Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Red Shirt Editing

On our chapter's loop, a few of our members were shooting emails with dialogue from an old movie (Galaxy Quest, a spoof of Star Trek) and someone made reference to "red shirts." For those who don't know, in Star Trek, the original series, whenever a security officer who wore a red shirt left the ship with the landing party, he was certain to be a goner.

Well, lately I've been working on editing (2nd or 3rd time) one of my books and the mention of red shirts got me to thinking. We all have phrases or words we have to look for in our writing that need to be deleted. They are like the fellows with the red shirts, doomed once they land on the page. I may be pushing it with the analogy, but that's the way my mind works.

I look for excessive uses of the word WAS. Some are okay, but not herds of them. Areas I can change to action. Ways to add dialogue without dragging down the story. Unnecessary words. For example: His hand caught her hand. Changed to His hand caught hers. Or He caught her hand.

Then there are HE FELT, SHE BELIEVED, HE THOUGHT and SHE REALIZED. Those words need to be deleted and the feeling, belief, expectation and realization should be told or preferably shown.

Of course, every time I pick up one of my grammar books, I learn something new. For example that the pronouns everything, something, anyone, and everyone are singular. And it doesn't matter how many prepositional phrases that appear to make it plural are around it.

I have three grammar books I love to use. ENGLISH GRAMMAR FOR DUMMIES (my kind of people) and ENGLISH GRAMMAR IN USE and ADVANCE GRAMMAR IN USE. The last two are actually for British grammar but I don't care. They come with CDs that I can do practice tests. Hey, we Americans love to award them with Oscars all the time. (LOVE YOU, COLIN FIRTH!) There has to be a reason.

So what are some of the red-shirt words or phrases you look for to delete?  What are your favorite grammar books?

From Galazy Quest
Do you know why? Because my character isn't important enough for a last name, because I'm gonna die five minutes in.


Anne Gallagher said...

Still, just, really, and hopefully are my red shirt words. I've gotten better at was. At least on the second draft.

I don't even know if I have a grammar book. I'll have to look.

Carla Swafford said...

Not sure you have a grammar book? LOL! I couldn't imagine being without one. But that's me. My memory is so bad, I have to refresh it nearly daily.

Those are words I have to watch out for too.

Chudney Thomas said...

Those Anne mentioned and That. Thanks for the reminder. I too own Grammar for dummies and I recently unearthed another one from my college days.

Lisa Dunick said...

Gerunds are my weakness. And since they're not actually verbs, I usually go through and eliminate as many as possible and replace them w/ action-oriented verbs instead.
Although, I do often stick non-grammatical things in if I think that the character would say it. For instance, most people don't use that and which correctly, and using it correctly in dialog would probably come out really stilted.

Allen said...


Anne Gallagher said...

After hunting through my personal library, I found, Strunk and White, The Elements of Style.

And I thank you very much for making me look for it because I knew I had a copy (have actually been looking for it for weeks) and couldn't find it. I have two.

However, that is the only grammar book I have. And I don't think it counts, does it.

Kat Jones said...

That, still, and. Sometimes I'll get stuck on one word for that day. It will keep reappearing in every sentence it seems.

I also have The Elements of Style. My go-to grammar guides are The Writer's Digest Grammar Deak Reference & Grammar Girl's Quick & Dirty Tips for Better Writing

Heather said...

My favorite grammar book is Plain English for Lawyers by Richard Wydick. You don't have to be a lawyer to benefit from it; it focuses on writing simply and clearly. It has a great chapter on word choice (strong nouns and verbs).

Carla Swafford said...

Oooo, THAT! Me too. Christy Reece called me out on that one. Thanks, Chudney.

Carla Swafford said...

Lisa, oh, yeah. I try to avoid WHICH as I use it wrong almost every time.

Carla Swafford said...

Allen, just only if people would understood how handy that word is to us writers. LOL!

Carla Swafford said...

Anne, that certainly counts. I have a copy of Strunk and White, The Elements of Style and forget to check it out too. Hmm, I need to find mine. The little booger is so easy to misplace.

Carla Swafford said...

Grammar Girl has a website too, right? I think I've used the website a few time when I was too lazy to look something up. Instead I would Bing the problem. :-)

Kat, I do that too. Geez, now I'm really sounded like the worse writer ever.

Another thing I do is catch myself using the same letter for several words in one sentence. "Jason just wanted to justify the shooting."

Carla Swafford said...

As a lawyer, I bet that does come in handy, Heather.

Somewhere in my stacks on paper, I have a nice list of strong verbs. While I'm looking for S&W, I'll look for them too.

Lexi said...

Even, only, ever, and just are some of the weasel words I have to watch for. I can't write without a thesaurus. I have two, one that sits on my desk at work and one that I haul around with me in my computer bag. They are the Oxford American Writer's Thesaurus (a relatively new one for me, got it last year) and my old standby, Roget's 21st Century Thesaurus. I'm on my second copy of that bad boy. Oh, and I also have to have a dictionary! Grammar Girl is my go to for grammar questions, aside from an ancient paperback grammar book my mom, the former English teacher, gave me.

M.V.Freeman said...

Love those grammar books, I'm going to look into it. As for my words/phrases that drive me nuts:
Was, words/actions with "ing", and the word had...(bascially past tense)

I fight for grammar because its not a natural thing for me. I wish it was.

Carla Swafford said...

Lexi, I love that WORD has a dictionary and thesaurus built inside. So quick to type in the word and check it out. Oh, yes. Can't live without the thesaurus when I'm looking for that certain word.

Carla Swafford said...

Mary, you have the same problem as Lisa. Gerunds! --ing words in the beginning of a sentence--

Is that right, Lisa?

Carla Swafford said...

Hey, I almost forgot to mention if you want a great website to check out your grammar or to get tips, go to

One of Southern Magic members run it with her CP. Hey, Annie!

Louisa Cornell said...

Late to comment, but Carla, I LOVE this analogy! What a great post! Red shirt editing!

'That' is one of my search words. I keep a running list. I try to eliminate as many 'was'es (is that a word?) as I can. It is a bit different writing historicals as the language can be a bit more florid, but the key is to make sure it isn't overdone. Some of the British historicalisms I look out for are

of the moment

Carla Swafford said...

Thanks, Lousia. Do you find yourself spelling honor with a "u"? I do and figure it's from reading all of those Harlequins from Britian. LOL!

Louisa Cornell said...

Yes, I do! I also spell theater as theatre and colour instead of color! LOL