And, but, then

I took the weekend off from posting, to try to catch up on all of those editing projects that I had to put on hold during my late bout of hospitality-induced influenza. If there’s one rule that governs freelance editing, it’s do not edit while feverish. It’s a good thing I did, as it reminded me that while I was lobbying for reduced repetition in your manuscripts, I had yet to discuss those ever-popular inhabitants of Conjunction Junction: and, but, and then.

(Okay, so then isn’t strictly speaking a conjunction; however, enough writers are now using it as it were – as in, Sophia kneaded the bread, baked it, then fed it to her forty-seven children – that I feel justified including it here.)

Now, back in the bad old days, it was considered improper to begin ANY sentence with and, but, or then. As my mad old Uncle Alec used to scrawl in the margins of letters I had written when he returned them to me, by definition, a conjunction connects one part of a sentence to another. (There are easier things than growing up in a family of writers and editors.) Toward the end of his life, he was even known to inform the TV screen of that salient fact when newscasters began their sentences with conjunctions.

But despite Uncle Alec’s best efforts, time and the language have been marching on, and at this point in North American history, it’s considered quite acceptable to begin the occasional sentence with a conjunction. In fact, as you may have noticed, I do it here all the time.

That mournful sound you just heard was Uncle Alec and his late cronies from the LA Free Press stomping their feet on the floor of heaven, trying to get me to cut it out, already.

Back to your celestial poker game, boys – it isn’t going to work. Conjunction-opened sentences frequently mirror actual speech better than other sentences, and conjunctions can be very valuable for maintaining an ongoing rhythm in a paragraph.

And, as anyone who has ever been trapped in a conversation with a non-stop talker can tell you, beginning sentences in this way gives an impression of consecutiveness of logic or storyline. Even when no such link actually exists, the conjunctions give the hearer the impression that there is no polite place to interrupt, to turn the soliloquy-in-progress into a dialogue.

For this very reason, though, conjunctions can be problematic: aspiring writers just LOVE to tuck them in all over the place, apparently for flow.

Sometimes, this can work beautifully, but as with any repeated stylistic trick, there’s a fine line between effective and over-the-top. Because it is a device that professional readers see so very much, you might want to screen your submission for its frequency.

Particularly, if you’ll forgive my being a bit pushy here, in the early pages of your manuscript. And absolutely on the first page.

Why especially the opening? Long-time readers, chant it with me now: agents and editors tend to assume that the writing on pages 1-5 is an accurate representation of the writing throughout the entire manuscript. Heck, many of them proceed on the assumption that what is found on the first page, or even the first paragraph, is an infallible indicator of subsequent writing quality.

This often-unwarranted assumption, in case you were interested, is how they justify dismissing submissions so very quickly: once you’ve seen a modicum of this author’s writing, they reason, you’ve seen enough.

No comment.

Strategically, it’s vital to realize that if you over-use a particular narrative tool in those early pages, they’re not going to stick around to see whether you’ve mended your ways, alas. They’re going to stop reading, so they may move on to the next submission.

Yes, I know: it’s as unfair as unfair can be; many, many writers take a chapter or two to warm up to their topics. But as I believe I may have mentioned before, I run neither the industry nor the universe, and I want your work to succeed. So instead of complaining about the status quo, I’m going to talk about how to minimize the problem early on, so your work can get a comparatively fair reading.

So whip out your trusty highlighter pens, and let’s get to work.

Print out your first 5 pages; if you want to be very thorough, print a random page from each subsequent chapter as well. Pick a color for and, one for but (go ahead and use it for the howevers and yets as well), and one for then, and start marking.

Not just where these words open a sentence, mind you, but EVERY time they occur. Why? Well, these particular words tend to get a real workout in the average manuscript: when writers are trying to cover material rapidly, for instance, and, but, and then often appear many times per page. Or even per paragraph.

All finished marking? Good. Now go back and note every use of then in those open pages: could you revise those sentences to cut the word entirely?

Seems draconian, doesn’t it? Believe me, I have an excellent reason for suggesting it: many professional readers have a visceral negative reaction to this word that sometimes borders on the paranoiac.

Why? Well, it’s one of the first words any professional editor would cut from a text: in written English, pretty much any event that is described after any other event is assumed to have happened later than the first described. For instance:

Herve poached the eggs in a little butter, slid them onto the plate, then served them.

Is logically identical to:

Herve poached the eggs in a little butter, slid them onto the plate, and served them.

Then, then, is almost always omittable as a purely temporal marker, yet it is very widely used. To professional eyes, it’s redundant, if not a sign that the writer is getting a bit tired of writing interestingly about a series of events. In your first five pages, you would be wise to avoid provoking this reaction by cutting all of the thens.

Actually, a good self-editing rule of thumb is to omit temporal thens altogether UNLESS the event described after them is a genuine surprise or happened suddenly. As in:

Herve poached the eggs in a little butter, slid them onto the plate – then flung their steaming runniness into Anselmo’s astonished face.

Now THAT’s a then that signals a change in sentence direction! Reserving the device for this use will render your thens substantially more powerful.

Let’s turn now to the buts, howevers, and yets on your marked-up pages. In each instance, is the clause that immediately follows the word ACTUALLY a shift from what has come immediately before it? If not, consider excising the words.

But, however, and yet all imply contradiction to what has already been stated, but many aspiring writers use these words simply as transitions. So much so that this device has become, you guessed it, a common editorial pet peeve.

Are you starting to get the impression that it doesn’t take much for a tendency to graduate to industry pet peeve? Actually, in real terms, it does take quite a bit of provocation: it just doesn’t take very long manning the screening desk to discover the first 100 submissions that all share the same narrative device.

Admittedly, this IS a maddeningly nit-picky level of editing, but trust me, agents and editors alike will bless you if your manuscript is relatively light on these overworked words. English is a marvelous language for prose because contains so very many different words; it enables great precision of description.

While I would never urge you to swallow a thesaurus whole, dragging in pretentious words when simple words would do, varying your word choice almost always makes a better impression upon professional readers than leaning too heavily on the basics. That’s a fact that I wish more first-time submitters knew.

Don’t toss out those marked-up pages, please: tomorrow, it’s on to the ands. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

7 Replies to “And, but, then”

  1. I love this site. Your information is helpful, clear and entertaining. It’s going to take me days to read everything you’ve posted and what a good use of my time that will be. Thanks so much for all your good advice. I am thrilled to have found you.

  2. Anne,
    This was a really helpful post! Hopefully I’m not pre-empting your upcoming posts again, but I do have a few questions on specific usages.

    First, “then.” You mention that it is okay to use “then” if it indicates a genuine surprise. Would a contradiction to the first part of the sentence fall under this exception? The only use of the word “then” in my first five pages was “The man opened his mouth, paused, and then closed it again.” I hope this is not too specific of a question.

    Secondly, in looking at the various instances of “and” in my five pages, I’ve identified three major categories of use.

    Category one is use as a conjunction, which you’ve been discussing. I’ve got an average of 3-5 instances of this per page, with the highest count on one page being 7. I’m counting uses such as “reached down and picked up” in these totals. I could try to cut these down some, but I’m not sure if that would result in too many short sentences — that seems to be the alternative to this use of “and.” I suppose you’re going to talk about the guidelines for this usage tomorrow, but I just wanted to ask the question in case not.

    Category two is use as a (usually noun) connector, such as “muck and leaves.” Is this also considered distasteful? I intentionally try to keep my number of adjectives down, and my use of adverbs even farther down, but sometimes two words are just needed. This usage about doubles the number of “ands” in my writing from the conjunction usage alone.

    Category three is use as contrast, such as “she was at the same time desperate to meet him and terrified of what he might do.” Perhaps this is actually a conjunction again; parts of my grammar vocabulary are a bit rusty.

