Word by Word

Practical insights for writers from Jessica P Morrell

Cheat Sheets

Written By: Jessica Morrell

When I was in college one of the ways I passed my most difficult classes was to construct cheat sheets. Now, this didn’t mean that I’d sneak the pages into the exam, but rather that I’d list the most important ideas and concepts in my own handwriting to press them into memory. With that in mind, here are a few that I hope will help your writing life.


  1. 25 Reasons Manuscripts are Rejected
  2. Fiction Checklist
  3. Fiction Tips
  4. Modifiers
  5. Vivid Verbs
  6. Weak Phrases
  7. Subplot Worksheet
  8. Character Dossier

25 Reasons Why Manuscripts Get Rejected

©Jessica P. Morrell

I could write an entertaining novel about rejection slips, but I fear it would be overly long. ~ Louise Brown

Into every writer’s life a bit of rejection must fall. In fact, the road to publication is often paved with rejection. Sometimes these rejections help us grow as writers; sometimes they are baffling or heartbreaking. Particularly stinging are form rejection letters that provide few or no clues about why your work has been passed over. When an editor is rejecting your work for a definable reason, it can be helpful and reassuring to know why.  When no reasons are cited, it’s hard to know how to improve. After all, it takes courage to submit a manuscript or query. However, if you’re baffled about why you’re receiving so many notes that are overlooking your talent, let’s all take a breath because here are some reasons you might consider.

1. You sent it to the wrong agent, publisher, or professional. This happens way more often than you might imagine. Read the guidelines and protocol for the individual or company you’re sending it to; understand the industry and what is selling now and who is buying what. If a publisher or agent wants a query, don’t send the whole manuscript. If they want an SASE, send one. Get a feel for the marketplace. Browse online booksellers or the bookstore aisles and pay attention to who is publishing titles similar to yours. Likewise, check out the acknowledgment pages to find out who is agenting books similar to yours.

2. You’ve sent a draft that is not ready for prime time. Many factors indicate this from a slew of typos and grammatical errors to a muddled approach to storytelling. Send out your best. If you haven’t revised, refined, and proofread your work at least two or three times, it’s likely not ready for the eyes of the pros.

3. The opening doesn’t contain a hook or inciting incident that creates stress, unease, questions, or opens a can of worms. The story needs to start in the first sentence. And please don’t begin by waking a character from a nightmare. It’s been done. 4. The real opening happens on page 12. 5. If you’re writing nonfiction, the opening doesn’t pull the read in via language, content, or voice.

 6. The point of view is muddled or inconsistent. The point of view is the filter or lens which we see the story through. It is crucial that you understand who is telling the story and why. A viewpoint character is often but not always a protagonist (although sometimes a narrator or secondary character). Whoever is telling the story needs to be who will be most affected by the events. If you’re using a multiple point of view, strive for a logical and consistent pattern.

7. The voice doesn’t sing, contain enough authenticity, individuality, or originality.  I’ve heard a lot of editors say that they fell in love with a writer’s voice and thus were willing to overlook other aspects of the story.

8. Overwritten—on a word by word, sentence by sentence, page by page, scene by scene basis.  Bloated with modifiers, especially adverbs. I’m serious as a heart attack about this—it’s much further up the list than most writers admit.

9. Plot problems: same old tired, hackneyed, or familiar plot.  Plotless or a thin or fragmented plot. Wandering storyline that doesn’t seem to wrap back to the story question–the central dramatic question at the heart of the story. Too many subplots. Not enough subplots.

10. Lack of consistency, cohesiveness, unity. It doesn’t appear to be written by the same person with an overarching purpose or intent.

11. Themes, language, story line not appropriate for the readers’ age level or the genre.

12. Lack of  believable motivations—too many characters making super-human efforts for odd reasons, or just too many perfect characters.

13. The manuscript is too long (usually over 120,000 words) or too short (usually under 50,000 words) for the publisher’s needs.

