As part of a larger project -- the '100 Best of the Worst Writing Mistakes' projects -- I'm pulling together writing mistakes.
Here's a few. Thirteen of them. I'll post more later.
Word choice: Superfluous 'that’s'.
At the polishing stage of the redraft, do a search on 'that'. Every time a sentence reads fine without 'that', pull it out.
Not – It is clear that Joanie dunks donuts.
But -- It is clear Joanie dunks donuts.
Or better ... Clearly, Joanie dunks donuts, which frees the predicate from the verb 'to be', which is nearly always an improvement.
Paragraphing: Logical connectivity.
Paragraphing is an art. We need to be aware of the subtle breaks in the ongoing action that signal a movement of attention or a change in emphasis. We tidy related thoughts, description, and action together into their logical and appropriate paragraph.
Powerful stuff, paragraphing.
"I'm sick of your shenanigans, Macy." Tregarth wound another length of fishing line around his hand, making a neat bundle. A woman's scarf, Macy's scarf, red as blood, lay folded on the plank.
Lose ends of the nylon line blew back and forth in the wind. Macy sat in the prow looking out over the Severn. "I never meant to hurt anyone."
"I'm sick of your shenanigans, Macy." Tregarth wound another length of the fishing line around his hand, making a neat bundle. Lose ends of the nylon line blew back and forth in the wind.
A woman's scarf, Macy's scarf, red as blood, lay folded on the plank. Macy sat in the prow looking out over the Severn. "I never meant to hurt anyone."
Paragraphing: Segregation of dialog.
When dialog ensues, it owns the paragraphing.
Segregate action, description and all kinds of tags related to a character into that character's paragraph. The one with that character's dialog. Do not let one character's constellation of narrative wander into a paragraph belonging to someone else.
"Christmas shopping weeds out the weak." Beatrice kneaded her feet, which hurt. Mary nodded happy agreement.
"And there's 23 shopping days left," Mary said brightly. "Plenty of time for Darwinian selection to kick in."
"Christmas shopping weeds out the weak." Beatrice kneaded her feet, which hurt.
Mary nodded happy agreement. "And there's 23 shopping days left. Plenty of time for Darwinian selection to kick in."
Dialog: As you know, Bob.
This is a classic. We have a bolus of backstory, so we set up talking heads to tell it to each other for the benefit of the reader.
As you know, Bob, today, March 3rd, we celebrate the founding of the Beta Colony.
Whenever you lay backstory in the mouths of characters, (and this is a fine technique for conveying backstory,) ask yourself
(1) do these two guys already know what is being said?
(2) would they talk about it right now?
Dialog: Addressing characters in dialog.
Folks do not call each other by name several times in a conversation. They just don't. Go listen to people talking. They never say each other's names.
It's tempting to tag dialog by inserting personal names into it.
One exception is if you have a couple of people in the room and the speaker needs to indicate who he's talking to.
In this case he probably would address each by name.
"We'll put you down for the raffle tickets, Vernon. Chester, can you be in charge of security? And, Ellie Mae, I want you to pick pockets. Mom, you get drunk. Do we all have this straight?"
People also 'address by name' in moments of stress and passion.
Unfortunately, this is not useful for tagging dialog, because in moments of stress and passion it is generally clear who is saying, "I adore you," or "This is for what you did to Cynthia," and to whom.
Word choice: 'Now' and 'Then'.
These are often fluff, added where the sequence of events is obvious, or when the current moment doesn't need to be emphasized.
Not – Vernon didn't believe in Santa Claus now, whatever he'd thought at seven.
But -- Vernon didn't believe in Santa Claus, whatever he'd thought at seven.
Not -- Marlene tied the pony to the fence and then climbed over, leaving the reins behind her.
But -- Marlene tied the pony to the fence and climbed over, leaving the reins behind her.
Word choice: 'It'.
Every 'it' wants to grow up to be a noun. Some of them should do so.
On later polishing drafts, reconsider every 'it'.
Replacing the flavorless and imprecise pronoun 'it' with a more spritely and informative noun is a good way to pack together thick, rich prose. 'It' is also a word with a better-than-usual aptitude for being vague and misleading. 'It' is sly.
Make sure the meaning of every 'it' is just crystal clear to the meanest intelligence because there's some fairly misleadable people out there.
Having carefully considered your 'its', one by one, you leave most of them in place.
'It', with all it's faults, is useful, simple, workaday and unobtrusive.
So. Go thou and improve many of your 'its'. Add a new noun when that enriches the paragraph.
But do not be snookered into automatically upgrading every single one of the pesky things.
