Word Counts, Dialect, and Overusing Conjunctions


book doctor 2015by Bobbie Christmas

Q: How many words are in a young adult novel?

A: Young adult books for ages twelve and up should come in at 40,000 to 50,000 words. Yes, I know that the Harry Potter series pushes that envelope until it pops, but J. K. Rowling’s first book in the series was not disproportionately long. The success of the first book allowed her more freedom with the lengths of the remaining books in the series.

Q: My novel has both Anglo and Black characters. In the Black characters’ dialogue, is it okay to dispense with all of the apostrophes indicating dropped g’s, softened r’s, etc., and write the words phonetically? Members of my writers’ group say doing this will be considered racist and advise against it.

A: First let me note that while Anglo, which means a non-Hispanic white person, is capitalized, “black,” when it refers to a person of color, should not be capitalized, unless it appears at the beginning of a sentence.

Next let me address the issue of writing dialect. Can you honestly say that you know a single person who pronounces a g at the end of a word? None of us do, and for that reason alone, using an apostrophe for a dropped g or leaving off the g with no apostrophe is not indicative of thoughtful writing. If we all speak that way, why pick one character to point out that he or she speaks that way?

Dialect is a sticky issue, as editors will tell you, not only for the fact that it can mark a writer as a racist, but also because it is hard to read and harder to write well. Instead of relying on typographical tricks to indicate that someone speaks a little differently, it’s smarter to use vernacular—word choices and word order. For example, when the more grammatical dialogue might be “Where are you living?” in black vernacular it might be this: “Where you staying?” Some white southerners, on the other hand, might say, “Where’re you living at?”

Another way to show dialect without relying on it heavily is to reveal to readers how one or two words were pronounced. For example, we might write dialogue this way on a rare occasion:

“You don’t know nothing,” she said. She pronounced the last word “nuttin.”

Q: You are a national treasure, and your book, Write in Style, is a treasure trove for writers and editors. I’ve changed the way I write forever since purchasing it. Here’s my question: Now that I’ve removed so many “buts” and other connectives, I find myself using “and” more often. Is it possible to have too many “ands” in my manuscript?

A: It’s always best to avoid repetition. “And” is not a word that stands out much, but (and you can also use “but,” of course) it can also mean that the manuscript has too many compound sentences or sentences with too many words. Twelve is an ideal number of words in a sentence, but not all sentences should be the same length, either. Keep in mind, however, that twenty or more words could result in a confusing sentence.

My objection isn’t so much to the overuse of “and” or “but,” but the overuse of such conjunctions at the beginning of sentences. To avoid the pattern, often two sentences can be linked into one compound sentence.

For example, instead of the following:

I always loved fishing. But as I grew older, I could no longer tolerate the sun.

The stronger writer might write this:

I always loved fishing, but as I grew older, I could no longer tolerate the sun.

The strongest writer who wanted to avoid overusing “but” might write the same passage this way:

I always loved fishing. As I grew older, though, I could no longer tolerate the sun.

Only you can decide if you’ve used “and” too often. To find out how many times you’ve used it, in Word 2010, you can press Ctrl + F, and a Navigation box pops up. Put your cursor in the box and hit the spacebar once, type the word “and,” and then hit the spacebar again. This method avoids counting words with a-n-d in the middle and counts only the uses of the actual word “and.” If the manuscript is 50,000 words long and has 3,000 uses of the same word, the word “and” is obviously overused. I cannot conjure up the ideal ratio, though. Some things must be left up to the author.

For much more information on hundreds of subjects of vital importance to writers, order Purge Your Prose of Problems, a Book Doctor’s Desk Reference Book.

Send your questions to Bobbie@zebraeditor.com. Bobbie Christmas, book editor, owner of Zebra Communications, and quadruple-award-winning author of Write In Style: How to Use Your Computer to Improve Your Writing, will answer your questions quickly. Read more Ask the Book Doctor questions and answers at www.zebraeditor.com.


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