14. Character problems: Characters are flat or underdeveloped. Overpopulated  or not enough contrast among the characters. Characters (or real life people) that lack sparkle and substance and simply don’t fascinate the reader. Now, your main character might not be likable or even charming, but he or she needs to compelling. Stock characters used such as the hard bitten detective or Irish cop. In the best fiction the reader has a sense that the characters have existed before the story began and will carry on after it ends—unless they’re murdered off.

15. Pacing problems—it plods along and some scenes seem interminable or it barrels past the most interesting moments in the story. Often writers apply the same level of speed or word count to everything in the story from a major heartbreak or ride across town. Sagging middle is another pacing problem so that the reader feel like it takes too long to reach the end.

16. Setting that is indistinct and doesn’t cause mood, tension, or things to happen in the story.  Setting that seems to be overshadowing the story as when horror writers focus too much on shadows and not enough on what the shadows might hide.

17. Story fits in no recognizable genre.

18. Key scenes did not explode with emotion and ramifications for further actions, or worse yet, they occurred offstage.

 19. Conflict problems: The conflict is weak or boring or not enough to sustain a manuscript of this particular length. Or the conflict seems contrived or begins too far into the story. Your protagonist must be up against powerful opposition at every turn and must fight these forces with an all-out offensive.

 20. The story and the individual scenes do not have a sense of tension building and suspense. Readers need a reason to keep turning the page and all stories need growing intensity until the climax or resolution. A story where the tension does not rise, without unanswered questions and a series of surprises and reversals, won’t captivate readers.

21. Dialogue disasters: overly long exchanges; characters giving speeches; or the dialogue contains no tension or conflict. Other problems: each character does not sound distinct, characters talk about mundane topics not relevant to the story, or speech tags are distracting and filled with adverbs.

 22. There is too much telling, not enough dramatization. Whenever appropriate bring the story to your readers in scenes, where they can witness it unfold in real time. “Show, don’t tell” is a useful guideline for writers, but fiction is actually ‘told’ and ‘shown.’ A combination of both techniques creates the most effective fiction. Scenes are most effective when you’re revealing complicated interactions between characters and emotions change via the scene. Exposition is most effective when you’re filling in background information or moving quickly between two scenes. Too much showing or too many scenes makes the story too drawn out just as too much exposition makes it static.

 23. Inaccuracies and lack of research, particularly in historical fiction.

24. The ending doesn’t deliver or satisfy. The best endings are not contrived or convenient. They are the logical and highly dramatic culmination of the proceeding events. The climax is the highest emotional pitch of your story, a decision, a collision of forces, and settling of scores.  Also in this category are too many loose ends and subplots dangling, and questions unanswered

25. The writer emphasized themes or his or her agenda too much so that the whole felt preachy.

One last word: Try not to see your writing as an expression of your identity. It’s a product, unromantic as that sounds. Don’t take rejections personally. Even when they pile up.  Although if they do pile up you need to analyze what’s going wrong with your writing. Publishing is a business, not an art. So don’t brood, don’t retaliate, and don’t give up.

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Fiction Checklist 

© Jessica P. Morrell

____  From the opening paragraphs, is there a clear, distinct and engaging voice?

____ Is there a single, simple conflict that drives the action? Can your plot be summed up in a single sentence?

_____ Does the story begin with a change or threat in the protagonist’s life?

_____ Does every scene and description provide a sense of momentum, or narrative drive pushing the story forward?

_____ Is the story highly visual?

_____ Is there a sense of time running out or another driving factor that creates tension?

_____ Does the story contain weather?

_____ Have you worked at weaving data, description and back story into the narrative so that it doesn’t interrupt the forward movement of the story?

_____ Have you dramatized the action in scenes or have you summarized?

_____ Can the reader understand what is at stake in the story and why the protagonist is motivated to do what he/she does?

_____ Is your protagonist’s motivation propelling the story forward and building throughout?

_____ Are the settings interesting, unique, memorable?  Does the setting have potential to teach readers about a place, a profession, a way of life?

