Little Writing Pests

by James Scott Bell

For the last few years in L.A. we’ve been invaded by a nettlesome pest called the No-See-Um. That’s because, as the name implies, they’re hard to see. Of the family ceratopogonidae, they are tiny flying demons who bite and suck your blood.

Actually, it’s the femme fatale of species who do the biting, leaving itchy welts. The male is content to seek nectar from flowers, then lounge in a hammock with a good book. The females, on the other hand, need protein for their eggs, and seek it in our precious bodily fluid. As one site explains, “Their mouthparts are well-developed with cutting teeth on elongated mandibles in the proboscis…The thorax extends slightly over the head, and the abdomen is nine-segmented and tapered at the end.”

I mean, ick, amirite?

When summer rolls around, these creatures come out in force, like hormonal high schoolers at Zuma Beach. I don’t know if they’ve replaced the larger mosquito, but I haven’t seen the latter lately.

When the weather’s warm, I like to do morning typing outside, with a nice cup of joe at my side. But if I’m not protected in some way, like long sleeves, my skin becomes an epidermal Home Town Buffet for these airborne spawn of Hell. Indeed, I’m typing this in my backyard, and these devilish creepies are buzzing around me. It seems that when I breathe out, the CO2 attracts them, and they become ravenous for a meal.

Mrs. B has concocted a peppermint essential oil mix that we spread on our exposed skin. That frustrates the little buggers. They’re really fast, though. I try to swat them, usually to no avail. But dang it all, this is my yard, and I will not concede it to them!

You know what else? They’re small enough to get through normal screens. So when we have our windows open, a few manage to get inside our house. This has to be a bio-plot. Were they developed in some lab and unleashed upon the world? (Like that ever happens.)

Anyway, so as not to waste this unnerving experience, I extend to you a writing metaphor. There are some little pests that pop up and fly around the page, such as:

Annoying Adverbs

Elmore Leonard said, “Never use an adverb to modify the verb ‘said’ . . . he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange.”

While I’m not an absolutist on this, I think the use of adverbs should be as rare as a solar eclipse. Therefore, cut as many as possible. You can use the “end of word” Find feature in Word for this (see Terry’s explanation of that function).

Look always for a good, strong verb. Instead of He walked softly across the room use He padded across the room.

Swarming Semicolons

We’ve had this discussion before. I haven’t changed my opinion: “The semi-colon is a burp, a hiccup. It’s a drunk staggering out of the saloon at 2 a.m., grabbing your lapels on the way and asking you to listen to one more story.”

In nonfiction, the semicolon serves a good purpose. It ties thoughts together. You use them to make an argument and add evidence. But fiction is not an argument (unless your name is Ayn Rand). It’s an emotional ride, and semicolons are speed bumps. Eliminate them. Use a clean em dash or period instead.

Misplaced Attributions

I see this all the time in manuscripts by new writers. In dialogue, the attribution is often in the wrong place. The simple rule (yes, rule) is this: put the attribution after the first complete clause, or in front of the sentence. Not this:

“I don’t think we should case the joint. We should just go in with guns blasting. Then we can take the money and get out. Shock and awe, right?” said Maxwell.


“I don’t think we should case the joint,” Maxwell said. “We should just go in with guns blasting. Then we can take the money and get out. Shock and awe, right?”


Maxwell said, “I don’t think we should case the joint. We should just go in with guns blasting. Then we can take the money and get out. Shock and awe, right?”

Or an action beat:

Maxwell slapped the table. “I don’t think we should case the joint. We should just go in with guns blasting. Then we can take the money and get out. Shock and awe, right?”

Elliptical Errors

And speaking of dialogue, you don’t use ellipses for interruptions. Not this:

“I don’t think…”

“Shut up, Max!”

Our friend the em dash is for interruptions:

“I don’t think—”

“Shut up, Max!”

Use ellipses for a voice trailing off.

“I don’t think…” Maxwell shook his head.

Apostrophe Befuddlement

It’s its when it’s possessive, and it’s when it’s “it is.”


It’s not that hard! Use it’s only when you’re putting it and is together. The apostrophe is telling us there’s a letter missing. Every other time, use its. People get this wrong all the time because everywhere else the apostrophe is used to denote possession.

Which brings us to another bit of confusion. When should you use the possessive ’s for a name ending in s?

Is it: That’s James’ car or That’s James’s car?

The leading style guides recommend the latter. My personal preference is to use ’s as well, except when it sounds odd. So I use Dickens’ instead of Dickens’s.

