My writing mistakes - volume 1
I thought it would be good to write about all the writing mistakes I’ve made. When writing is done well, it looks simple and effortless. Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road’ is a good example, along with anything by John Steinbeck. The problem is that a fledgling writer can easily think that excellent prose is simple to do because it looks simple. I made that mistake. In fact, I made so many mistakes that I’ve lost track of all of them. Writing good prose is like having a slim, fit body. A lucky few can develop one with even seeming to try. For the rest of us, it’s an endless effort to keep off the flab.
Here is a list of my most memorable mistakes. If you’ve read about them in an earlier blog of mine, I apologise. I also mistakenly repeat things.
which - This single word is probably my biggest writing curse. It doesn’t seem bad but it’s actually a creeping horror. ‘He went to the shops which were about two miles from his house.’ That sentence is a perfectly useful little description but it’s got about as much elan, as much engaging style as Long John Silver trying to do a Fred Astaire routine. A better version I think would be, ‘He left his house and headed off to the shops, two miles away down a right angled maze of suburban streets.’ Alternatively, ‘Mickey lifted up the pound coin in his small, freckly hand. He knew that would buy him the latest issue of ‘Blitzkrieg War’, two cola bottles and a Curly Wurly. The only problem was, they were in ‘Morran’s News Mart’, two miles away at the other end of the village. For him, a boy only just turned six, the moon was closer’. Neither of those sentences have ‘which’ in them and they’re all the better for it.
‘Which’ is a word I use when I want to splurge out the story contents on the page at the same speed I think it up. That’s fine for getting the story contents on the page but it’s crap for the reader. I think I’ve reached the stage now where I should search for instances of ‘which’ in a manuscript and remove all but those that are indispensable.
starting a paragraph with a verb - ‘Running down the street, Tom knew that he had to get undercover.’ A sentence like that sounds dynamic at first glance, at least it did to me for several years. The problem is, the reader can easily wonder if they’ve missed out. Did the first half of the paragraph fall off the page due to a printing error? Did the reader suffer some terrible amnesia after reading a chunk of text and only come to when they got to ‘running’? During my early months and years of writing I made a simple and profoundly stupid mistake. I thought that writing sentences with unusual structure, such as starting with a verb, would give my prose dynamism and verve. I now realise that such an effect will work if used sparingly. If used too much, the reader will disengage from the story. Starting a paragraph with a verb is like throwing a wave at a boat. Do it a few times and the passengers get a heady thrill. Do it most of the time and they’re overboard, screaming for a lifebelt. Probably the worst thing you can do in a story is knock your reader out of his or her reading trance. It’s better that the prose is too straightforward than too eclectic; a flat calm sea is better than eighty foot waves, at least the passengers get to their destination. Nowadays, I try to lean towards simple sentences and make those simple sentences do everything needed to produce a good story.
slowly - Arrrrghhh! I know that writing a word like ‘Arrrrghhh!’ is bad English but I can’t resist it. Then again, I have plans to produce a graphic novel so I’m a lost cause. ‘Slowly’ has been almost as big a problem as ‘which’ for me. A sentence such as ‘he turned around slowly’ is fine but it’s got to be really important to put ‘slowly’ in. Only put it in if the reader will completely misread the scene if it isn’t there. Like all adverbs, ‘slowly’ has got to be used sparingly. If you use it too much, your story starts to look like it’s running in sloooow moooootioooon....
and - ‘He opened his eyes and saw the room lit up with a green glow and standing before him was a tall, skeletal thin man with coal black eyes.’ Often when I’m writing, I’ll put in the word ‘and’ a lot because the images are streaming out of my head and I just want to keep up with them, like putting in ‘which’. Maybe after a while I’ll stop this. I hope so. Sentences with too many ‘and’s become stretched out stringy messes. By the time the reader gets to the end, they’ve forgotten what happened at the beginning of the sentence. There’s no dramatic pauses, no time to catch the breath. A better version would be ‘He opened his eyes. The room around him was lit up with a green glow. A tall, skeletal thin man stood at the foot of the bed, staring at him with coal black eyes.’
ending a sentence with ‘was’ - I’m not the only person guilty of this trait. A recent BBC news article ended with the line ‘He added that the results raised many questions, such as what the chemical giving out the signal was.’ That’s ugly, like making a table who’s edges are a crumbling mess of splintered wood. Where’s the clean finish, the beautifully rounded-off completion? A better version would be ‘He added that the results raised many questions, such as the identity of the chemical giving out the signal.’ or ‘He added that the results raised many questions, such as; ‘What was the chemical giving out the signal?’. Ideally end a sentence with a noun. (see?)
‘then’ and ‘at that moment’ - I’ve written sentence like ‘They stood in the street, brushing the dust off themselves, then an explosion threw them sideways’. The use of ‘then’ or ‘at that moment’ is completely unnecessary in that situation. One sentence follows another in time. You don’t have to state that one event follows another. They do it by default. You only ever need to point out if one sentence isn’t following another in time. This though is something that you should only ever do sparingly unless you plan to be the next William Burroughs.
using words other than ‘he/she said or he/she replied’ - When someone writes a novel, they usually write a lot of dialog. The downside of this is that a writer ends up writing ‘he/she said or he/she replied’ a lot; an awful lot. After a while (about two pages in for me) it’s easy to get bored writing ‘said’ or ‘replied’. It’s dull! It doesn’t add anything apart from identifying who’s talking! The urge to use something else wells up. Words such as ‘retorted’, ‘exclaimed’, ‘riposted’ and ‘declared’ spring to mind. That’ll stop the reading getting bored, the writer thinks. The truth is though* that the reader doesn’t get bored with ‘said’ or ‘replied’. He or she needs them to keep track of who’s talking. Readers don’t get bored with ‘said’ or ‘replied’ because they’re in the trance of successful immersion in the story. It’s the writer that’s bored with writing ‘said’ and ‘replied’. Writers must never write for their own benefit. They must write for the readers’ benefit (I like to use ‘readers’ rather than ‘reader’. It’s good to be optimistic)*.
perhaps, just, really, ‘seemed to’ etc - Don’t faff about! Don’t write ‘the figure seemed to be coming towards him’, write ‘the figure was coming towards him’. Don’t write ‘It was really just a feeling he had that he liked her’, write ‘he liked her’. The general rule seems* to be, if you can remove a word from the sentence without affecting what the sentence is there for, then* remove it. If you pare your sentences down, the significance of their simple words shines out.
(brackets) - Don’t use them in prose unless you’re incredibly confident. They just* make you look very self indulgent.
That’s all the faults I can think of for now. I hope that helps anyone out there who is also trying to develop and improve their prose work. If I think of some more, I’ll add them in.
Addendum: When I read through this article again, I realised I’d made the same mistakes which* I’d been writing about avoiding. Hey ho. I’ve marked them with a * for clarity.
Addendum addendum: Nuts. I did it again.