_____ Does the protagonist have a goal in each scene?

_____ Have you ended scenes with thrusters, surprises or cliff hangers?

_____ Have you relied on flashbacks to relate the protagonist’s backstory? If so, is the information necessary and do the flashbacks disrupt the momentum of the story?

_____ Have you repeated some physical characteristics, descriptions of the characters throughout the story so the reader is reminded of their physical attributes and personality?

_____ Is each character consistent? Are his or her dominant traits in evidence throughout the story?

_____ Have you used every character in every scene? Or have you left some characters standing mute or as bystanders in the scene?

____ Are there a series of setbacks, mini crisis and complications along the way?

____ Have you added unexpected events midway in the story?

____ Are your transitions brisk and do they serve to keep the reader moving through time,  space and mood?

____ Have you deftly handled your theme and premise, or are you on a soap box preaching or shouting at the reader?

____ When you read the dialogue out loud, does it sound natural? Does the dialogue contain tension? Does each character sound distinctive? Do you trip over words?

____ Is the protagonist the person in the story most involved in the action, most likely to be changed by events in the story?

___  Do you quickly slip in and out of scenes?

____ Does the ending provide the most emotional and dramatic scenes?

____ Does the ending tie up most of the subplots?

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 Fiction Tips

  •  Nothing should happen at random and all fiction is causal.
  •  Plot stems from adversity.
  •  Each major character has an agenda.
  •  Foreshadow all important elements.
  •  Protagonist is proactive, taking charge of events, formulating goals and plans.
  •  Plot dramatizes character.
  •  Avoid gimmicky openings—whatever happens in the opening scene needs to   provide a big pay off.
  •  Don’t create an ordinary problem for your protagonist to face or overcome. If  this problem is not solved, it should destroy something important in his life.
  • Although a protagonist’s problems are the basis for fiction, don’t throw in a pile of unrelated or extraneous problems simply to complicate the plot.
  • Avoid problems being solved by another character, a rescuer, or a force of nature.
  • Remember that major fictional characters always evolve, including antagonists and villains.
  • Minimize or eliminate transitions between scenes and chapters when you can. Contemporary readers are able to jump locations and time zones in the story with little direction.
  • Make certain that details and descriptions are included for a reason, to contribute to the overall plot and create a vivid, brimming world. Details are chosen chiefly to stir the reader’s emotions, characterize and push the story forward.
  • Do not use last-minute rescues, the cavalry arriving to save the protagonist or coincidences to end a story.
  • Avoid needless flashbacks. Flashbacks are vital to the overall plot, vivid and brief if possible. Because they stop the forward momentum of a story, the writer needs a good reason to leave the straight-ahead chronology.
  • Do not include characters without names.
  • Each scene and chapter should somehow ratchet up the tension.
  • Write about the most important or interesting segment in a protagonist’s life, not birth to death biography.
  • Do not depict the villain screwing up in order for the protagonist to win. The protagonist needs to be more desperate or have a stronger will or desire to win.
  • Watch out for car chases, earthquakes and other acts of nature, bombs, explosions and other incendiary devices to end the story.
  • If the story contains a victim, such as a murder victim in a mystery, make certain that the reader can feel loss and empathy for him or her.
  • Remember that major fictional characters evolve.
  • A plot is designed to reveal the protagonist taking on goals and overcoming opposition.
  • Nothing in fiction happens at random; everything is causally related.
  • Beware of digressions that follow your interests or research, not the story. Rein yourself in.
  • Write an ending that the reader cannot see coming.
  • Allow readers to understand why villains do what they do by providing some back story and motivation.
  • Make certain that all your characters do not sound the same.
  • Write about the most important or interesting segment in your character’s lives—not a birth to death biography.
  • Structure scenes around scene goals.
  • Beware of digressions that follow your interests rather than the plot.
  • While rules and techniques are not written in stone, most of the basic guidelines of fiction stem from logic and an understanding of dramatic structure. Don’t break the rules until you know them, or better yet, until your first novels have sold.

