iPhones And The Art Of Writing Simply

Consider this sentence:

In order to make a determination regarding whether negotiations should be entered into at this point in time, an evaluation of benefits and detriments was made.

If your brain turned off after the fourth or fifth word, it’s not because you’re not a lawyer. Or, if you are a lawyer, it’s not because you’re not a smart lawyer.

It’s because it’s a terrible sentence.

Try this one instead:

To decide whether to negotiate now, we weighed the pluses and minuses.

The second sentence says the same thing as the first, but using 12 words instead of 26. And the 12 words are simpler and clearer.

The rule of keeping it simple applies to other types of writing too.

Compare my poorly-written version of a sentence from Joy Fielding’s The Wild Zone (see page 113 of Pocket Books paperback edition) to the real thing:


At that very moment, she made an identification of the vehicle as the automobile she’d been followed by the night before, which vehicle she’d made the assumption was owned by the detective who had been hired by her husband.

The real sentence:

She’d recognized the car immediately as the one that had tailed her the night before, the one she’d assumed belonged to a detective hired by her husband.

Why Simple Is Better

In both pairs of examples, the second sentence is easier to understand and more likely to keep the reader’s attention. That matters to me no matter what I’m writing.

In law or for business, I usually write to explain something to someone – whether it’s a client, a colleague or a judge – or to persuade someone to see things my way. It’s harder to do either if I make the reader struggle to understand me or, worse yet, to stay awake. When

I write fiction, obviously I want and need to capture and keep the reader’s attention. Excessive words bog down a story and can bury the even most exciting plot twists and characters.

Simplifying my writing also allows me to cover more ground.

In my law practice, I’m usually bound by a page limit. If my sentences are twice as long as they need to be, that means I can make only half the arguments or must cut some of the examples or cases that support those arguments.

And even if I don’t need my whole page limit, I’d rather send a court or a client a well-written 7-page document than a cumbersome 15-page one. In fiction, clearer, cleaner sentences allow me more space to develop character, advance the plot, or describe the setting.

For these reasons, over half my writing time is spent cutting. (I’m not alone in this – the saying “If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter” has been attributed to many people, including Voltaire and Mark Twain.)

Writing more simply sounds, well, simple, and it is when comparing two sentences the way I did above.

Looking at an entire manuscript, though, can be daunting. So I’ve tried to break down some points I look for when editing.

  • Get rid of words you don’t need:

Lawyers in particular love unnecessary words, I suspect because we spent a lot of money to go to law school and we want to sound like it.

“Attached hereto is the aforementioned contract” sounds like something a lawyer would write. On the other hand, “the contract is attached” is just plain English.

One place to spot words you can cut is in prepositional phrases.

In the sample sentences, I changed “in order to” to “to.” Similarly, “at this point in time” became “now” and “at that very moment” changed to “immediately.”

Using the Find function in Word to search for prepositions, especially “of,” “at” and “to,” is a great way to discover phrases you can simplify. Read each phrase and ask yourself how you might say it in one word or, at most, two.

  • Don’t just be — do:

Another way to make writing sharper is to write in active rather than passive voice.

Active voice: “her husband hired a detective.”

Passive voice: “A detective was hired by her husband.”

“We evaluated” (active); “an evaluation was made” (passive).

Active voice shortens sentences and makes them easier to read and understand. It also keeps the focus on the actor.

If you won an award or a race, don’t you want people to know you won it? And be excited about it? “I won the race” sounds a lot more exciting than “A race was won” or even “A race was won by me.”

Of course, sometimes you want to be anonymous. In his 1987 State of the Union speech, President Reagan didn’t say he’d made mistakes regarding the Iran-Contra scandal, he said “serious mistakes were made….” Who made them? Perhaps no one will focus on that.

Another time for passive voice is when you use it to emphasize the object of the sentence.

For instance, if you and your friend have loved every book that won an Edgar Award, and you want to persuade your friend to read a particular writer, you might say, “An Edgar Award was won by this writer.” The point is “wow, an Edgar Award, that writer must be amazing.”

Yet another reason to use passive voice is when you don’t know who performed an action: “A tower had been built in the village” might be the only way you can frame a sentence if you don’t know who built the tower.

