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Apr
18
2014

Five Things You Should do Now to Improve Your Writing -- by Michael Henderson

I’ve noticed several common mistakes in work submitted on CC that could easily be fixed to improve one’s writing. For the most part, they are very simple, and would require only a search and replace.
 
One: Take out extra words. Words like: even, really, some, seem/seems/seemed, appeared, somewhat, almost, very, well, and others. You can do a Google search to get a full list. These words weaken and bog down the narrative, without adding anything to the story or the description.
 
Mark Twain said to replace “very” with “damn.” When your editor deletes “damn,” then your writing will be as it should be.
 
Consider the sentence, “He wore what appeared to be a red hat.”
 
Was he wearing a red hat, or not? If he was wearing a red hat, then just say that he wore a red hat: “He wore a red hat.”
 
Another very common thing is for new writers to use “almost.” “The sun was almost too bright.” Why tell me that? It was not too bright if it was almost too bright. So show me. “The glare of the sun made it difficult for him to see. If it were any brighter he would have been blinded.”
 
The last example I’ll give is the word “really.” “It was really dark.” What does that mean? Show me how dark it was. “He found himself in blackness so intense it pressed on his eyeballs.”
 
“I didn’t really want it.” Why not say, “I didn’t want it?” Sure, there are times when it might fly, such as “I told him I wanted it, but I didn’t really.” (Although that can also be written better).
 
Do an experiment. Make a copy of your story, then do an auto search and replace on the copy (not the original) to delete all these words. Just take them right on out. Then read it. See what you think.
 
Two: Take out the word “that.” One of the best pieces of advice I got about writing was to go on a “which hunt.” Go through and take out the word “which” and replace it with “that.” Then go through and take out the “thats.”
 
There are times when the word “that” is necessary. For example, in answer to the question, “Which one?” “That one.”
 
But I submit that 90% of the time, it’s unnecessary and wrong. To wit: “She is the one that I want.” In dialogue, if the person speaking is not highly educated, you can probably get away with it. But in narrative, it’s wrong. 
 
Go through your story and take out all occurrences of the word “that,” except in cases where the sentence makes absolutely no sense. In the example I gave, “Which one?”, the answer cannot be “One.” So, you need the “that.” Otherwise, you probably don’t.
 
You might say, “Well, that’s how my character speaks, and it’s first person narrative.” I still say take it out. 
 
Do the delete experiment with “that” too.
 
Three: “Ly” words. Elmore Leonard said he would never use a word ending in “ly” (and adjective), even as a dialogue tag (“He said sharply). That’s a bit radical, but it’s a good practice to see if you can avoid them.
 
Leonard’s theory was that a writer should be able to evoke the nature of the thing said by the context.
 
If you have to tell me “he said, wryly,” then you haven’t done your job as a writer. Go through your writing and see if you can’t 1) simply delete the adjective, or 2) if you feel you need something there, find a way to say it without using an adjective.
 
Four: Passive voice. If you are using the word “was,” or “were,” or any form of the verb “to be,” you are probably using passive voice. 
 
There are two problems with it. One, it’s weak, and two, it’s telling, not showing.
 
Don’t tell me “he was a nice guy.” Show me by what he says and does.
 
Don’t tell me “there was a red barn in the middle of the field, and the field was green.” Say, instead, “A large, weather-beaten red barn stood in the middle of a sun-drenched field of green winter wheat.” (Okay, it’s not going to win any awards, but you see what I mean.)
 
Go through your story and highlight the words “was” and “were.” Then think of how you might say the same thing in the active voice.
 
Five: Dialogue tags. Use only “said” or “asked,” except on rare occasions. (“shouted,” “mumbled,” “spat,” etc., may be used sparingly)
 
Dialogue tags should generally be used only to the extent necessary to allow the reader to keep track of who’s speaking.
 
In good writing, one can tell the nature of the conversation by the context, and by the words used. 
 
For example, I see a lot of “he replied,” or “he answered.” If the person speaking has been asked a question, then by definition what he says in response is an answer or reply. You don’t need to tell me. If it’s necessary to have a dialogue tag to keep track, then just say “he said.”
 
Conclusion: Writing is a craft. By mastering a handful of techniques and principles you can improve your writing substantially. Many of you aspire to be published. If your writing contains any of the five things I've listed above, the chances of publication, or of getting an agent, are slim, no matter how wonderful your story idea. Apply these rules to your next piece and see how the comments compare to the last. Thanks for reading. Happy writing.
Posted by Michael Henderson 18 Apr 2014 at 01:54
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Responses to this blog

Bean60 18 Apr 2014 at 04:08  
Thanks, Michael, for this timely blog. Last week I was given a list of about 25 words like that and spent three days going through a group of eleven short stories I'm trying to get ready to put on Createspace. The book came out over 300 words shorter and, in my opinion, much better for having taken out those words, or rewording the sentences containing those words. Most of these stories had already gone through CC critiques and/or a local writers' group's critiques. Now, I think it's even better. Now, I have to go back through my 27 chapter novel - ugh.
Card 18 Apr 2014 at 12:02  
Don't understand the reasoning for removing "that." When writing sentences, I run into a lot of situations where "that" makes the meaning sound more clear to me than without it - as in, it's the opposite of what you're saying.
Aries75 18 Apr 2014 at 14:43  
Well, one thing you can do right now to improve your blog post is to ensure you use the right terms Because what you say here is incorrect:


Three: "Ly" words. Elmore Leonard said he would never use a word ending in "ly" (and adjective), even as a dialogue tag (He said sharply). That's a bit radical, but it's a good practice to see if you can avoid them.

First, I believe you meant an, not and, and second, "ly" words (in the context you're using) aren't adjectives, they're adverbs.

More info here:

Adjectives are words that describe nouns or pronouns. They may come before the word they describe (That is a cute puppy.) or they may follow the word they describe (That puppy is cute.).

Adverbs are words that modify everything but nouns and pronouns. They modify adjectives, verbs, and other adverbs. A word is an adverb if it answers how, when, or where.


"ly" words can certainly (heh) serve as adjectives in some cases (cuddly puppy, wobbly table), but "ly" words as part of dialogue tags are always adverbs.


Take out the word "that." One of the best pieces of advice I got about writing was to go on a "which hunt." Go through and take out the word "which" and replace it with "that." Then go through and take out the "thats."

That (heh) doesn't make much sense, since "that" and "which" have different uses in the first place:

Which Versus That

Here's the deal: some people will argue that the rules are more complex and flexible than this, but I like to make things as simple as possible, so I say that you use that before a restrictive clause and which before everything else.

Restrictive Clause?That

A restrictive clause is just part of a sentence that you can't get rid of because it specifically restricts some other part of the sentence. Here's an example:

Gems that sparkle often elicit forgiveness.

The words that sparkle restrict the kind of gems you're talking about. Without them, the meaning of the sentence would change. Without them, you'd be saying that all gems elicit forgiveness, not just the gems that sparkle. (And note that you don't need commas around the words that sparkle.)

Nonrestrictive Clause?Which

A nonrestrictive clause is something that can be left off without changing the meaning of the sentence. You can think of a nonrestrictive clause as simply additional information. Here's an example:

Diamonds, which are expensive, often elicit forgiveness.

Alas, in Grammar Girl's world, diamonds are always expensive, so leaving out the words which are expensive doesn't change the meaning of the sentence. (Also note that the phrase is surrounded by commas. Nonrestrictive clauses are usually surrounded by, or preceded by, commas.)


As for necessary vs. unnecessary use of "That":

"That" Can Help Sentence Flow

When you?re deciding whether to keep or omit your that, you need to consider how your sentence flows. Many times, it?s just a matter of personal preference. Some people think adding that improves the flow of the sentence and makes it easier for the reader to understand. Others believe they should delete every seemingly unnecessary that because they want to maintain an economy of words. I?m all for cutting unnecessary words, but I often like to keep my that if it helps the rhythm of the sentence.
...
Another time you should consider using a that is when your sentence could be ambiguous or misunderstood. Steven Pinker, a linguist, warns about what he calls ?garden path sentences?. These are sentences that seem to mean one thing but then turn out to mean something else. Sometimes, keeping a that can help you avoid such problematic sentences. Pinker explains, ?These are called garden path sentences, because their first words lead the listener ?up the garden path? to an incorrect analysis.?

