How to edit if you are an "underwriter"

Your creative writing prose goes too fast. Unlike many writers, who pour out words of senseless generosity, your style is terse. You’re an underwriter. But why?

Actually, this hook is a lie. I’m going to talk about edits that apply to both verbose and sparse writing. Time to put on the literature doctor hat.

Here are diagnostic tools to find symptoms of the real cause: unclear, bland, and overly stuffed language.

What! An underwriter has overly stuffed language? Yes. Let’s take a look.

The prevalence of common advice #

While editing your draft, the most common low-hanging fruit is to address:

  • Check for -ing (modifiers and progressive tense)
  • Get rid of was and is (the double whammy, hit-two-birds-in-one-stone advice):
    • to be + ing (progressive tense)
    • there + to be + noun (telling instead of showing)
  • Get rid of -ly (lazy adverbs)

Have you heard these points before?

As a basic guideline, overuse of progressive tense indicates overuse of modifiers, which indicates sentences with too many tangents, asides, and a lack of logical order.

I-Am-Walking-Down-The-Street-When— Syndrome

We get it, life is full of interruptions by random events. It was fine the first few times, but do you really have to begin all your scenes like this? Do you feel surprised 😱 at every single interruption that happens? If not, stop it.

Telling too much

“We entered the perfectly normal building. There was a huge desk smack gob in the center. There was a receptionist playing on his phone.”

🤮 🤮 🤮 There was a receptionist playing on his phone.

👍 👍 👍 A receptionist quickly put away his phone.

There + to be is a neutral sentence construction. It has no opinion, and it has no flavor. There + to be is what little kids say: “There! Over there!” It makes your writing sound childish.

Childish is not always a bad thing. If you point out an object, and its existence itself is so magnificent, so worthy and so brilliant as to leave you speechless with unspeakable opinions, sure, go ahead and use it. If the character is shocked or trauamtized or reduced to an infantile state of mind, go ahead and use it.

Kids play “I spy” because they need to train their speech, voicing what they see, before they can express complex opinions.

Grown adults have evolved beyond the “I spy” game (for the most part). When adults see something, it’s either important enough to have an opinion, or not.

Maybe your character is a creepy stalker looking for fantastical dreams to latch onto, or engaging in erotica where every booty is a sizzling filet mignon, in which case, go ahead and use there + to be all you want.

“There’s a bulge on the ceiling. Why is there a bulge on the ceiling? Oh my god, it’s leaking.”

Jammed Sentences #

Sentences that are doing everything and accomplishing nothing.

Racing to the kitchen, the chef dragged a chair laboriously to the door.

Already, this sentence tries to convey:

  • transition (Racing to the kitchen)
  • main action (the chef dragged a chair)
  • character state (laboriously)
  • a direct object’s change in position (to the door)

Way too much in way too little words! Focus, focus, focus.

In English, word order is rather strict because meaning is derived from order. The adverb laboriously is placed after a direct object. As a result, the scene is difficult to envision. I understand the chef is laboring, but it seems like the chair is laboring, too. It has an effect of personifying the chair. If that’s your goal, there are better ways to do so.

Piling against the door, the chairs leaned like unwanted orphans of a garage sale.

Adverb Syntax #

In speaking, we use voice tone to emphasize words, but in writing you don’t have control of how a reader subvocalizes the words. While you can use italics, overuse of italics is dictative and distracting.

Word order is used instead. Let’s start with the problematic adverb. We’ll change the adverb position and see what happens.

Adverb before verb #

The chef ++laboriously++ dragged a chair to the door.

In this case, laboriously enhances the verb. It links together chef------>dragged.

The adverb prepares the reader: ✋ “Take note, the upcoming verb is important.”

Split Infinitive Example

“She needs to instantly quit.”

She’s not just quitting, but her action must be instant in quality. Instant ramen. Instant quitting. Right now. Quit.

Adverb after verb #

The chef dragged ++laboriously++ a chair to the door.

The adverb coming after the verb puts emphasis on the consequences. It has a softer and poetic quality, and directs the reader’s attention to the aftermath of the action.

With this example, you can feel the chef becoming fatigued as he labors over the dragging.

Infinitive Example
“She needs to quit instantly.”

She needs to quit instantly [presumably so she can gain back precious time, and go for better opportunities].

Change or cull the adverb #

The word laboriously might be vague and repetitive, since it means “work hard.” The verb to drag already implies that the chef has to work hard to move the chair. We can try more creative methods:

The chef dragged a ++stubborn++ chair to the door.

Otherwise, if you want to keep an adverb, it should serve as clarification or as a literary device.

For example:

The chef dragged ++gently++ a chair out for the guest.

To show the chef is a burly gentleman, contrast a rough action with gentility.

Clauses and Modifiers #

“Try not to start sentences with participle clauses.” Another common piece of advice. There’s a couple of reasons why this is oft suggested.

If you’ve been reading carefully, you will notice that I have been starting sentences with clauses.

Racing to the kitchen, the chef dragged a chair laboriously to the door.

If we rearrange the clause…

The chef, racing to the kitchen, dragged a chair laboriously to the door.

… it’s still awkward.

“Racing to the kitchen” grammatically serves as a modifier, yet authorial intent is transition. Unless the chef has superhuman strength, he cannot race while dragging a chair. Immediately arriving at the door makes little sense. Is he dragging a chair while running? Entered the room and blocked the door with a chair?

Readers know more is supposed to be happening, but the writer rushes through events. The reader is annoyed because they have to mentally fix the sentence. Writers are supposed to make reading enjoyable, not tiresome!

Transitions indicate a passage of time and location. Modifiers are extra details.

Modifiers are not transitions.


While racing to the kitchen, the chef noticed a shadow and thought nothing of it.


Racing to the kitchen, each chef felt determined to grab the highest quality ingredients first.

Possible Solutions #

  1. Get rid of improperly used modifiers and use plain sentence structure.

    The chef raced to the kitchen and dragged a chair to the door.

    The plain form of a verb automatically takes care of timing, since it can covey both continuous or completed action. It’s plain and doesn’t make assumptions.

  2. Change the verb.

    Sweating, the chef dragged a chair to the door.

    In this case, sweat is an unconscious action that can happen simultaneously. It compliments the imagery of dragging the chair. It’s a support detail, and while not crucial to understanding the sentence, it enhances the message.

Transitioning within the paragraph #

Clauses and modifier on their own are not bad. Usually, they are improperly deployed in a larger context. For example:

Touting an old book, Abigail repeated trite and cliche advice. Slightly miffed at the reactions, Brittany stood up and sighed.

On their own, the sentences are fine. However, when placed together, the change in subject from Abigail to Brittany confuses the reader, because the clauses are conflated with transition. It weakens the paragraph by diluting its central topic. Are we supposed to think about the irony between their mutual annoyance at each other, or did the author just mess up?

We could revise it by using a normal Subject Verb Conjunction strucutre: Brittany sighed, and shit happened:

Touting an old book, Abigail repeated trite and cliche advice. Brittany sighed quietly, and Abigail heard the sigh as an affront louder than a turbine engine.

Diction #

Back to the “Race to the kitchen” example:

The chef raced to the kitchen and dragged a chair to the door.

You would think that because race is mentioned first, the rushing and hurriedness of the action are most important. However, rushing is a symptom of several motivations. Maybe the chef is impatient. Maybe nervous. Maybe late. Maybe all of those, and a wallop of shame. We cannot identify the main motivator.

So, let’s pick desperation to reach the kitchen.

Diction is what defines connotation and emotionality. Replace raced with barged:

The chef barged into the kitchen, then dragged a chair to the door.

I decided to add then to pace the sentence. The act of barging is disruptive and requires a pause, after all.

Specificity #

We can make it more zesty. Instead of focusing on the chef, what happens if we depict his method of entry?

++With a leap,++ the chef barged into the kitchen, then dragged a chair up against the door.

