Broca.org: The 10 Mistakes List

27 02 2013

This is a pretty darn good list of stylistic problems that are often seen in writing, especially at the more advanced levels. I hesitate to call them “mistakes;” they are definitely more along the lines of bad habits and things to look out for if you’re hoping to take your writing to the next level. Check it out!

– dEV

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…style guide

THE ’10 MISTAKES’ LIST

© Daniel Reisel, broca.org

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 creeped 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.

(Full Story)

http://www.broca.org/style.html

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