Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Tech Tops -- More best of the Worst -- #2

More 'Best of the Worst Writing Mistakes'

An obvious and venerable error. Words breed and duplicate inside sentences and hop like fleas from one sentence to the next.

Not -- Audie preened under the attention, holding his fashionable silk sleeves wide before an attentive audience of teen fashion moguls.

Trivial intervening action.
This is one of the 'will-you-please-get-to-the-point' errors. The character has action. The character has dialog. Introduce these two and let them shake hands.
Just Do It.

Not -- Deirdre slammed her cup down into the saucer and pushed the chair back and got to her feet and circled the desk and walked across the room to where Trevor stood. She stepped close to him and tilted her head back, poked him in the chest, and said, "You are coyote scat."

But, Deirdre slammed the cup down. She was across the room in an instant. "You," she poked him in the chest, "are coyote scat."

Cliché phrases.
Cliché, never good, reaches its succinct worst in the form of a hackneyed phrase.

Not -- Free as a sparrow. Happy as a clam. Sly as a fox. Bottomless pit.
But -- Bottomless as a sparrow. Happy as a fox. Free as a clam. Sly as a pit.

Mixed levels of emotional context.
Nothing wrong with this if you're trying to be humorous. Otherwise ... you may achieve humor by accident.

Not -- Chaos, annihilation and discomfort traveled in the wake of the army.
Not -- She lost her home, her virginity and her credit cards in one fell swoop.

Non-linear order of emotional content
Related to mixed levels of emotional context, except that all of these levels can exist happily in the same sentence. They just have to be lined up right.

Not – At camp Phoebe learned to tie knots, become a trusty friend, and make her own bed.
But -- At camp Phoebe learned to tie knots, make her own bed and become a trusty friend.

Not – Sauron killed whole villages, cost men their immortal souls and uprooted families.
But -- Sauron uprooted families, killed whole villages, and cost men their immortal souls.

Pig-tail phrases.
These are phrases – cliches of a particular sort – that drag along extra, iterative words.

Squabble back and forth, return again, jump up, sit down, nod up and down, her own thoughts, his own beliefs, the fun of it, closed fist, staying here, shook his head back and forth, button up, walk forward, strut about, shrugged a shoulder,

These are different from phrasal verbs like
Shut up, clear up, close down, shove off, gloss over, take in ..

With both pigtail phrases and phrasal verbs, in each case, you have to determine -- In your usage, is there a difference between the 'closed fist' and the 'fist'?
Between 'open up' and 'open'?

Saying and conveying.
Information conveyed by action doesn't also have to be explained.

Not – Bagley strolled to the front of the room where everyone in the audience could see him and began explaining.
But -- Bagley strolled to the front of the room and began explaining to the audience.

Not – Phillip lit the small fire to warm himself and leaned towards it, shivering.
But -- Phillip lit the small fire and leaned towards it, shivering.

Not – Nolan's low forehead creased in puzzlement. "What are you doing here?"
But – Nolan's low forehead creased. "What are you doing here?"

Photocopy phrases and doublemint sentences.
Doubling up on a concept in adjoining phrases or sentences. This includes unnecessary appositives.

Not – Titania crept silently down the winding staircase, making not the least noise.
But -- Titania crept down the winding staircase.

Not -- The final result of all his work, the effect he was looking for, lay at the bottom of the casket.
But -- The final result of all his work lay at the bottom of the casket.

Not -- Bernard was worried about Arnie's new pet. He had an anxiety attack every time he considered the consequences of adopting a warthog.
But -- Bernard had an anxiety attack every time he considered the consequences of Arnie's new pet, the warthog.

Not -- Kathleen was lighthearted and frivolous and couldn't be counted upon to accept responsibility. She never took anything seriously, not even important deadlines.
But -- Kathleen was lighthearted and frivolous and never took even important deadlines seriously.

The trivial obvious.
Just don't tell us what we already can see. If you add a detail, make it an important detail.

Not – Fu Manchu stood up from his chair.
But -- Fu Manchu stood.
Or even -- Fu Manchu stood up.

Not -- Gillian set her glass down on the table.
But – Gillian set her glass down.
Or -- Gillian set her glass down next to the bottle of poison.

Not – Gregory drove the car down the street in the direction of the Minute Mart.
But -- Gregory drove to the Minute Mart.

Ambiguous pronouns.
The English language delights in confusing us.

Not -- Jean had never quite forgiven Georgia for beating up her boyfriend, Fergus, in second grade.
But -- Jean was protective of her boyfriend, Fergus. She'd never quite forgiven Georgia for beating him up in second grade.
Or -- Georgia beat up her boyfriend, Fergus, in second grade. Jean had never quite forgiven her for it.

Not -- Falmouth often played competitive darts with Milsom and discussed his lack of skill in that endeavor.
But -- Falmouth often discussed Milsom's lack of skill when they played competitive darts.
Or -- Falmouth used to discuss his lack of skill at competitive darts when he played with Milsom.

Classic run-on sentences.

You want run-on sentences? You can have them. Just keep hooking random sentences together with 'and'.

Hambly and Undine hunted frogs by the light of the moon and took them home for dinner and served them flies, which they enjoyed, and then returned them to the swamp with their compliments and went back to their house at the edge of town to get drunk.

Look at that sentence.
Have pity on the poor readers.
Put a period where you have to take a breath.


  1. Jo, thank you so much for posts like these. You are clear and concise and your examples are priceless. Now, I just need to train myself to see these in my own writing and not write them in the first place. ;)

    I really enjoyed TSL. I'm really looking forward to the next one(s).

  2. Hi Kaige --

    Oh, thank you so much. I am so glad you enjoyed TSL.

    My Lord and Spymaster will be out at the beginning of July. I hope folks like it. I have my fingers crossed.

    Technical Topics are just to read and not think about too much.

  3. Hi Jo,

    I'm finding this post particularly apropos as I'm working my way through the third (or is it fourth? can't remember) draft of my WIP with a machete. You have a way of lifting the veil that hides so many of those simple little mistakes from my editorial eyes. Very helpful.



  4. Hi Linda --

    And it is the little obvious mistakes that get us, isn't it?

    Echoes. That's one of mine. Jeesh.

    I swear there are gremlins who add errors to the ms.

  5. Jo,

    Echoes are are a major problem for me, too. I practically have to dedicate a whole read-through just for those annoying suckers.

    I'm also notorious for my homophone typos. I'll type "know" for "no" or "read" for "red." Mainly when I'm tired, but geez. It's not like I don't know better. My fingers can just be so dumb... {g}


  6. Hi Linda --

    I wouldn't think about the mechanics of writing, if I didn't need them. There are so many awkward bits left in the final draft. And in the page proofs. And beyond.

  7. Joanna - I'm in love with your blog and thought I'd finally tell you so! I loved your mixed level of emotion section - I can see where I probably try to squeeze everything in and shoot myself in the foot!


  8. Hi Bria --

    I am so delighted you find this useful.

    Most of this 'worst' stuff I notice because I keep doing it. And doing it.
    If these 'worst' didn't keep turning up in the manuscript, I wouldn't sit down and figure out what I'm doing wrong.

    You profit from my mistakes. More mistakes, more profit.

  9. Anonymous2:23 PM

    I wonder if you could get these published or put them together in some way on the web. I think they are so useful....

  10. Hi Anon --

    I'm not sure the world, or even the web, needs yet another 'How to Write' book.

    But I cannot seem to stop myself from generating precepts. There is probably a Latin name for this.

    As I say somewhere ... when you make lots of mistakes, you get real familiar with the process of making mistakes.

    My blog is going to grow up to be a website soon,
    (jo crosses her fingers,)
    so these will be loosed on the web.

  11. She lost her home, her virginity and her credit cards in one fell swoop.

    This sounds like a fabulous tagline for some chick lit novel or romantic comedy film.

  12. Hi Ros --

    Heh heh heh.

    And it's all the same techniques. Humor, when it's tipped one way ... good dramatic emphasis when it's tipped the other.

  13. Love these posts! Better than any class! Thanks. :)

  14. You know how you keep notes for future blog posts? And then you get so busy you never actually do the future blog postings?

    I do that.

    I mean well, but I get sidetracked.

    Maybe someday I'll sit down and write all this stuff out.