Welcome back to another post in our self-editing miniseries. It’s been a hot minute since we last talked about this, so if you want to catch up on the first three posts, here are the links.
Today, we’re going to have a look at common writing mistakes. You know, those little gremlins that slip into even the tightest manuscript, and leave writers pulling out their hair.
The good news is these issues are easily fixed, and we can train ourselves to avoid them altogether. I know this seems impossible, especially for newer writers. Honestly, the idea of self-editing still freaks me the hell out, too. But it’s not that difficult to learn what to look out for, and I find myself automatically fixing issues that I wouldn’t have spotted a year ago.
Ready? Let’s do this.
We know it’s bad to use certain words or phrases too often, yet we all end up doing just that anyway. I’m especially guilty of overuse when I blog–and I’m guessing it’s because I tend to write posts in a conversational manner.
You see, I think our speech patterns are made for overused words, phrases, or ideas. When I’m speaking to someone who already understands a cliche, I don’t have to work as hard to explain what I mean.
Amplifiers do the same thing. If I’m hungry, my family will know I need food, but can survive a little longer. If I’m very hungry, they know I need food now. And if I’m VERY FRIGGEN HUNGRY, they’re already manning the battle stations. By telling you they’re manning the battle stations, you also know exactly what I’m trying to say.
Still, if we had to write like we talk, all books would be as thick as telephone directories. Add every uhm and ah, and nothing will ever get said.
Additionally, readers tend to gloss over those phrases they know well. The more we repeat phrases in our books, the fewer readers will actively take them in. The idea is to keep the reader interested in the story, and we’ll do that more easily if we don’t lull them to sleep with constant repetitions.
What is an intensifier (also called a modifier)? A word used to modify or amplify an adjective.
What does that even mean? In the sentence I’m hungry, the word hungry describes my current state. As in, my stomach is empty. If I add a really, very, or extremely to that sentence, I’ve modified the word hungry. Now, it’s been taken up a notch from where it was before–it’s amplified.
I’m really hungry is one thing, but I’m extremely hungry carries even more emphasis.
And that’s great, because I’ve brought across the point. Only, there are other words that would have emphasised how hungry I am without using the amplifiers. Famished, ravenous, or starving, for example.
Besides that, how hungry is really hungry anyway? Really isn’t a quantifiable measure. We want to be specific in our writing–as specific as we can be, anyway (but more on this later). Our readers will have a clearer picture of what we mean if we use exact words.
For example, instead of shouting very loudly, we could find a more descriptive verb. Maybe he bellowed, or roared. We know what a roar sounds like, which makes it easier to see the same picture as the writer.
Nine out of ten times, a sentence will be stronger if we remove the intensifiers and use stronger verbs or adjectives. Not always, though.
Real people use intensifiers in speech. Therefore, if we want our characters to sound like real people, they’ll use intensifiers and cusses sometimes. Some characters will use these words more than others. Teenagers, for example, use words like awesome and seriously all the time.
Sometimes, an author chooses to include an intensifier in the prose for the purpose these words exist–to amplify a specific idea. The key is to use this tool sparingly, otherwise it loses its impact.
What are cliches? Ideas or phrases that were meaningful when they were created, but have been repeated so often that they’ve lost their impact.
Well, some cliches might still result in impact. 😛 Tell someone they’re ugly as sin, for example. Go ahead. I’ll wait here while they slap you.
I believe most cliches were born in truth. We keep using them, because hey, the sun will shine tomorrow. Unless, of course, the star-eating aliens strike tonight, and we have to come up with a brand new cliche to lament the fact.
So how do we communicate ideas in a way readers will easily understand, without removing the impact from what we’re trying to say?
This is a difficult one. Easier said than done. 😛 When I get stuck on cliches (mine typically involve hearts skipping beats or other sayings of a physical nature) I try to think of other physical or emotional cues. In fact, it’s because I so struggle with cliches about hearts that I researched and wrote the writing emotions posts (find them under the tag let’s write).
Using metaphors instead of cliches can help. Again, though, we must avoid using metaphors just for the sake of using them. When we use these tools sparingly, the impact is amplified when we add them to the text.
As with the intensifiers, I don’t think it’s necessary to remove every cliche from the manuscript, but this is a personal opinion, and writing instructors might give you different advice.
The fact remains that people use cliches in speech. At some point in a legal drama, someone is going to refuse to beat around the bush, or note that time is money. In an action-adventure, someone will have the time of their life, or see their life flash before their eyes. In that sweet chick-lit, the dashing heroine will realise opposites attract, or if you love someone, you must set them free.
No matter the scenario, characters talk, and if they’re realistic, they’ll use the odd cliche to illustrate their point. I’ve even made up a list of cliches for my novels, so Ehrdia gains some depth.
What are weasel words? Words or phrases that sound like one thing but mean another. These words/phrases can modify a sentence so that the meaning becomes ambiguous.
Basically, weasel words are unspecific. Advertisers love this kind of language, because they can imply anything in advertisements, without offering hardcore proof to supplement their claims. For example:
Some people say that using face masks will keep your skin young.
By saying some people say, I’m being vague. Who said it? Even if somebody out there did say those words, they’re not involved in my statement, because I haven’t named them. If I want to sound even more authoritative, I’d write instead that ‘researchers say’. My sentence is altered to sound more important, but the proof remains mysterious.
I find it easier to blog when I’m not pointing a finger directly at anyone, and being the slightest bit ambiguous helps achieve that. For that reason, this post is just riddled with weasels.
But what do weasel words have to do with storytellers?