Now we know how he enters the kitchen: fast enough to fly through the air.

Let’s include a hint to his emotional state.

++In a drunken leap,++ the chef barged into the kitchen, then dragged a chair up against the door.

His entry is ungraceful. The chef might be intoxicated; with adrenaline or fear or alcohol. Who knows, it doesn’t matter that much.

Why use in as the proposition? #

in indicates a state of being. It combines the expressions:

bound in a single leap + he was in a drunken state = in a drunken leap

With and In are interchangable, because we can wield parts of our body as a tool (with a hammer, with a knife, with my legs).

However, now we have an issue of repetitive sounds, In... into...

In a drunken leap, the chef barged into the kitchen, then dragged a chair up against the door.

I personally don’t like it. Repeating the same steps as before, we can find a different way to convey the same information:

In a drunken leap, the chef barged through the kitchen door, then dragged a chair up against it.

Now there is an issue: using through might suggest that the chef busts a hole through the door instead of opening it. You can use through doors plural, but prefer through entrance singular. I think in the long run, it doesn’t really matter, you definitely hit a door hard enough to almost go through it. However, for this exercise we’ll use doors plural.

Results #

We went from:

Racing to the kitchen, the chef dragged a chair laboriously to the door.


In a drunken leap, the chef barged through the kitchen doors, then dragged a chair up against them.

From 13 words to 18, while gaining several times more lucidity.

However, we still need to indicate transition, the “racing” movement of the chef heading to the kitchen. Transition, location, action, and motivation. Spread out info in a logical manner as the reader’s attention demands.

Defending himself to keep a monster out:

He raced back to the kitchen. In a drunken leap, the chef barged through the doors and shut them, then dragged a chair up against them.

Keeping the door open by using a chair as a stopper:

He raced back to the kitchen. In a drunken leap, the chef barged through the doors, then propped them open with a chair. A draft was ushered in, and the receipts hanging off steel hoods crinkled and fluttered.

Stream of Consciousness #

Stream-of-consciousness is supposed to be an initmate style, resembling the serendipity of a wandering mind. If you want to try a “dizzying,” run-on construction, here are tips to make it easier for your readers to follow:

  • Use connective words for new modifiers and clauses: that and which.
  • Reinforce and engage other senses (onomatopoeia, smell, touch, etc.).
  • Order of presentation

The order of presentation is the most crucial part of this style. The subjects need to wander from point to point in a way that feels natural.

For example:

The chef raced back to the kitchen and in a drunken leap barged through the doors and propped them open with a chair, ushering a draft that fluttered through the receipts, crinkly scraps which hung off steel hoods.

If I said something like:

…ushering a draft that fluttered through the receipts, steel hoods dripping with crinkly paper.

Receipts made of steel? Is this a new technology I haven’t heard of?

Cull the words that and which? #

You may hear advice to get rid of that & which. Again, very simplistic advice which will fail you if you have a stream-of-consciousness, romantic style. However, it can also be a symptom of too many clauses, in a sentence trying to achieve too much.

The that & which problem is rife in academic writing. The main goal of academic writing is to be impressive, due to competition for grants, publication, approvals. The difficulty of explaining complex abstract topics doesn’t help.

That & which create distance. It’s very easy to fall into the trap of distance, but it can be used to your advantage. The question you must answer: Why is the narrator distant? Why do we follow certain conventions?

Case 1
“Here laid the rose that didn’t have thorns, an outcast which shedded its swords for peace.”

Eulogistic, memorial language is a popular use case to symbolize a groundbreaking or fantastical incident.


Case 2
“The rose didn’t have thorns and shedded its swords for peace.”

The second example is direct and down-to-earth.

English is a mutt language that relies on verbs to make a point. Anglo cultural attitude ingrains active participation, so verb emphasis and active voice are incredibly important tenets. Finally, in recent decades, the style of colloquial, casual, and parasocial, reigns supreme.

A compromise?
Here laid the rose which didn’t arm itself with thorns, instead trading its swords for peace.

Further Thoughts #