Thursday, January 23, 2014

Let Tom Swift Inform Your Writing

By Carolyn Howard-Johnson

Ever heard of Tom Swifties?

Maybe you're too young to be familiar with the classic Tom Swift adventures for boys. Or maybe you're a girl who never read a Tom Swift book nor cares to.

Tom Swifties are one-line jokes lampooning the style of Victor Appleton, the author of the original Tom Swift books. People started making jokes about his overuse of adverbs and the unnecessary taglines he wrote into his dialogue. Like the Polish jokes, they were so much fun that a whole series of them became available for the pun-loving. The author of these classics, of course, laughed all the way to the bank. But that's a lesson for one of my marketing seminars, not this article on writing.

Tom Swifties are something from America's literary past. This is now. I haven't dared to go to the new books in the series but I assume that this outdated writing has been eliminated from them.

You'll want to minimize tags and adverbs in your writing, too!

An example from one of the Swift books will suffice to let you know what to watch for. (Thank you to Roy Peter Clark for the example.)

"'Look!' suddenly exclaimed Ned. 'There's the agent now!...I'm going to speak to him!' impulsively declared Ned.'"

Even authors who swear that adverbs are always very, very good things to use and are reluctant to give up their clever taglines can see how, well . . . .awful this is. In fact, I have to reassure people the quotation is real! Some of the writing that comes to the desks of agents and editors looks almost as bad. Here's how you can make sure yours doesn't:

1. Use taglines only when one is necessary for the reader to know who is speaking.

2. Almost always choose "he said" or "she said" over anything too cute, exuberant or wordy like "declared" and "exclaimed."

3. Cut the "ly" words ruthlessly, not only in dialogue tags but everywhere. You will find specific techniques for strengthening your writing in the process of eliminating adverbs in The Frugal Editor: Put Your Best Book Forward to Avoid Humiliation and Ensure Success. This book will also give you some computer tricks for making these edits easy.

You don't have to know the reasons or the techniques for making the "ly" and tagline edits easy, of course. You can follow Nike's advice and "Just do it!" But learning all you can about turning adverbs to your advantage is never a bad thing.

For more help with editing and all things related (like grammar, spelling, formatting) go to or refer to your copy of The Frugal Editor: Do-it-yourself editing secrets for authors: From your query letter to final manuscript to the marketing of your new bestseller, now in its second edition as an e-book. It is available at

Carolyn Howard-Johnson, award-winning author of The Frugal Book Promoter: How to get nearly free publicity on your own or by partnering with your publisher ( and The Frugal Editor: Do-it-yourself editing secrets for authors: From your query letter to final manuscript to the marketing of your new bestseller ( Both books are winners of USA Book News "Best Professional Book" award the first in the HowToDoItFrugally series of books for writers holds Book Publicists of Southern California's coveted Irwin Award. The Frugal Editor is also the winner of Reader Views Literary Awards and Next Generation Indie Book Award for Marketing. Carolyn is also the author of "The Great First Impression Book Proposal: Everything You Need To Know To Sell Your Book in 20 Minutes or Less," the first in a series of inexpensive booklets for authors.


Carolyn Howard-Johnson said...

Thank you so much for letting me share my tips on dialogue with your visitors. I know that agents and publishers often judge an entire work on the professionalism of the dialogue!

Carolyn Howard-Johnson
Loving helping writers get read with my HowToDoItFrugally series of books for writers including the multi award-winning second edition of The Frugal Book Promoter (

Yvonne Perry said...

Thank you for being our guest blogger, Carolyn. Congratulations on your hew book.

Lynnette Phillips said...

Thanks for this Carolyn. It's surprising how many writers don't think this just sounds wrong to the ear.

Lynnette Phillips said...

Thanks Carolyn. I used to think that things like this would be caught before it got to someone like us when the writer read it back to himself.

Carolyn Howard-Johnson said...

The thing is, Lynnette, we don't know what we don't know and we don't hear or see what we don't know. Once someone has given us an inkling, we do better at recognizing ugly stuff. (-: