Monday, 20 April 2009

We never do this, do we?

Some thoughts for writers here, gleaned from Pat Holt. Now you may have seen this in other places, but it bears repeating, and anyway I want to put it here so I can find it again if I want to in ten months time. Or a year.... Reading it once a month wouldn't hurt. These are the ten most common faults that mark us out as amateurs in the writing game. If you want, click on the link, and read the full piece, with all the examples of the mistakes we make. I just hope one of yours hasn't made it into the quotes! (Additional - I'm told the link doesn't go direct to the piece today, but does take you to the correct blog. Type in The Ten Mistakes in the search box, and the piece will come up)

REPEATS - Just about every writer has a “crutch” word. They're usually unremarkable. That’s why they slip into our writing, but Readers notice them and get irked by them. I know I have a habit of using a word in one sentence and then again in the next paragraph, as if it's stuck in my mind and I can't get rid of it.

FLAT WRITING - Your writing is so flat, it just dies on the page, even for you! A few replacement words won't fix it - you have to give it depth, texture, character.
It is a sign that you’ve lost interest or are intimidated by your own narrative. It shows that you’re veering toward mediocrity, that your brain is fatigued, that you’ve lost your inspiration. So use it as a lesson. When you see flat writing on the page, it’s time to rethink, refuel and rewrite. Totally agree with that.

EMPTY ADVERBS - here's a list. Go on, now, own up - how many do you use?
Actually, totally, absolutely, completely, continually, constantly, continuously, literally, really, unfortunately, ironically, incredibly, hopefully, finally - these and others are words that promise emphasis, but too often they do the reverse. They suck the meaning out of every sentence.
(When in doubt, try this mantra: Precise and spare; precise and spare; precise and spare.) I have my own version of this - I think Dick Francis, Dick Francis, Dick Francis - a master of spare, taut writing.

PHONY DIALOGUE - One character should never imply or say to the other, “Tell me again, Bruce: What are we doing next?”
Dialogue offers glimpses into character the author can’t provide through description. Hidden wit, thoughtful observations, a shy revelation, a charming aside all come out in dialogue, so the characters *show* us what the author can’t *tell* us. But if dialogue helps the author distinguish each character, it also nails the culprit who’s promoting a hidden agenda by speaking out of character. I strive to do this. Not sure if I do.

NO-GOOD SUFFIXES - Don’t take a perfectly good word and give it a new backside so it functions as something else. Mindlessness, characterlessness, courageousness, statuesqueness, preciousness - you get the idea. You might as well pour marbles into your readers’ mouths. Not all “ness” words are bad - goodness, no - but they are all suspect.
The “ize” words are no better - finalize, conceptualize, fantasize, categorize. The “ize” hooks itself onto words as a short-cut but stays there like a parasite. Cops now say to each other about witnesses they’ve interrogated, “Did you statementize him?” I congratulate myself (and I'm probably wrong) that this is an American trait.

THE “TO BE” WORDS - this is the one that really gets writers steamed up.
Once your eye is attuned to the frequent use of the “to be” words - “am,” “is,” “are,” “was,” “were,” “be,” “being,” “been” and others - you’ll be appalled at how quickly they flatten prose and slow your pace to a crawl.

LISTS - a lot of writers still do this. I grind my teeth every time I see it, and kid myself that I never do it.
“She was entranced by the roses, hyacinths, impatiens, mums, carnations, pansies, irises, peonies, hollyhocks, daylillies, morning glories, larkspur…” Well, she may be entranced, but our eyes are glazing over.

SHOW, DON’T TELL - Another one that gets writers rolling their eyes.
If you say, “she was stunning and powerful,” you’re *telling* us. But if you say, “I was stunned by her elegant carriage as she strode past the jury - shoulders erect, elbows back, her eyes wide and watchful,” you’re *showing* us. The moment we can visualize the picture you’re trying to paint, you’re showing us, not telling us what we *should* see. It takes a little more work, and sometimes it seems impossible. But I've found that leaving it half a day, a day, even a week - and the better phrase will pop into your mind immediately.

“Mrs. Fletcher’s face pinkened slightly.” “I sat down and ran a finger up the bottom of his foot, and he startled so dramatically …. ” “he startled”? You mean “he started”?
Awkward phrasing makes the reader stop in the midst of reading and ponder the meaning of a word or phrase. It stops me, that I know.

Compound sentences, most modifying clauses and many phrases *require* commas. You may find it necessary to break the rules from time to time, but you can’t delete commas just because you don’t like the pause they bring to a sentence or just because you want to add tension.

It really is worth reading the full piece, I promise you.


Anita Davison said...

OK I'm hooked, so I'll go and read the whole piece as it looks like a great article to have close by in case I lose insight into my own work. The 'flat writing' bit is so true. Thanks Jen

Olivia Ryan said...

Wow! Thanks for this. Now I have a few clues as to what I might be doing wrong ...!!

Louise said...

Good piece, Jen, but I confess to loving new word constructions. To winterize, for example, is so much more fun than to say: I lagged the pipes, checked the heating, put on the storm shutters etc etc. I even like it better than 'I got the house ready for winter.'

Jen Black said...

Sorry about the link breaking down!
I've copied it for constant reference, too - and Lousie, I love British English too much to use constructions like "winterize!"
I realy worry about the way BE is being eroded. So many people on tv use "off of" these days my teeth will be worn down from grinding them!

Ginger Simpson said...

Jen, Thanks for sharing. I needed fodder for my own blog, so I may follow the premise as I found it extremely helpful.


Linda Banche said...

Good list. I don't think I do any of this stuff, but maybe I'm deluding myself. **grins**. I'd add don't start sentences with this/that, these/those, or it. I've noticed sentences that I've rewritten without these words sound so much better.

Mirella Sichirollo Patzer said...

Good article and most helpful. I've known about all of these for a while, so it's good to have a reminder to keep trucking on.