Words like a bit, some, virtually, many, might, may, fairly, probably, and quite, to name some (see what I did there?) all qualify as weasel words. None of these words is definite or quantifiable.
When we spoke about intensifiers above, I mentioned that really hungry is ambiguous, because how hungry is really hungry? The proverbial how long is a piece of string, to bring a cliche into the mix. 😛
When we tell stories, we want to be as specific as possible–another thing I mentioned above. But here’s where it gets complicated.
When you’re writing from the point of view of an unreliable narrator–as in, a viewpoint character who doesn’t know everything, or believes a lie–your manuscript will contain weasel words. If a character is a mind-reader, they know exactly what another character is thinking, what motivates them, and what brought them to where they are. Then we can write in specifics (this also applies to an omniscient viewpoint).
But, unless a character can read minds, they’re guessing at what drives the rest of the cast, and therefore will be ambiguous when considering other characters. This is especially true if we write in deep points of view, and want the reader submerged in the thoughts of the narrating characters.
For example. When A Study of Ash & Smoke starts, Cara and Sera have been apart for four years. Both are viewpoint characters, and since I write in deep third, Cara can only guess at what Sera is thinking/doing (and vice versa). Her uncertainty has to translate to the page, and the easiest way to do that is by using ambiguous words, like seemed, likely, and maybe.
Unless there is a specific reason to use weasel words, however, it’s better to leave them out. If a sentence can stand on its own without an added modifier, cut it. Stronger sentences make for emersed readers.
All writers have pet phrases. It’s a quirky thing we do. But we don’t have to give up our quirks entirely, because the things we do that make us stand out form a part of our unique authorial voice.
Still, if our pet phrases pop up too often, they become jarring to read. Anything that pulls the reader out of the story is bad.
In one of the early drafts of A Study of Ash & Smoke, all the male characters were constantly fiddling with their facial hair. And when I say constantly, I mean in every scene. Even worse–whenever Cara and Nathan were together, they were looking at each other, so much that they did nothing but look.
For these characters to feel more authentic to the reader, they have to act like real humans. If they’re always doing the same things, they become cartoony.
What to do about it? Well, we can find repetitions by doing a search of the document. If you’re using Word, you can press Ctrl + F, and type in the overused word/phrase in the search bar. You’ll then see each occurrence of the word/phrase, and you can decide which ones to remove or replace.
In the end, many of my male characters lost their facial hair (sorry guys) and I had them use the objects at hand in the scene. If they were around a dinner table, they’d gesture with their eating utensils, or pop food into their mouths, instead of twisting the tips of their moustaches. I kept their facial hair fiddling to a minimum, and used the remaining times this action happened as a personal quirk for one of the characters.
And instead of looking at each other, I searched deeper into Cara and Nathan’s minds whenever they were together. What they were feeling, physically and emotionally, offered me other cues to influence their actions.
Some days, the writing just goes over my head. I’m exhausted by life, you know? I have a kid, I’m working off my butt, I’m running a family, I have to do my own advertising, and stuff gets hard. When I’m feeling out of it, it’s so much easier to have my characters do things lazily.
How? I grab the simplest verbs I can, and go with that.
My characters take, stand, walk, look, bring, and give things. Now, there’s nothing wrong with these, but none of them offers the reader a clear image of what the character is actually doing.
Of the hundred ways a person could stand, couldn’t I have chosen one verb that would better illustrate what I want the reader to see? Slouching is different than posing, and assuming a martial arts stance is different than leaning, yet all of these examples involve standing.
Once again, we should aim to be clear when we’re telling stories. Descriptive verbs will tighten our writing.
I don’t know about you, but I read books to escape reality. A dictionary is a book too, sure, but that’s not what I have in mind when I pick something from the fantasy or sci-fi shelf. If a writer uses too many words I don’t understand, I’m lost to the story forever.
Remember that episode of Friends, where Joey writes the letter to the adoption agency? He’s so afraid of failing Chandler and Monica that he replaces every word in the letter with a synonym from a dictionary, and hilarity ensues.
Don’t be like Joey, folks. Look at your demographic, and use language that age group will understand.
But you’re writing a crime novel, with a forensic specialist as the protagonist. And you spent five years researching the jargon, and your head is just overflowing with it.
Or you’ve built this world, and made up this language, with these cool new terms for animals and food, and holy craperoonie, it’s so amazing.
Go ahead, include some of it. Just keep in mind that normal people don’t have the same forensic or made-up vocabulary, and won’t have a clue what you mean. Anything that causes a reader to lose track of the story is bad, especially if it’s something that pops up often.
Ask yourself if the jargon or made-up lingo is important enough to risk the clarity of the story before you add it to the narrative.
Sentences that Start Weak
Don’t fall into the trap of starting every sentence with a pronoun. The struggle is real, I know.
There are five men walking into the room is an easy sentence. The reader knows what I mean, and it’s okay if I include a few easy sentences, right?
Five men walk into the room is also an easy sentence. The reader still knows what I mean, but this sentence is stronger. It’s specific, the construction is cleaner, and I’ve saved 3 words. A bonus, since many editors charge per word. Additionally, this sentence shows the reader five men walking into the room, where the first sentence told the reader they were walking in.
Wherever possible, start sentences with the most important verbs or nouns. Sometimes, it’s impossible to avoid starting sentences with there are, or it was etc constructions, and that’s okay, as long as it doesn’t happen in every paragraph.
As for starting sentences with personal pronouns (I, he, she, they, them, etc) just make sure every sentence doesn’t start this way. Try to change it up with something else, and I don’t mean just flinging in the character’s first name.
I’ll end here for today. I hope you’ve enjoyed this post.
Until next time.