Short of a good reason to use passive voice, however, phrase all your sentences in active voice and see how much more compelling it makes your writing. You can find passive voice by searching for the “to be” words — was, were, is, are. The word “by” also often signals passive voice (think “was followed by” or “was loved by” or “was won by”.

  • Trade nouns for verbs:

I also look for instances where I can substitute a verb for what I think of as a noun phrase. (English teachers or editors out there may know the technical term for what I mean.)

The phrase “enter into negotiations” is an example of what I call a noun phrase – it uses the noun “negotiations” as part of a phrase that conveys an action. But one verb – negotiate – can say the same thing.

Similarly, above, the verb “assumed” replaced the noun phrase “made the assumption.”

As with minimizing passive voice, this type of editing not only eliminates words, it makes the sentences more active and interesting.

While doing this, you can replace a noun not only with a verb, but with a stronger verb or a verb that’s more commonly used or easier to read.

“I talked with Beth” flows better than “I had a conversation with Beth” or even “I conversed with Beth.” Similarly, “I had an argument with Beth,” might become “I fought with Beth.”

  • Trade verbs for better verbs:

Replacing a verb plus an adverb with a stronger verb also helps writing clip along.

A few examples:

  1. Walked swiftly: hurried
  2. Walked casually: strolled
  3. Laughed nervously: tittered

You get the idea.

Find the adverbs by searching “ly”.

Also, even if the “to be” words aren’t part of a phrase that’s in passive voice, consider replacing them with a more interesting verb. “I felt sad” conveys stronger emotion than “I was sad.” “I grieved” sounds even more vivid.

Everything I’ve read about Steve Jobs said he always focused on simplicity in his designs.

I saw this the first time I got an iPhone and compared it to my Blackberry. (Remember those?)

The Blackberry had all kinds of icons for different functions, but after six years I only knew how to do two things on it – call and email. I hesitated to switch to an iPhone because I couldn’t imagine what else I’d do with it.

Within two months of owning one, it had become my daily alarm clock, back up GPS, radio station, oven timer, weather channel, and Internet browser. And, oh yes, I call and email with it.

So borrow a page from Apple’s playbook and don’t clutter your writing with words that take up space and seem too cumbersome to figure out.

Instead, have some fun and write the iPhone version of a legal brief, novel, or business letter.

Until next Friday–

L.M. Lilly

Should You Use Beta Readers?

Five or six years ago I’d never heard the term beta reader. Now almost all authors I know use them as part of their revision process, as do I.

Recently, however, I read a post by Dean Wesley Smith that cautions against relying on beta readers.

A beta reader looks at a complete manuscript and gives the writer comments. This person is not a professional editor or an author, but is someone who reads a lot, ideally in the genre in which the author is writing.

Some authors send beta readers a first draft.

I usually send my novel out only when it’s close to finished. My early drafts are very rough, and I do a lot of my writing in the rewriting phase. I don’t want other people’s views to skew my take on my own story.

The main benefit I’ve found from beta readers is that they let me know when they can’t follow or don’t understand a scene or plot twist. Also, if they don’t understand why a character does something or strongly dislike a character I’d thought readers would resonate with, it cues me to double check to see if enough of what I know about that character has actually gotten out of my head and onto the page.

Some authors use dozens of beta readers and try to incorporate all of their comments. For me, that would be overwhelming, so I’ve never tried it.

In Killing The Sacred Cows Of Publishing: Beta Readers Help You Dean Wesley Smith strongly discourages using multiple readers, as it can easily turn into writing by committee.

Also, and contrary to much of the common advice to indie authors, Smith argues against using beta readers at all, stating: “Grow a backbone and believe in your own writing.” He makes good points about the downsides of the process and also about the fears and lack of confidence that may motivate writers to seek out many opinions.

If you’re using or considering using beta readers, I highly recommend checking out his post.

Until Sunday-

L. M. Lilly

7 Tips For Proofreading Your Novel

Lately I’ve been writing about what tasks authors might need or prefer to do themselves. While proofreading is a good task to outsource because it’s so hard to see errors in your own work, it remains a skill every writer needs, which is why I’m sharing proofreading tips below.

Even if you send your novel to a proofreader, it’s important to proofread your novel yourself at least once. Doing so will help you to ensure all errors are caught and to spot quirks in your writing, such as overuse of certain words. (For a while, I added the word “up” all over the place—stand up, start up, fix up—and never noticed how distracting it was.)