    Are all these categories just lumped into one when considering if there are too many “ands” on a page, or are they considered almost like homophones — different enough in usage to almost be different words (I know that’s not what a homophone is, but that’s what comes to mind as the best similarity).

    On the plus side, I have an average of 1-2 uses of “but” per page, with a maximum of 4, and I don’t have a “yet” until page 9 or a “however” until page 8. And I also only start sentences with “But” or “And” three times in the first five pages — only twice if you don’t count the use of “but” after a dash.

    I know these are a lot of specific questions, and I’m really not asking you to evaluate my specific work, but I am curious as to some general guidelines of what sort of usage frequency you feel is acceptable for all of the above (though I do realize that there aren’t any concrete rules).

    I’ve always tried to keep my use of conjunctions as sentence openers to a minimum, and I’m conscious about varying sentence length (which necessarily has an impact on the number of conjunctions), but I’ve never specifically evaluated my work for these issues as you lay them out here. Thanks for that!


    P.S. – Hopefully I’m not asking too many questions in general. Almost all of your posts spark further questions, though, so I’ve just been figuring I’d ask. Let me know if it’s too much.

    1. No, no — by all means, ask. It is a trifle hard to answer some of these out of context, but here goes.

      “The man opened his mouth, paused, and then closed it again” strikes me as a legitimate usage — although once a mouth is open, I’m not sure it’s terribly surprising when it closes again. Since this is a not-uncommon action for novels, I would want to make sure that this sentence was surrounded by some surprises.

      Category ones do count, but I wouldn’t worry too much about the pages with 3-5 instances, as long as they are spread out; you might want to rework the page with 7, though. Short sentences aren’t the only alternative to category one constructions: instead of maintaining the same noun-verb alignment (as you would do, presumably, by breaking them up), why not incorporate some of these actions into clauses of more complex sentences on either side?

      Category two is distasteful only if it is used too much on a given page — to jump ahead to a later question, the absolute number of ands on the page, regardless of how they are used, can be quite distracting. (To see why, skip back a couple of posts and take a gander at all of the It wases in the Dickens quote.) Are there other ways you could convey items on a list?

      Category three is a conjunctive use, and should be counted as such. (And is always a conjunction, actually.)

      You might want to try switching a few of the buts to howevers or yets in your first 5, just for variety. Remember, the goal here is to avoid repeating certain words.

      As you say, though, there are no hard-and-fast guidelines — one just develops a feel for how much is too much. If you’re already working to vary sentence length and structure throughout, your manuscript is less likely to trigger the repetition response.

      Don’t panic over it, though; it sounds as though part of your worry is coming from the fact that your pages PASSED the test. You’re not even close to hitting double digits. I routinely see manuscripts where these words appear 15 or 20 times per page, so I was writing primarily with those manuscripts in mind.

      1. Anne,
        Thanks for all the tips there! I’m glad I’m not being too draining or verbose. Your explanations to all my questions make good sense.

        With regard to “The man opened his mouth, paused, and then closed it again,” that is surrounded by more interesting content. Another character has just rather bluntly (and rudely) pointed out to the man that he’s black, and he’s really not sure how to respond to that. His nonresponse above provokes a more interesting response in the other character.

        With regard to category ones, I do shift around noun and verb alignments a lot in order to reach the (apparently) low number of conjunctions that I already have. That’s just how I tend to talk and write, anyway. I’ll keep a sharper eye out for conjunctions that can be restructured from now on, though. That’s a very good idea.

        At any rate, thanks for all the guidance here; I’ve done a bit of tweaking based on your comments and cut five or six “ands” and changed one “but” to “yet.” I know that’s not a whole lot (with the “buts” in particular), but those are the ones that seemed natural when I considered them. Thanks again!


  3. I just did the test on the first three pages and passed! I used “and” between two and five times per page, “but” three times in total, and “then” only once. I use conjunctions to begin a sentence only sparingly, so this didn’t occur in the first three pages at all. Fun exercise. Makes me feel like I’m doing something right. 🙂

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