The Ten Mistakes

This piece, by Pat Holt, originally appeared on the Holt Uncensored blog.

Ten mistakes writers don’t see (but can easily fix when they do).

Publetariat editor’s note: Publetariat’s position is that an author’s unique "voice" is defined by which "rules" he chooses to break and how, and a manuscript that never strays from the rules tends to lack spark and personality.  However, before an author can effectively break the rules, that author must understand the rules well enough to know the risks involved in breaking them. In that spirit, we present this article.   

Like many editorial consultants, I’ve been concerned about the amount of time I’ve been spending on easy fixes that the author shouldn’t have to pay for.

Sometimes the question of where to put a comma, how to use a verb or why not to repeat a word can be important, even strategic. But most of the time the author either missed that day’s grammar lesson in elementary school or is too close to the manuscript to make corrections before I see it.

So the following is a list I’ll be referring to people *before* they submit anything in writing to anybody (me, agent, publisher, your mom, your boss). From email messages and front-page news in the New York Times to published books and magazine articles, the 10 ouchies listed here crop up everywhere. They’re so pernicious that even respected Internet columnists are not immune.

The list also could be called, “10 COMMON PROBLEMS THAT DISMISS YOU AS AN AMATEUR,” because these mistakes are obvious to literary agents and editors, who may start wording their decline letter by page 5. What a tragedy that would be.

So here we go:

  1. REPEATS
    Just about every writer unconsciously leans on a “crutch” word. Hillary
    Clinton’s repeated word is “eager” (can you believe it? the committee
    that wrote Living History should be ashamed). Cosmopolitan magazine editor Kate White uses “quickly” over a dozen times in A Body To Die For. Jack Kerouac’s crutch word in On the Road is “sad,” sometimes doubly so – “sad, sad.” Ann Packer’s in The Dive from Clausen’s Pier is “weird.”

     

    Crutch words are usually unremarkable. That’s why they slip under
    editorial radar – they’re not even worth repeating, but there you have
    it, pop, pop, pop, up they come. Readers, however, notice them, get
    irked by them and are eventually distracted by them, and down goes your book, never to be opened again.

    But even if the word is unusual, and even if you use it differently when
    you repeat it, don’t: Set a higher standard for yourself even if readers
    won’t notice. In Jennifer Egan’s Look at me, the core word – a good
    word, but because it’s good, you get *one* per book – is “abraded.”
    Here’s the problem:

    “Victoria’s blue gaze abraded me with the texture of ground glass.” page 202
    “…(metal trucks abrading the concrete)…” page 217
    “…he relished the abrasion of her skepticism…” page 256
    “…since his abrasion with Z …” page 272

    The same goes for repeats of several words together – a phrase or
    sentence that may seem fresh at first, but, restated many times, draws attention from the author’s strengths. Sheldon Siegel nearly bludgeons us in his otherwise witty and articulate courtroom thriller, Final Verdict, with a sentence construction that’s repeated throughout the book:

    “His tone oozes self-righteousness when he says…” page 188
    “His voice is barely audible when he says…” page 193
    “His tone is unapologetic when he says…” page 199
    “Rosie keeps her tone even when she says…” page 200
    “His tone is even when he says…” page 205
    “I switch to my lawyer voice when I say …” page 211
    “He sounds like Grace when he says…” page 211

    What a tragedy. I’m not saying all forms of this sentence should be
    lopped off. Lawyers find their rhythm in the courtroom by phrasing
    questions in the same or similar way. It’s just that you can’t do it too
    often on the page. After the third or fourth or 16th time, readers
    exclaim silently, “Where was the editor who shoulda caught this?” or
    “What was the author thinking?

    So if you are the author, don’t wait for the agent or house or even editorial consultant to catch this stuff *for* you. Attune your eye now. Vow to yourself, NO REPEATS.

    And by the way, even deliberate repeats should always be questioned: “Here are the documents.” says one character. “If these are the documents, I’ll oppose you,” says another. A repeat like that just keeps us on the surface. Figure out a different word; or rewrite the exchange. Repeats rarely allow you to probe deeper.

  2. FLAT WRITING
    “He wanted to know but couldn’t understand what she had to say, so he waited until she was ready to tell him before asking what she meant.”

     

    Something is conveyed in this sentence, but who cares? The writing is so flat, it just dies on the page. You can’t fix it with a few replacement words – you have to give it depth, texture, character. Here’s another:

    “Bob looked at the clock and wondered if he would have time to stop for gas before driving to school to pick up his son after band practice.” True, this could be important – his wife might have hired a private investigator to document Bob’s inability to pick up his son on time – and it could be that making the sentence bland invests it with more tension. (This is the editorial consultant giving you the benefit of the doubt.) Most of the time, though, a sentence like this acts as filler. It gets us from A to B, all right, but not if we go to the kitchen to make a sandwich and find something else to read when we sit down.

