Dry Eyeballs, Loose Heads & Dental Hygiene

Imagine my surprise when I was revising a manuscript for approximately the eighty billionth time (rounding to the nearest eighty billion) and discovered far too many characters with dry eyeballs, loose heads, and preoccupations with advertising their dental hygiene. Yeah, it was quite a shock. Here’s how it happened….

I was minding my own business, polishing my manuscript for submission, when I made the fateful move. I used Word’s “Find” function (CTRL+F) to hunt for stare and staring. Those two words weren’t just spicing up my manuscript. They were drying out my characters’ eyes and quite possibly giving them somewhat psychotic appearances. I mean, jeez, do characters really need to stare 60 different times in a 50,000-word story?

Delete. Revise. Administer eye drops.

Next I checked their heads. CTRL+F. Nod. Thirty-one times!?!?

Delete. Revise. Send characters to chiropractor.

I sat back and breathed a satisfied sigh. My story was tighter. Stronger. Ready for—

What’s the deal with Grandpa Willy’s teeth?

Sure, my story has a quirky step-grandpa whose default facial expression is a smile. But do I always have to tell the reader about it? How many smiles and grins can there be before someone notices a piece of spinach stuck between my character’s front teeth? (When I discovered three characters combining for five smiles on a single page, I knew I had a problem.)

Delete. Revise. Floss.

I found myself on Wordle (, which highlights frequently used words by creating a “word cloud” for a section of text. The more often a word is used, the larger it appears in the cloud. I pasted in all 50,000 words of my story.

Wordle: smile & nod
[Wordle “word cloud” for this blog post.]

The next thing I knew, overused words and descriptions flew from my manuscript like chickens fleeing a feather-pillow factory. Good-bye then (minus 47). Adios just (minus 46). Ciao look (minus 22) and glance (minus 40).

Five days and about 12 hours of revising later, I was done. And you know that 50,000-word story I mentioned? It’s down to less than 49,000. And those words that got deleted? Haven’t missed a single one. It’s enough to make a guy smile and nod. But now I might not tell you that’s what I’m doing.

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So…any overused words or descriptions you’ve uncovered in your own writing? Any tricks you’ve found useful in dealing with them? Share your thoughts and insights below.

And the winner of an autographed copy of Kate Messner’s Book is…


Stacey  who wrote:  “I love Kate Messner and her dedication to helping teachers and writers.  Thanks for a great interview.”


Congratulations Stacey! You will be receiving an email shortly.

Thanks to all who commented. And don’t forget to check out Kate Messner’s website at more information about her upcoming books!

Einstein Anderson enters the 21st Century (with a Giveaway)!

Seymour Simon has published hundreds of books about science, the vast majority of them nonfiction. But there is a special place in my heart for Simon’s fictional Adam “Einstein” Anderson. My kids, being the sciency progeny of a scientist and an engineer, loved to read about Einstein Anderson, a sciency kid who solved problems using his knowledge of scientific principles. I must have checked out every Einstein Anderson book from the library when my kids were young. The short chapters with a figure-it-out-yourself problem at the end were great for bedtime reading and science discussion. (I admit part of the appeal for me, an exhausted mom, was that they were short.)

These days, I cite the Einstein Anderson books in my presentations about sciency fiction. Not only are they full of science content, they’re great examples of the kind of reasoning that is essential to the scientific process. While researching my talk, I found an article published in 1995 that suggests ways to use Einstein Anderson in the classroom. Great minds think alike, or so they say.

The Einstein Anderson stories were originally published by Viking-Penguin in the 1980s as Einstein Anderson, Science Sleuth.


In the 1990s, they were released in a slightly revised version by Morrow as Einstein Anderson, Science Detective.



These days, some of the stories seem a bit dated.

Imagine my delight to find out that they are being updated and reissued in paperback and ebook formats by Starwalk Kids Media as Einstein Anderson, Science Geek.



I asked Seymour Simon about the update, and here’s what he had to say:

“I decided to completely redo the Einstein Anderson series to make them more contemporary and outfit Einstein with the digital devices (smartphone, etc.) that many kids his age grow up with. I often say that kids these days are digital natives as contrasted with their parents and teachers who are digital immigrants. Kids simply integrate these digital devices into their lives. And the devices offer great new ways of learning about science — and anything else you want to learn about. “

seymour simon

“Kids don’t act the same, sound the same or even ARE  the same as they were in the past. The stories and even the characters in the Einstein series have been completely re-imagined and rewritten. Motivations and characters have shades of gray rather than simply one way or another. Bullying, for example, is dealt with very differently than in the original stories. Even the antagonist, Stanley, is into science — he wants to use it to make a billion dollars like Bill Gates– he just loses out because he’s not willing to do the homework to get the science right.  Even the approach to science is quite different. Not just ‘the facts’ are part of Einstein’s thinking, but the approach to solving a problem presents a real path that kids can emulate in their own life.”

I had a chance to read the new books and to compare them to the original stories. Here are some of the things I like about the new Einstein:

  • The technology is updated. For example, in the story about rollerblades, Einstein makes a robot for the science fair. In the original story, it’s a model of a robot, but in the new version, it’s a real robot. Here’s another example: In the original story, Einstein knows the scientific name of the ants he sees on his way to a friend’s house. In the reboot, he doesn’t know the scientific name, but he takes a picture of the ants with his phone for his electronic science journal and looks up the scientific name on an app. Yes, there’s updated technology, but there’s more. Instead of relying on rote memorization of facts, Einstein is collecting data, recording it, and finding out more about the ants. Science is depicted as a process, instead of a bunch of facts.
  • In many cases, clues to the solution to the problem at the end of the chapter are planted earlier in the story. For example, in the story about the howling dog (who howls because someone is blowing a dog whistle, inaudible to human ears), Einstein explains to his brother that bees can see ultraviolet light, a wavelength humans can’t see, and goes on to talk about the high frequency sounds that bats can hear, but humans can’t. This engaging strategy allows the reader to apply a scientific principle in a new context and figure out the solution. Why should Einstein have all the fun?
  • Each story in the new Einstein Anderson series is followed by a related hands-on activity. The activity for the howling dog story involves bottles of water and the sounds they produce, which vary depending on the amount of water (and air) in the bottle. There are plenty of questions to prompt further investigation.
  • The activity is followed by a “Science Solution,” which explains the science behind the activity. Some Science Solutions also include links to online activities applying similar principles. For the howling dog story, the link gets you a video of an orchestra playing instruments made of trash, a “Junkestra,” if you will.

Check out the new, 21st Century Einstein, and while you’re at Seymour Simon’s website, take a look around. You’ll find a lot of science books by an author who knows how to put science in his fiction.


One lucky winner will receive a signed copy of the first EINSTEIN ANDERSON, SCIENCE GEEK book, THE IMPOSSIBLE SHRINKING MACHINE AND OTHER CASES. Enter before midnight Monday, June 24. The winner will be announced on Tuesday, June 25.

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Jacqueline Houtman has  PhD in Medical Microbiology and Immunology. Her sciency debut novel is called THE REINVENTION OF EDISON THOMAS.