Spit and Polish

Style Tips by Ann Burnett

  1. Avoid clichés like the plague! Do not use hackneyed phrases like ‘at this point in time’, ‘like a bat out of hell,’ ‘a bed of roses’, ‘as fresh as a daisy.’ Try to find a new way of saying the same thing. It makes for much more interesting writing.

For example, the winning simile in a radio competition described a large lady wearing white trousers as having ‘buttocks like two hippopotami sheltering under a white linen tablecloth.’


  1. Limit your use of adjectives and adverbs. A good exercise is to take out every example and then reread your work. Only put back those adjectives and adverbs which are essential or which add something to your piece.


  1. Avoid ‘nothing’ words e.g. nice, lovely, wonderful, beautiful, get, got, pretty, rather, just, really, very.


  1. Avoid words other than ‘said’ in direct speech except rarely and only to achieve a special effect. ‘Said’ is a wee anonymous word that disappears in front of the reader. Words like ‘gasped’, ‘snorted’, ‘yelled’ distract from the story if used too often.


  1. Do not say the same thing more than once – this is known as tautology. For example, ‘I received an unexpected surprise this morning.’ It wouldn’t be a surprise if it wasn’t unexpected. Or, ‘He set out the cards in a round circle.’ ‘She collected old antiques to sell in the market.’ ‘On looking back in retrospect, it had not been the best move.’


  1. Do not use more words than is necessary. Cut the waffle. Cut what is not needed, e.g. ‘He shrugged his shoulders.’ What else would he shrug? ‘He held a gun in his hand.’ Unless he was holding it between his teeth, there is no need to mention it was in his hand.


  1. Use apostrophes correctly. It’s means it is, it does not mean belonging to the cat or the country or any other abstract noun. And of course, avoid the greengrocer’s apostrophe as in apple’s and pear’s. An apostrophe is not needed in a word which is merely plural.


  1. Use direct speech correctly. Refer to a good grammar book e.g. Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots and Leaves or any child’s grammar book if you are in any doubt.


  1. Use powerful verbs rather than a verb + adverb. ‘He walked slowly’ = He strolled, he ambled, he sauntered, he plodded, he trudged, he tramped etc.


  1. And start with a bang. Make your opening paragraph as interesting, as thought- provoking, as arresting as you can. Make the reader want to continue.

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