more you use these tags, the greater the risk that you will pull the reader out of the story. Consider another passage from Faith, with too many “said” tags:

High Minister Alsom nodded. “Send him in,” he said.

Arloc followed the carpet to the base of the throne, where he nodded his head to show respect. He refused to bow to anyone, other than the Penator, and even then, only in public.

“Greetings, High Minister,” he said. “I bring counsel from his Divine Majesty, Penator Atallo. He has sent me to offer our assistance in the growing dispute between Mateo and Randor.”

“His help is most appreciated,” he said. “We in Mateo are, as all people of faith know, true followers of the Church. I seek to protect that which is ours, a matter made more difficult by the continued interference of that scoundrel to the west.”

Arloc pursed his lips. “A difficult situation indeed. He has many powerful allies. If you go to war, you must still watch out for your homeland. You could very easily march on Randor and burn the city to the ground, only to return and find the city of Mateo in ashes,” he said.

“I have thought of the same outcome, and it concerns me,” the High Minister said. “I will not tolerate the ongoing piracy, but I fear I cannot afford to invade. Perhaps if the Church would exert some pressure, Baltis might yield.”

“I’m sorry, but our options there are limited,” Arloc said. He held out his hands, palms up. “Penator Atallo has already publicly confirmed the presence of the walking dead in our lands. I myself have stood against them in battle, to learn their strengths and weaknesses. For us to tell Baltis to cease his efforts to prevent the undead from coming to our shores would be… inadvisable. Besides, his forces have already attacked the Church army in recent days. I don’t think the threat of invasion from Church soldiers will deter him.”

“I thought you said those soldiers were deserters,” he said.

“They deserted his army, but at his direction,” he said. “It was a way for him to honor his alliance with Plemme and Perlac, without angering the Church. We know this to be true, but we lack the proof.”

The wording, while grammatically correct, is fairly awkward. And it’s also redundant: if the text is in quotes, we know the character said it. The author doesn’t need to tell the reader someone said something, when it’s already clear that the words were said. The same goes for “thought” tags. If you put the text in italics, the reader will know it is inner monologue, and therefore the “thought” tag is unnecessary.

Here is the same passage from Faith, cleaned up:

High Minister Alsom nodded. “Send him in.”

Arloc followed the carpet to the base of the throne, where he nodded his head to show respect. He refused to bow to anyone, other than the Penator, and even then, only in public.

“Greetings, High Minister. I bring counsel from his Divine Majesty, Penator Atallo. He has sent me to offer our assistance in the growing dispute between Mateo and Randor.”

“His help is most appreciated. We in Mateo are, as all people of faith know, true followers of the Church. I seek to protect that which is ours, a matter made more difficult by the continued interference of that scoundrel to the west.”

Arloc pursed his lips. “A difficult situation indeed. He has many powerful allies. If you go to war, you must still watch out for your homeland. You could very easily march on Randor and burn the city to the ground, only to return and find the city of Mateo in ashes.”

“I have thought of the same outcome, and it concerns me. I will not tolerate the ongoing piracy, but I fear I cannot afford to invade. Perhaps if the Church would exert some pressure, Baltis might yield.”

“I’m sorry, but our options there are limited.” Arloc held out his hands, palms up. “Penator Atallo has already publicly confirmed the presence of the walking dead in our lands. I myself have stood against them in battle, to learn their strengths and weaknesses. For us to tell Baltis to cease his efforts to prevent the undead from coming to our shores would be… inadvisable. Besides, his forces have already attacked the Church army in recent days. I don’t think the threat of invasion from Church soldiers will deter him.”

“I thought you said those soldiers were deserters.”

“They deserted his army, but at his direction. It was a way for him to honor his alliance with Plemme and Perlac, without angering the Church. We know this to be true, but we lack the proof.”

That was a much easier read. And without the constant interruptions of the “said” tags, the reader will stay immersed in the story. As you read that passage, you knew that a character was speaking… even which character was speaking, without all the said tags. You will also notice that on occasion, I throw in the character’s name, along with a description of what the character is doing. This has two effects. First, it clarifies the writing by eliminating the “said” tags. And second, it helps to paint a picture of the action in the scene.

[RICK ADDS: Remember that dialog tags can tell us not only that someone is speaking, but also who is speaking by using the character’s name in the tag instead of a pronoun. A good way to avoid the need for that tag is to add a character action (e.g. Arloc pursed his lips) before the dialog. This will tell the reader who is about to speak–and will do it in an unobtrusive way–thus eliminating the need for a tag. But be careful of overusing this technique. If you preface every line of dialog with an action, you’ll lapse into a pattern that will soon annoy the reader. As with tags and pronouns, you need to find a balance.]

So go back and take a look at what you’re working on. Those sections that you’ve polished until they glow might not be glowing quite as brightly as you thought. Check the pronoun usage and the “said” tags. I’ll bet you’ll find that you have some more editing to do.

–Scott