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  • Writer's pictureMike M

Un-editing Joe Abercrombie: How The Heroes Might Have Looked If A Developing Writer Had Written It

Hello. Long time no see.

Below I have taken an excerpt from The Heroes and added some very common writing ‘problems’ that I find while editing most novel manuscripts by developing writers. Though I would refrain from calling Abercrombie a literary genius, he is nevertheless one of my favorite authors, thanks in part to his uncluttered, restrained, evocative prose. Unfortunately, I do not have access to his unedited drafts, but either he, his editor, or both make his prose compulsively engaging and enjoyable to read. The reason for this, IMHO, is a minimum of narrator interference and an ingrained habit of showing.

In this exercise, I have italicized (because my website editor doesn't seem to do strike-through) some edits, like Abercrombie’s editor might have or more likely Abercrombie self-edited, as if the text had been in an earlier draft of the book, and in the brackets I have explained why Abercrombie or his editor might have cut them.

The purpose of this exercise is to help you self-edit your own prose to make it read more like the best traditionally published fantasy and hopefully help you get published or get an agent. If you find yourself writing the stuff that is italicized below, you might want to consider self-editing it to make your prose cleaner and more engaging like Joe Abercrombie’s.


“He in there?’

Shivers gave one slow nod of his head. [Redundant and unnecessary. What else is he gonna nod?] ‘He’s there.’

‘Alone?’ asked Craw, putting his hand on the rotten handle as if he were nervous about something. [Asking if he is ‘alone’ shows that Craw is nervous. No need to use ‘as if’ to read his mind.]

‘He went in alone,’ Shivers retorted, his voice full of angry tension. [By now we can assume there are just two of them, so no reason to tag Shivers and no reason to read his voice for the reader. Let the characters perform the story. Let the reader infer and engage.]

Meaning, more’n likely, he was with the witch. Craw wasn’t keen to renew his acquaintance with her, especially after seeing the surprised expression on her features her surprise yesterday [Just simply saying ‘her surprise’ is enough. No need to recount an abstract reading of ‘the expression on her ‘features’, which is a non-descript abstraction. And which features? Does that mean her face?], but dawn was on the way, pink and yellow painting the sky [We know what dawn looks like and they are not outside, so our PoV character is not looking at it anyway], and it was past time he was too. About ten years past time. He had to tell his Chief first. He knew [PoV is well established, so no need to tell us that he knew his own opinion.] That was the right thing to do. He blew out through his puffed cheeks, grimaced at his stitched face, then turned the handle and went in, his gut churning [We know he is nervous from the dialogue, so this pre-packaged phrase is not necessary. Also, having Craw enter is a more effective paragraph ending than a cliché about his stomach nerves.]

Ishri stood in the middle of the expanse [Use something concrete. ‘Expanse’ is an abstract concept that gives the reader no information or sensory experience. Replace with…] dirt floor, hands on her hips, head hanging over on one side. Her long coat was scorched about the hem and up one sleeve, part of the collar burned away, the bandages underneath blackened as if she’d just walked through hell [Don’t muck up a sensory description with trite, abstract, figurative language.] But her skin was still so perfect, the torch flames were almost reflected in her cheek, like a black mirror [Good – the simile is not hackneyed, and it comes at the end of the paragraph for emphasis. Also, it organizes the description from concrete to abstract.]

‘Why fight this fool?’ she sneered [Past continuous tense is required here because she ‘was sneering’ when Craw opened the door and she continued sneering when he saw her. Replace with…] was sneering, one long finger pointing up towards the Heroes. ‘There is nothing you can win from him.” Her expression turned dark. [No need for narrator interference. The dialogue turns ‘dark’. ‘Her expression turned dark’ is abstract, meaningless, and hackneyed.] If you step into the circle I cannot protect you.’

‘Protect me?’ Dow said incredulously [No need. The dialogue shows that he is incredulous] slouched by the dark window, hard features face [Use the concrete term. Features is an abstraction with an infinite number of meanings. The beer can holder in my car is a ‘feature’.] all in shadow, his axe held loose just under the blade as if wanting to battle [Why else would he be sharpening a battle axe? No need to read his mind. Let the characters perform the story. The reader will infer he is getting ready for battle.] ‘I’ve handled men ten times harder’n Prince bloody Calder in the circle.’ His blade screeched on the whetstone [Blades don’t screech on their own. Give the characters agency. Replace with…] And he gave it a long, screeching lick with a whetstone.

‘Calder.’ Ishri snorted as if Dow knew nothing. [Let the characters perform the story. Allow Dow to react to the dialogue without reading his mind.] ‘There are other forces at work here. Ones beyond your understanding—’

‘Ain’t really beyond my understanding. You’re in a feud with this First of the Magi, so you’re using my feud with the Union as a way to fight each other. Am I close to it?” He was closer than he knew as he would find out later. [Let it play out. Let the characters perform the story, and let the reader infer what Dow knows. And most importantly, why spoil it by telling what he would find out later? It’s excessive narrator interference.] Feuds I understand, believe me. You witches and whatever think you live in a world apart, but you’ve got both feet in this one, far as I can tell.’

She gave him a superior look. [Show it. Let the reader infer and engage. Replace with…] She lifted her chin. ‘Where there is sharp metal there are risks.'


I sincerely hope this is helpful for some of you. Thanks very much for reading. I am available for freelance editing at what I am told by my clients is a very reasonable price. I was the story editor for Grimdark Magazine for seven years (until I got too mean). I also edited the Reddit Stabby Award-winning anthology Evil is a Matter of Perspective, have edited one SPFBO finalist and am hoping another will make it this year, and co-edited TR Napper’s Aurealis Award-winning collection Neon Leviathan, which you should definitely read if you haven’t already. My comments and suggestions on an actual manuscript are obviously written in the comments margin and not into the text.

You can contact me through my website at or by email at

And I’m nice now. I promise. ;)

Thank you.


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