Of course, you can avoid the whole issue by not giving your characters names ending in s.

Okay I’m tired of repeated attempts to suck my blood, so I’ll go indoors now and leave it to you to talk about any other writing pests that bother you.  

Also, what’s the mosquito or no-see-um issue where you live? How do you handle it?

43 thoughts on “Little Writing Pests

  1. ANY adverb. To me, it’s lazy writing, and if you take it out, the sentence is usually stronger for it. If you see one in my books, know that I thought about it 4 times before letting it be.

    OMG just stop!!!!!!
    I use maybe 5 per book. If you overuse it, you steal the exclamation point’s power.

    • May have to try those, Cynthia. I’ve heard others say that the California no-see-ums, an arrogrant and nasty breed, are impervious to citronella candles…but I’ll try anything!

  2. Thanks for these tips. I’ve made a note of them for final revisions so I don’t forget (always so many details to think of!).

    Follow up question to ellipses vs. em dash. What if a person is interrupting or correcting themselves? i.e. is it “Bring me Carter’s…err…Robert’s personal belongings.” or “Bring me Carter’s–err–Robert’s personal belongings.” To me ellipses look more logical.

    Will definitely have to watch the ‘s thing. Although to me, it looks weird to see Jame’s vs. James’. I don’t know–somehow James’ looks cleaner. But as you said, you can always avoid names ending in s.

    • Ha, it looks weird, BK, because I didn’t write “Jame’s.” Unless the character is named “Jame” it is totally improper.

      But “Jaime” is legit…

    • Oh yes, and ellipses are proper in your example. An interruption, by definition, requires another character…as opposed to a speaker going off on a tangent.

  3. My pet peeve is a speaker or author using I instead of me — as in she gave the gift to Jim and I. I see and hear this all the time. Drives me crazy. Oh, and “at” as in “Where are you at?” I want to yell, “Between the a and the t.”

  4. Sorry to hear about the no-see-ums in LA, Jim. I was eating breakfast on the patio while I read your post this morning, No no-see-ums and surprisingly (sorry for the adverb), no mosquitoes. Just lovely fall weather. We do have our own pest here, though. It’s called summer.

    Thanks for the warning about all those writing pests, although personally (there I go again), I think the semicolon is useful at times. And besides, it’s cute. 😉

  5. Call me a grumpy old man at 44, but I despise text message prose. It’s found its way into a lot of indie fiction.

    1. Using all caps for emphasis. “She HATED broccoli.”

    2. Periods peppered for emphasis. “It. Was. Over.”

    3. Dollar sign delay. “It only cost 50$.”

    These are just a few, but make me lost faith in a literate society.

  6. Up here at 9000+ feet, we don’t have much of a problem with the little pests. The bears, we can see. Avon’s Skin So Soft was what people in Florida used.

    And thanks for the shout out. (I did a post on apostrophes, too) 🙂

    • IIRR, Avon Skin-so-soft was not designed as skeeter repellent. People persist in using it, based on lore, despite the fact that its effectiveness is low, so Avon started selling a version with repellent (picaridin) added.

      ‘Consumer Reports has put the bath oil to the test against other bug repellents, in both 1993 and more recently, finding that it provided about 2 hours of protection against mosquitos. “That would put it among the worst-performing insect repellents we tested: The products we recommend generally protect for upward of 5 or 6 hours,” CR reporter Catherine Roberts wrote.’ –

  7. What an entertaining post, Jim!

    Here in central WA State, we have pests galore, and this time of year they’re like squatters with massive hubris. They try every which way but loose to share our domicile and our food supply. Including our blood. Kinda like the guvment.

    Mosquitos, mosquito-eaters (The Terminator variety of mosquito), box elder bugs, flies, ants, gnats. And those flies are, I swear, employed by our Intelligence (a misnomer for sure) Dept. They can get into our house through the smallest screen opening. In my office alone, one morning recently, I swatted and killed 12 of the buggers. My windows were closed and the door was closed. 🙁

    Writing pests? I tried using the fly swatter. Didn’t work. So now I use Find. Much better.

    Happy Sunday and first day of October!

  8. Random thoughts:

    ❦Some verbs have no strong synonym. Feel free to adverb them. “I asked the shop to Parkerize my pistol quickly, so I’d have it before the picnic.”
    ❦I’ve seen writers dance around an adverb by substituting an adverbial: “He ran down the street in a quick manner.” Ick. IMHO, this is much worse than just using the adverb.
    ❦No apostrophes in any possessive personal pronouns!
    ❦Per the Chicago Manual of Style, both Jesus’ and Jesus’s are correct as possessives.
    ❦”Barfly” is not an adverb.
    ❦Beware the flies at the zoo!