So here are my seven tips:

Take Time Off

After you call your novel finished—truly finished as in ready to hit publish or submit to an agent or publisher—set it aside for a week. If that’s not possible, take at least a day to do anything but write. Take a vacation day, focus on your other job or profession, binge watch a series on Netflix.

Whatever it takes, clear your mind. After that, it’ll be easier to spot errors.

Read Three Words At A Time

Grouping words in three is one of the best ways to spot grammar errors, misused homonyms, and spelling. (Homonyms, which are words that sound the same but are spelled differently, such as “where” and “wear,” are the main reason you can’t rely on your word processor’s spell checker alone for proofreading.)

As you read, pause after each third word and at the end of each line. With this technique, the first sentence of this article would read like this:

Lately I’ve been         writing about what   tasks authors might

need or prefer           to do   themselves.

Alter How The Manuscript Looks

If you normally rewrite on screen, change the format. Making the words look different makes it less likely you’ll read through errors.

A few ways to achieve that:

  • Print your manuscript and review it on paper
  • If you’re in Microsoft Word, use the Print Preview or View function to make it look more like a page in a book
  • Enlarge or shrink the page
  • Change the font or font size
  • If you’re proofreading a Vellum file, switch from iBook to the Kindle view and back every few pages
Read Aloud

It takes a long time to read a novel out loud, so while it’s ideal, it’s unrealistic. But you can shift from reading to yourself to reading aloud every few pages. It’ll help you get a fresh look and spot mistakes.

If you’ve made changes or updates, read out loud the paragraph where you made the edit and the ones before and after it. That will ensure you spot any errors you accidentally introduced.

Use A Ruler

If you proofread on paper, place a ruler under each line as you read. This will help you focus on each line on its own and will make it less likely you’ll get lost in the story. You can also run your fingers under the line as you read, but that’s not quite as effective.

If you’re proofing on screen, you can get a similar effect by proofing each line at the bottom of the page as you scroll up.

Read Backwards

Rather than starting on page one of your novel, start with the last page. Read it top to bottom, then read the second-to-last page, then the third-to-last page.

This requires a bit of double reading when you reach the end of a page, as you’ll need to glance at the following one to be sure the transition makes sense. But overall it doesn’t take much longer than reading through from beginning to end, and it will keep you from getting lost in the story and missing errors.

Aim For Perfection

Make it your goal to publish or submit a novel that’s free from all errors. Is that realistic? Maybe not, especially if your manuscript is 70,000 or 80,000 words or more.

But if you aim for perfection, the odds are, at worst, you will catch most typos. If you mentally shrug your shoulders and decide that typing “where” instead of “wear” or “therefore” instead of “therefor” really doesn’t matter, it’s likely you’ll produce work with many errors.

I hope that’s helpful. If there are typos in the above, I’ll be really embarrassed.

Until Friday—


L.M. Lilly

P.S. If you’d like a second set of eyes, the proofreader I use for my novels is great at spotting typos, missing words, and unintentional grammar errors (yes, there are intentional ones in my fiction, which she understands!). You can find more information at SMR Proofreading & Editing.

To Be or To Do: The Oscars, Writing, and Active v. Passive Voice

Last Sunday, I wrote about how vital conflict is to story, and how lack of conflict is usually the reason a novel lags, if it does, or a reader loses interest.

Today, let’s talk about keeping your writing interesting on a line-by-line basis. One of the best ways to do that is to use active rather than passive voice.

Here’s a quick comparison:

“An evaluation of pluses and minuses was made.”

Puts you to sleep, right? Even though it’s only eight words. That’s passive voice.

“We weighed the pluses and minuses.”

That’s active voice, and it sounds a lot more interesting.

Why is active voice more engaging?

The second sentence, written in active voice, is stronger and more engaging. Here are a few reasons why:

  • People:

Most readers would rather read about people than abstract concepts like “an evaluation.” Even in types of fiction that are about new concepts or advances in technology or dystopian societies, readers choose fiction rather than non-fiction because they want to immerse themselves in stories about people, not simply about a new machine, an evil empire, or a medical advance.

That’s why active voice is stronger than passive–it keeps the focus on the actor, making it more personal. If you won an award or a race, don’t you want people to know you won it? And be excited about it?

