I read a book earlier this month that caused an urge to write a salty email to an editor who should have done a lot more work than they did and sugary emails to the editors who’ve kicked my ass over the years and taught me to self-correct a lot of problems before a manuscript leaves my hands. I won’t do either because (a) unproductive and (b) kicked my ass, but I need to rant and—what ho!—I have this nifty spot for just such an occasion.
Preemptive Strike: There are appropriate uses of the words, parts of speech, and verb tenses criticized below. They exist because there’s an appropriate use for them! Someone who says NEVER USE THESE is just as wrong as someone who uses them incorrectly. A great book that explains both inappropriate and appropriate use of all this and more is Roy Peter Clark’s Writing Tools: 55 Essential Strategies for Every Writer (affiliate link). I call it “the sentence-writing book” because it helps fine tune writing at the sentence level, and I gift it to every author, student, and blogger I wish to flourish.
The examples below came from my recent reading material. I chose them because they are incorrect and too easily corrected to excuse their appearance in a professionally published book. I’m not suggesting my alterations are dazzling prose, but they’re at least one rung on the editing ladder above the examples, which shouldn’t survive beyond a rough draft.
Filter words (saw, heard, touched, sensed, felt, etc.) create an extra layer of distance between the reader and what’s happening in the story by directing attention toward the narrator rather than through the narrator. This falls under the broad umbrella of show-don’t-tell. The illusion of immersion is spoiled by frequent reminders that someone is telling the reader what’s happening rather than showing events directly to the reader.
He could hear panicked soldiers running down the hallway.
If he’s describing a sound, it goes without saying he could hear it, so let it go without saying. (This also falls under the broad umbrella of my personal pet peeve, redundancy, which you’ll see a lot in this post because it’s the root of much writing evil.) It takes just a few extra seconds to write a sentence conveying what he heard directly to the reader:
The footsteps of panicked soldiers thundered down the hallway.
(In this case, I’d also argue against “panicked” because he couldn’t see the soldiers and footsteps alone can’t convey the emotional reasons for haste, but since I’m focused on easy fixes today, that fight can wait.)
There were numerous such offenses before I quit reading.
He noticed tongues of flame coming from underneath the door.
Revised to remove the filter and take advantage of the obvious metaphor:
Tongues of flame licked the bottom of the door.
Then there was this doozy:
He felt the burgeoning knot growing on his head.
“Felt” as in touched or “felt” as in general awareness of? It makes a big difference, and either can be improved. If the former:
His fingertips measured the knot growing on his head.
If the latter:
The knot growing on his head throbbed in time with his racing pulse.
“Burgeoning” means growing, so we can also delete that redundancy.
Past progressive tense, also known as “was verbing,” is often misused when simple past is correct. Occasional misuse is easy to overlook, but when “was” appears 20 times per page, it becomes a fishhook in the eye.
The fire was threatening to consume the room.
(Describing parts of the room consumed by the fire would be ideal, but since we’re doing easy…) “The fire threatened to consume the room” means the same thing, but it’s one word and two syllables sharper. It’s not just an aesthetic choice, though. If a cop asks where I was during the span of time a bank robbery took place, I was helping nuns knit sweaters for orphaned hedgehogs. If I’m bragging to a frenemy and don’t have to account for the time, I helped nuns knit sweaters for orphaned hedgehogs. The offending example lacks the element of time, so simple past tense is appropriate.
There should be a copyediting pass devoted to examining every “was” for a better verb choice.
Speech Tag Offenses
Speech tags are often infested with problems, perhaps because people want them to do more than their two jobs: identify the speaker and provide special instructions for reading the speech.
“Damn it, James, hurry up,” he said urgently.
Here we see a fine example of an unnecessary adverb. Some people express an irrational hatred for all adverbs. The book linked above explains in detail that the only bad adverbs are unnecessary adverbs. Adverbs are modifiers—they should modify meaning, not reiterate it. The expletive and admonition to hurry in the line of dialogue indicate urgency, so “urgently” is redundant. Nothing is lost if that word is cut.
“Why?” he asked.
“Sasha!” James screamed, taking off after her.
More redundancy! The question mark and exclamation point have already covered the special instructions of asking and screaming. Both words can be deleted. If it’s necessary to identify the speaker, an action sentence can be used.
The screamed example tries to cram an action into the same space as the unnecessary screaming instructions by expecting a comma to create simultaneity. In print, by necessity, one word follows another, so only one thing can happen at a time. This can be easily fixed by screaming her name (no speech tag) and then pursuing her.
“Sasha!” James sprinted after her.
I also ditched “taking off,” which is an ambiguous verb. Sure, you can infer from context that it’s rapid movement rather than a bored stroll to the exit, but if stronger verbs are available, why use the weakest one?
I often think I must have been in the last class of students taught to diagram sentences, which is a shame because it’s a skill that prevents a great number of grammatical sins.
On his left were a group of pilgrims.
“Of pilgrims” is a prepositional phrase. “Group” is the subject with which the verb must agree. Because “a group” is singular, the correct verb is “was.”
But why not make the whole sentence more dynamic and specific while we’re at it?
A dozen pilgrims huddled to his left.
This places the subject of the sentence at the beginning instead of the end, demotes location in regard to the narrator from its previously prioritized position, and provides an adjective and a verb that visually describe the group. BONUS: Verbs that end in -ed work with any subject. Hooray for regular verbs!
So there’s a 1200-word rant for a book I DNF’d at 14%. Lots of people say they don’t care about the technical aspects of the writing as long as the story is entertaining—clearly, I am not one of those people. Brilliant technical skills can’t save a boring story, but writing like the above would destroy even the most interesting tale for me. I NEED IT ALL..