  9. We called them “no-sees” here. No-see pests creep through the screens in spring, replaced by the black fly demons who eat them, replaced by the mosquitos who devour black flies, but if it’s a gorgeous fall, the no-see‘s families return. 😉 How do we handle them? We don’t. Sadly, they’re part of country living.

  10. This time of year, the pest to be reckoned with in West Virginia is brown marmorated stink bug, a gift from China. They don’t bite, but they travel by the thousands. And as the name implies, when they get scared, they release their stink juice. It doesn’t help that the dog loves to play with them. Another present from the Far East is the spotted lantern fly. They gather in swarm strength on the trunks of hardwoods to deposit their egg sacs, and while there, they poop a “sugar” that attracts yellow jackets, which are already pissy about the cooling temperatures.

    If I may add to the writing tips . . . remember that ellipses are separated by spaces.

    I actually try really, really hard to cut every adverb.

    My problem with semicolons is that I don’t understand their use. (Please don’t explain them to me.) When a period works, use the period.

    Personal bugaboo: I hate single quotes inside dialogue. If I’m quoting within dialogue, I use italics.

    Combined punctuation makes me crazy. Am I right?!?!?!

    • Stink bugs! Ick!

      When I was seven or eight, outside by the pool, I felt something on my hand, and brought it around to see a yellow jacket sitting there. My mom heard my scream of terror all the way in the house.

      As for the semicolon, in an essay it helps to connect two related ideas. Since fiction is not about ideas, but feelings, I don’t see their use there.

  11. Here in the coastal waters of the NE we have an assortment of bug pests. My solution was to install a whole house fan with the air flow in reverse. Instead of expelling air at one location to draw air in through all open windows with screens, I draw air in at one location and force it through a HEPA filter that removes everything but smog before distribution throughout the house. Smog removal is available if I use activated carbon filters, but rarely have a need for that up here. From the few years I lived in LA, might be nice there.

    I was forced to take this approach because my wife has pollen allergies and if we are to have fresh air in the house, it must be filtered. The velocity of the air exiting through the screens is greater than the flying velocity of the insects trying to enter, thus they stay out. If you like to write outside Prof. Bell, you might consider a screened porch with this approach.

    Back when I was a boy living in Oklahoma, we had oat gnats that passed through screens and were a huge problem during, you guessed it, oat harvesting season. In the days before A/C my father installed an industrial scale whole house attic fan about 6 feet in diameter. It too could draw air into the house. With a large filter on the outside, the air was filtered before being distributed to any open window with a screen. Again no bugs could enter through the screens. When the filter needed cleaning, Dad would reverse the fan momentarily and back flush the accumulated debris. Then it was back in service.

  12. 30 years ago I worked at a chemical manufacturing plant north of Providence, RI. The facility was located in a low swampy area with a creek. We had no problems with mosquitoes because our facility manufactured many tons of DEET, the active ingredient of many insect repellents. The entire swampy valley had the fragrance of DEET.

  13. Pick a reference book for everything; stick to it. Edward D. Johnson’s The Handbook of Good English is mine.

    He covers all possibilities I’ve run across, and I’m comfortable with his style. And it doesn’t change! All those others CHANGE! Whenever they feel like it!

    Adverbs, semicolons, colons, dashes, ellipses – and their respective formatting – are all part of English, have their uses, and, with Johnson’s help, hold still while I consume them.

    Each required – YEARS ago – a bit of work to master (I didn’t grow up in formal English – picked most of it up from reading), and now, I go for an occasional tune-up when something looks odd to my prejudiced and jaundiced eye.

    Consistency makes the material seamless – picking a good reference makes it painless – and I sympathize with those who CAN’T learn, but the rest of the people with ‘creative’ decisions just look unprofessional – and irritating – to me, and that includes Cormac McCarthy and dropping quotation marks in All the Pretty Horses – no thanks. Make it easy for the READER.

    I get creative in comments and blog posts, aiming for a conversational style that follows my brain’s skips and jumps – and gets the twitchiness out of my daily writing. Then I go behave sedately in the fiction writing part.

    California – Davis – isn’t particularly buggy, but narrow temperature control so my brain works is paramount, and requires AC and closed windows, so no stories to share about bugs.

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