“I won the race” sounds a lot more exciting than “A race was won” or even “A race was won by me.”

  • Action:

We like to read about people doing something, not sitting there. “An evaluation was made” calls to mind a bunch of businessmen in gray suits boring each other to death around a conference table. I’ve attended that type of meeting many times and have no desire to sit in on a fictional one.

“We weighed the pluses and minuses” isn’t exactly “We saved the world from killer cyborgs,” but it sounds like these people are doing something, not merely sitting. Waving their arms as they argue, maybe, or drawing circles and arrows on white boards, or pulling out a scale. Something.

  • Words (fewer of them):

Active voice also helps you get rid of words you don’t need, so it shortens sentences and makes them easier to read and understand.

The second sentence above is 6 words instead of 8, so it’s three-quarters the length of the first. That doesn’t seem like much of a difference when you look at one sentence, but it’s the difference between an 80,000-word novel and a 60,000-word novel. 

The 60,000 word novel would move faster and provide a more exciting reader experience. Or you could use the extra 20,000 words to expand your plot, deepen your characters, or add a sub-plot.

When should you use passive voice?

There are times, however, when using passive voice is better.

  • Sometimes you want to be anonymous

When the wrong film was announced as the winner for Best Picture at this year’s Academy Award ceremony, PricewaterhouseCoopers took responsibility, but used a bit of passive voice, which de-emphasized who made the error:

“We deeply regret the mistakes that were made during the presentation….”

President Ronald Reagan also famously used “mistakes were made” when talking about his role in the Iran-Contra affair.

Who made the mistakes? Perhaps no one will focus on that. Just ignore the man behind the curtain….

  • You don’t know who did what

To be fair, PwC may have used the “mistakes were made” type of language in its initial statement out of uncertainty over who specifically caused the mix up. (And it did say “We regret,” which is active voice. Still, you can regret something happened that you had nothing to do with, so we’re back to the passive “mistakes were made” phrasing.)

PwC’s motives aside, passive voice works well when you don’t know who performed an action: “A tower had been built in the village” might be the only way you can frame a sentence if you don’t know who built the tower.

  • You want to emphasize the object of the sentence

Sometimes the object of the sentence is the point. Above I said “When the wrong film was announced…” to make “wrong film” the focus of the sentence. It didn’t matter to me who made the announcement.

Similarly, if you and your friend love a certain dessert, you might say, “Flourless chocolate cake with pineapple sorbet will be served at nine.”

If you’re me, you’re showing up at nine regardless who is serving the cake.

  • You’re not sure which pronoun to use

Sometimes writers use passive voice rather than “he” or “she” if they don’t know the gender of the person involved:

“The store was robbed last night.”

You can often refashion the sentence to make it more active, though:

“A thief robbed the store last night.”

Spotting passive voice

The grammar check in whatever word processor you use may highlight passive voice for you. I’ve heard good things about the site Grammarly, too, though I haven’t used it myself.

You can also use the Find function (or your own eyes) to search for “to be” words: was, were, is, are. The word “by” also often signals passive voice (think “was followed by” or “was loved by” or “was won by”).

The rule of thumb

A good rule is to phrase your sentences in active voice unless you have a strong reason to do otherwise. Try it with a chapter of your latest novel or your next email or article and see how much more compelling your writing becomes.

Let me know how it goes!

Until Friday–


L. M. Lilly



Self-Editing For Fiction Writers

Whether you plan to submit your writing to a publisher or agent or to publish it yourself, you need to know how to line edit your work. That goes beyond basics such as correct spelling and grammar. For your writing to be clear and strong, you’ll need to use active voice most of the time, avoid repeating the same words, and replace weak verbs with strong ones, among other things.

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers is the best book I’ve ever read on how to review and edit your own writing to make it shine. It’s easy to read and easy to apply the points the authors make.

Have a peaceful, wonderful weekend (and holiday if you’re celebrating one).


L. M. Lilly

P.S. Even if you plan to hire an editor and proofreader to review your manuscript, you still need to know what a properly edited piece of fiction looks like. If you don’t, you’ll run the risk of paying a significant amount to a poor editor, only to find out after you hit publish and see reader reviews that your novel is filled with typos and grammar mistakes.