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© Jessica Morrell

           Modifiers are often trouble for writers. We strew them across the  landscape of our writing without first determining if they are necessary. Or we  use them to take the place of specific nouns and strong verbs. One of our first  tasks of editing is stripping our sentences to their cleanest components. Examine every adjective and adverb and make certain that it has a job to do in the sentence. William Zinnser said, “ Don’t hedge your prose with little timidities. Good writing is lean and confident.. . . Every little qualifier whittles away some fraction of trust on the part of the reader. Readers want a writer who believes in himself and what he is saying. Don’t diminish that belief. Don’t be kind of bold. Be bold.”

Here are  modifiers and phrases that you can often eliminate:

absolutely active actively
actual actually alleged
any arguably available
basically both careful
carefully certain certainly
comparative comparatively considerably
consistently decidedly definite
definitely effective eminent
eminently eventually exactly
existing fortunately generally
herself himself hopefully
ideally in fact in general
in particular in the future in the past
indeed inherently inevitably
itself meaningful meaningfully
namely necessarily needless to say
now over time overall
particular particularly per se
pretty quite rather
real really related
relatively reportedly respectively
so so-called somewhat
specific themselves total
unfortunately very whatever
And these terms, when describing love:
deeply especially madly
totally truly utterly

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Vivid Verbs

 Jessica P. Morrell ©

More than any other part of speech, it is the verb that determines whether a writer is a wimp or a wizard. Novices tend to rely on is and other static verbs and lose momentum by stumbling into the passive voice…The pros make strong nouns and dynamic verbs the heart of their style; verbs make their prose quiver. Constance Hale, Sin and Syntax

One piece of advice that immediately improves your writing: COLLECT  VIVID VERBS,  especially those that contain onomatopoeia.

stumble trash ransack badger bludgeon
wince mince wink blink roar
swagger blubber groan collapse wither
shimmer hop truck cringe blast
whoop tumble mourn evaporate babble
beckon kiss dance flit growl
burn stroke poke fumble glimmer
ram jam grunt gobble lick
crimp smooch lurch grouse gripe
punish dredge trap grumble shatter
ricochet whip blitz hunker lunge
hoard stoke jeer irk glom
purr swish tug melt rifle
slip wrench snip pound heap
zoom swing rock ramble dawdle
swing thread boom ramble swoop
beg crouch belittle rankle render
chatter pad tiptoe resist battle
rumble crunch chew rip slander
chop punch stoke roam slam
ignite spark shimmy roost boost
lope glower jaywalk shuffle sail
creep crawl cut simmer slice
hijack flush pander skewer twinkle
dazzle puzzle flash smoke blaze
squeal gnash snuff sneeze snub
mangle slice burst splash clang
dash jump lurch spring shamble
plunder twiddle slide steal rock
simper cram plop sweep trash
purse amble tickle tackle tug
roast poach maraud weep mingle
squabble crunch skewer weep sob
whistle thwack whup whir jabber
wop clink screech whomp murmur
fling whack prod zip tense
grovel mumble tease taunt sting

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Weak Phrases

© Jessica Morrell

Weak phrases creep into our writing because they come easily. Cliches leap from our fingers if we don’t pay attention and wordy, tired  phrases that we’ve always used are easier than searching for fresh ways to say things. Check your writing for these weak and wordy phrases and eliminate, condense or trade them for a crisp verb.