    Flat writing 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.

  3. EMPTY ADVERBS

    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.

    I defer to People Magazine for larding its articles with empty adverbs. A recent issue refers to an “incredibly popular, groundbreakingly racy sitcom.” That’s tough to say even when your lips aren’t moving.

    In Still Life with Crows, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child describe a mysterious row of corn in the middle of a field: “It was, in fact, the only row that actually opened onto the creek.” Here are two attempts at emphasis (”in fact,” “actually”), but they just junk up the sentence. Remove them both and the word “only” carries the burden of the sentence with efficiency and precision.

    (When in doubt, try this mantra: Precise and spare; precise and spare; precise and spare.)

    In dialogue, empty adverbs may sound appropriate, even authentic, but that’s because they’ve crept into American conversation in a trendy way. If you’re not watchful, they’ll make your characters sound wordy, infantile and dated.

    In Julia Glass’s Three Junes, a character named Stavros is a forthright and matter-of-fact guy who talks to his lover without pretense or affectation. But when he mentions an offbeat tourist souvenir, he says, “It’s absolutely wild. I love it.” Now he sounds fey, spoiled, superficial. (Granted, “wild” nearly does him in; but “absolutely” is the killer.)

    The word “actually” seems to emerge most frequently, I find. Ann Packer’s narrator recalls running in the rain with her boyfriend, “his hand clasping mine as if he could actually make me go fast.” Delete “actually” and the sentence is more powerful without it.

    The same holds true when the protagonist named Miles hears some information in Empire Falls by Richard Russo. “Actually, Miles had no doubt of it,” we’re told. Well, if he had no doubt, remove “actually” – it’s cleaner, clearer that way. “Actually” mushes up sentence after sentence; it gets in the way every time. I now think it should *never* be used.

    Another problem with empty adverbs: You can’t just stick them at the beginning of a sentence to introduce a general idea or wishful thinking, as in “Hopefully, the clock will run out.” Adverbs have to modify a verb or other adverb, and in this sentence, “run out” ain’t it.

    Look at this hilarious clunker from The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown: “Almost inconceivably, the gun into which she was now staring was clutched in the pale hand of an enormous albino.”

    Ack, “almost inconceivably” – that’s like being a little bit infertile! Hopefully, that “enormous albino” will ironically go back to actually flogging himself while incredibly saying his prayers continually.

  4. PHONY DIALOGUE

    Be careful of using dialogue to advance the plot. Readers can tell when characters talk about things they already know, or when the speakers appear to be having a conversation for our benefit. You never want one character to imply or say to the other, “Tell me again, Bruce: What are we doing next?”

    Avoid words that are fashionable in conversation. Ann Packer’s characters are so trendy the reader recoils. ” ‘What’s up with that?’ I said. ‘Is this a thing [love affair]?’ ” “We both smiled. ” ‘What is it with him?’ I said. ‘I mean, really.’ ” Her book is only a few years old, and already it’s dated.

    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.

    An unfortunate pattern within the dialogue in Three Junes, by the way, is that all the male characters begin to sound like the author’s version of Noel Coward – fey, acerbic, witty, superior, puckish, diffident. Pretty soon the credibility of the entire novel is shot. You owe it to each character’s unique nature to make every one of them an original.

    Now don’t tell me that because Julia Glass won the National Book Award, you can get away with lack of credibility in dialogue. Setting your own high standards and sticking to them – being proud of *having* them – is the mark of a pro. Be one, write like one, and don’t cheat.

  5. NO-GOOD SUFFIXES

    Don’t take a perfectly good word and give it a new backside so it functions as something else. The New York Times does this all the time. Instead of saying, “as a director, she is meticulous,” the reviewer will write, “as a director, she is known for her meticulousness.” Until she is known for her obtuseness.

    The “ness” words cause the eye to stumble, come back, reread: 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?” Some shortcut. Not all “ize” words are bad, either, but they do have the ring of the vulgate to them – “he was brutalized by his father,” “she finalized her report.” Just try to use them rarely.

    Adding “ly” to “ing” words has a little history to it. Remember the old Tom Swifties? “I hate that incision,” the surgeon said cuttingly. “I got first prize!” the boy said winningly. But the point to a good Tom Swiftie is to make a punchline out of the last adverb. If you do that in your book, the reader is unnecessarily distracted. Serious writing suffers from such antics.

    Some “ingly” words do have their place. I can accept “swimmingly,” “annoyingly,” “surprisingly” as descriptive if overlong “ingly” words. But not “startlingly,” “harrowingly” or “angeringly,” “careeningly” – all hell to pronounce, even in silence, like the “groundbreakingly” used by People magazine above. Try to use all “ingly” words (can’t help it) sparingly.

Read about mistakes 6 – 10 on the Holt Uncensored blog.

Pat Holt is an editor, author, and the founder of the Bay Area Book Reviewers Association. 

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