Not – Lester pulled back on the arrow and shot it deep into the woods. But -- Lester pulled back on the arrow and shot the black shaft deep into the woods.
Not -- Serena prepared a meal of hominy grits and spam. When it was ready she called the boys.
But -- Serena prepared hominy grits and spam. When breakfast was ready she called the boys.
not -- Reginald pulled out the heavy, square brass box and locked the secretive metal casket with a gold key.
Instead -- Reginald pulled out the heavy, square brass box and locked it with a gold key.
Word choice: 'That' as a pronoun.
The little brother of 'it' is the pronoun 'that', yet another word that wants to become a noun. Often 'that' lures us to write two sentences when we only have one sentence worth of material.
Not – Claude was worried about defeat. He feared that more than hunger or thirst.
But -- Claude feared defeat more than hunger or thirst.
Not --- Adrianna deplored Marianne's stupidity. She knew that was the major roadblock.
But -- Adrianna knew Marianne's stupidity was the major roadblock.
Not – Here's the red nose. Give that to the Clown.
But -- Give the large red nose to the Clown.
Word choice: Word sound as an aspect of character.
The words we choose are not just a set of dictionary definitions strung together. They have sound.
The narrative and dialog, both, are full of gutturals, plosives and harsh clicks, syllabants and tonal vowels and smooth, mealy murmurs, blunt Germanic words, complex, educated Latinate words.
Look at the acoustics. Match the sound of words to the character.
Give each character a theme of Germanic choppiness or Latinate length. Use this 'themed sound' in character dialog, in internal monologue, in deep POV, in description of the character, and in the narrative that marches by when the character is onstage.
Thus – Petroff battered the crowd with blunt logic while Leonid impressed the audience with his eloquence.
Description: Specificity: Lack of quantity.
Not – a lot of money, a whole bunch of crayons, many venal faults, large fields.
But – Two hundred dollars, three boxes of crayons, seven unpleasant and venal faults, two hectares.
Description: Specificity: Lack of quality.
Not – bright dresses, frigid cold, bad smells, loud noise,.
But -- cherry-red and lime-green dresses, a windchill factor of minus six degrees, the smell of three-day-old fish, raucous church bells.
Not – unworthy suitors, major obstacles, good opportunities.
But -- liars and greedy pigs, six armed guards waiting in the walkway, a chance to buy into the accounting firm.
POV: POV name in POV.
When we see the personal name of a character, we figure we're not in that guy's POV.
Reason for this --
In deep POV we're thinking along with the POV character. We're right inside his head. We are him.
Folks just don't think of themselves as 'Clyde' or 'Horace' inside their own heads. They think 'I' or 'me'.
Now in Third Person we can't actually do 'I' and 'me' all that much except as Internal Monologue. So we use 'he' and 'him'. This is not an entirely logical choice but it has the virtue of not being 'Clyde'.
'Clyde' is so alien and illogical it shakes us out of POV altogether.
In practice, (because the sublunary world is imperfect and we have to just suck it up and live with that,) we tend to use the personal name once at the beginning of the chapter or the scene or the POV switch just so we know whose head we've landed in.
After that – we use 'he' or 'she' instead unless we've worked ourselves into a corner where it's either the personal name or some vast stupid circumlocution in which case we wince and use the character name again and take up writing real fast hoping no one noticed.
Not -- Jane knew trouble was coming. The giant black bats that filled the sky, the earth tremors, and the trees dripping blood were sure signs. Jane tried to remember if she'd paid her last life insurance premium on time.
But -- Jane knew trouble was coming. The giant black bats that filled the sky, the earth tremors, and the trees dripping blood were sure signs. She tried to remember if she'd paid her last life insurance premium on time.
Verbs: 'To be' and action.
One aspect of 'to be' is that it states what is. Put the verb 'to be' into the predicate and you present the scene as a static and straightforward painting.
Sometimes you want to do this. Sometimes the most important information about a scene is that is exists. It is set before us.
But when 'to be' is the predicate, this call for at least a brief reconsideration in the late draft polish.
This leads us to the general advice ... look around the neighboring sentences till you find a more exciting verb than 'was' and use that one instead.
Not – The oatmeal was nutbrown, wholesome and steaming.
But – The wholesome, nutbrown oatmeal steamed.
Or, better yet – He dropped the bowl of wholesome, nutbrown, steaming oatmeal on the floor.
Not – The sky was high and blue, cloudless, a scorching bowl of merciless sun, the expanse broken only by a pair of frightened birds.
But – Reuben rode in under a sky high, blue, and cloudless. A pair of frightened birds broke from cover as he passed, flurrying upward under a scorching bowl of merciless sun.