  • in accordance with
  • in addition to
  • on account of
  • already has been: has been
  • a good part of: much
  • as a general rule: usual
  • at the present time: now
  • at the rear of: behind
  • arising from the fact that: because
  • as a consequence of: because
  • commuted back and forth: commuted continued on: continued
  • have a tendency to: tend to
  • make changes in: change
  • as can be seen
  • have an effect: affect
  • make decisions about: decide
  • it is evident that
  • provide a summary of: summarize
  • due to the fact that: because
  • in view of the fact that: because
  • a little less than: almost
  • tendered his resignation: resigned
  • it is interesting to note that
  • it should be pointed out
  • due to the fact that: because
  • on the grounds that
  • on account of
  • went up in flames: burned
  • if I might add
  • in the not too distant future: eventually leaves much to be desired
  • in the near future: soon
  • on the other hand: but
  • have an impact on: influence
  • in relation to: about
  • in terms of: as, at, by, in, etc.
  • in spite of: despite
  • thanking you in advance
  • at the rear of: behind
  • under consideration
  • will in the future: will
  • once in a great while: rarely
  • drew to a close: ended
  • for the purpose of
  • it appears that
  • a large percentage of: many
  • make an appearance: appear
  • on the one hand
  • owing to the fact that
  • plays a major role: contributes
  • reach a conclusion: conclude
  • is the recipient of: got
  • from the standpoint of
  • at this point in time: now
  • to a large extent: largely
  • in the event that: if
  • it is often the case that: frequently
  • be of the opinion that: believe
  • be in possession of: have
  • owing to the fact that: since or because on the order of: about
  • the fact that he had arrived: his arrival
  • in advance of: before
  • in spite of the fact that: although
  • is indicative of: indicates
  • had occasion to be: was
  • put in an appearance: appeared
  • take into consideration: consider
  • after a period of time: then
  • at such time: when
  • at the present time: now
  • has the ability to: can
  • in the not to distant future: soon
  • in view of the fact that: because
  • in light of the fact: because
  • has the appearance of: looks like
  • the way in which: how
  • is in a position to: can or is able

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Subplot worksheet

© Jessica P. Morrell

A plot is a series of causally-related events that emerge from a series of ever-intensifying conflicts and obstacles, expresses a theme, and includes a premise, or take-away message that is proven by the ending. Subplots also are built from this structure except they do not occupy as much space in the story as the main storyline, yet they have a beginning, middle and resolution. Fiction that lingers in the reader’s memory and imagination is intricate, layered and textured. One means of achieving this is to create subplots to drive the story forward while complicating the protagonist’s life, prove that life is messy and entwined, and echo themes or feature secondary characters. Here are some questions to answer to help you devise captivating subplots:

What is the single dramatic question in the story?

What is the main subplot?

Fill in the blanks for the main storyline: (Goal) ________________________ (protagonist) want ______________________________ (motivation) in order to _________________________ but ______________(opposition/antagonist) stands in his/her way.

 Fill in the blanks for subplot A—(this will be the biggest and most important subplot): ________________________ (character) wants  _______________________________ (motivation) in order to ________________________ but  _______________________(opposition/antagonist) stands in his/her way.


 Fill in the blanks for subplot B: _______________________    (character) wants _______________________________ (motivation) in order to ________________________ but ____________________________________________    (opposition/antagonist) (stands in his/her way.


Fill in the blanks for subplot C:  ________________________(character) wants ______________________________ (motivation) in order to _____________________ but ______________________________________________(opposition/antagonist) stands in his/her way.

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Dossier for Main Characters

 © Jessica P. Morrell

  Manuscript Title:

  Character’s name:


Significance of nickname:

Where does character live now? City/town/region:

Did she/he originate from another place?

Personal Goals:

Professional goals:

Main story goal:

Main story conflict/obstacle:


Astrological sign:


  Age:                                                          Sex:

  Hair color:                                               Style:

  Eye color:                                                Glasses?

 Skin tone:                                                Type:

Face shape:                                           Weight:

Height:                                                     Build:

Predominant feature: 

Unusual/exceptional physical characteristics:


How does your character feel about his or her looks? Does he or she like his /her body? Consider himself/herself attractive? Ugly?

If he or she could change appearance, what would it be? Facelift? Lose weight? Work out more?

Any physical handicaps or difficulties?


  Back story:

  Where was he or she born? City/town/region:



  Did he/she grow up in poverty, wealth, working class family?

What is your character’s biggest regret? 

Manners/social graces:

Have any significant people in your character’s circle died? How did he or she react?

Who was the most significant person in your character’s childhood?

What was the most significant event of your character’s childhood?



  Present relationship with significant other:

  Past relationship(s) that most influenced him or her:

 How did the last relationship end?

 Does your character fall in love often?

Does your character long for a different kind of relationship?

Consequences of past sexual relationships:

Does your character cheat on his/her spouse or partner?

1. How does the character relate to friends?

2. Does your character have a best friend?  

3. Who is your character most likely to confide in?

4.  What will be your character’s first contact with antagonist?

5. Does his or her opinion of the antagonist change over time?

6. How does the character (especially protagonist) view the other characters:







9. Do any of these relationships change over the course of the story?


NAME:                                                                           AGE:

NAME:                                                                           AGE:

NAME:                                                                           AGE:



  Most prized possession:

  Where does your character shop?

  Where does your character hang out?



Does your character exercise? How?

What’s in your character’s refrigerator?

Favorite foods and beverages:

What kind of music does your character most often listen to?

Favorite books/literature:

Favorite movies:

How do the other characters react to these preferences?

Is your character a clotheshorse? A slob? Unconcerned with appearance?

Clothing style:




Favorite clothing:



Smoker?                                     Why?                                  What brand?

Drinker?                                     Which drinks?           


Likes animals?

Owns pets?                                             Name:

Car or method of transportation:

Home: Rent or own, house or apartment, lives alone or  with roommate, partner?




   Is this profession that he or she imagined pursuing?

   Is this occupation what his or her parents or family hoped he or she would pursue?

  Name of firm:

Happy with job? Frustrated?

Is travel or risk involved?

Special gifts, talents:

Special knacks, skills:

Good  work habits:                                               Acknowledged by:

Bad work habits:                                                   Admitted?

Philosophy/attitude toward work:

Educational background:

Does he or she want more educational training? Concerned that he or she never attained enough schooling?


Attitude toward money:  (frugal, spendthrift) Why?

Is your character satisfied with his or her life?

Is your character disciplined, controlled, responsible?



  Dominant traits:


  Secondary traits:

  When does your character feel most vulnerable?

What is your character’s major flaw?

Where does your character belong on a moral continuum?



 Miscellaneous information:

  Did your character experience a major childhood trauma?

  How does it still affect him or her?

  Were your character’s parents happily married? Divorced?

  How does your character get along with parents, siblings, extended family?

What events and unresolved feelings from the past will affect the plot?

What kind of first impression does your character make?

How does your character react to adversity?

How does your character act when angry?

How does your character act when depressed?

What regrets does your character have?

How does your character reward and punish himself/herself?

How would your character describe herself/himself in one sentence?

Which single word would they choose?

What is your character’s basic temperament (calm, volatile, placid, etc.)?

Worst fear(s):

Irrational fear(s):

Secret from the past:

Is there a failure in his or her past that he/she hates to reveal?

Family members in the story:


 Character Arc:

  What is the worst thing that could happen to your character in the story?

  What is your character’s greatest source of strength?

What will be his or her major setbacks or failures in the story?

  What important realizations or ephiphanies will your character experience?

How will your character’s world view or beliefs change by the end of the story?










  1. I couldn’t find where to subscribe. Can you either point me in the right direction or add me to your subscription list?



  2. Jillian Bullock says:

    As a new fiction writer, well trying my hand at it, I appreciate all the wonderful information on this site.

    • jessicap says:

      Thanks so much for stopping by. I’m going to be adding new content and sprucing up the joint. There’s also a ton of info at my former blog at http://thewritinglifetoo.blogspot.com
      Best of luck with the writing. Just keep going and get those first drafts in the can.

  3. Sharon says:

    Delicious information – Thanks for the post!

  4. Thank you for all of the great information. 🙂

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