Here's an example of a sentence that leads the reader down the wrong path when you omit the word that:

Aardvark maintains Squiggly's yard is too big.

Without a that, the reader is initially led to believe that Aardvark maintains, as in mows, Squiggly's yard. If you add in a that, it's clear from the beginning that Aardvark just has an opinion.

Aardvark maintains that Squiggly's yard is too big.

Pinker goes on to say that garden path sentences are ?one of the hallmarks of bad writing? because readers have to wend their way back to the beginning of the sentence to figure out its meaning.


So, the issue obviously isn't quite so cut-and-dried.
Aries75 18 Apr 2014 at 14:55  
Ninja edit: breaking my post up so it isn't quite so long

As for:


Passive voice. If you are using the word "was," or "were," or any form of the verb "to be," you are probably using passive voice.

Again, not true:


I have been told several times, by both students and linguistics-faculty members, about writing instructors who think every occurrence of "be" is to be condemned for being "passive." No wonder, if Elements is their grammar bible. It is typical for college graduates today to be unable to distinguish active from passive clauses. They often equate the grammatical notion of being passive with the semantic one of not specifying the agent of an action. (They think "a bus exploded" is passive because it doesn't say whether terrorists did it.)


Here's the best way, IMO, to tell whether or not a sentence is true passive voice:

Identify Passive Voice (With Zombies!)


Rebecca Johnson, a professor of culture and ethics at USMC, has the best advice ever. Still confused about what's the difference between passive and active voice? According to Professor Johnson, if you can add the phrase "by zombies" after the verb, your sentence has passive voice.


"The barn was red by zombies" makes no sense (and "red" isn't a verb anyway) - ergo, not passive voice.

"The barn was bulldozed by zombies", on the other hand, does make sense, so it's a correct example of passive voice.

Now, if you mean excessive use of "was" tends to give the writing a passive feel, that's a different issue and, IMO, should be clarified accordingly.
Fairchild 18 Apr 2014 at 17:27  
He wore what appeared to be a red hat, until the furry octopoid unfurled itself and danced on his head.
Petesdiner 18 Apr 2014 at 17:33  
Great stuff, Aries.
Candance 18 Apr 2014 at 17:42  
Quote by: Fairchild
He wore what appeared to be a red hat, until the furry octopoid unfurled itself and danced on his head.

He wore something that appeared to be a red hat that fit too tightly, until the octopoid that was very furry unfurled itself all unfurly-like and was dancing on his head. He was almost sorry that he picked out an accessory that was so badly bad.


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Bean60 19 Apr 2014 at 06:42  
There are many instances in which 'that' and other similar words make sense, but in reading over what I had written, I found that many of the words on the list were unnecessary. Not every word on the list needed to be removed, some did, many did not. Even having gone through critiques here on CC, and a local writer's group, I found that my work could be improved when I reread and rewrote it. My point was that in looking at my writing critically, I found places to improve. I'm not saying that yours could be improved in the same way. Yours could be perfect as is.

My local writers' group includes published writers of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. We find that even their writing can be improved by critiques.

Now, before I post anything on CC, or bring it before the local group, I will check for superfluous words, thereby making my writing better, maybe. My original point was that I will take any assistance I can get.
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Candance 19 Apr 2014 at 07:21  
No one here disagrees with the premise of removing clutter. These issues are not binary. It's just the fact that you can't toss a blanket rule of "adverbs = bad" and call that writing advice.
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Benjaminlg 19 Apr 2014 at 09:24  
And the common sense award goes to (drumroll) ... Aries! For the excellent debunking of rule-myths (by zombies).
Spaulding 19 Apr 2014 at 10:05  

Four: Passive voice. If you are using the word ďwas,Ē or ďwere,Ē or any form of the verb ďto be,Ē you are probably using passive voice.

There are two problems with it. One, itís weak, and two, itís telling, not showing.


I dangled from a long pole—arms and feet tied—arching my back to avoid the flames below. I was dinner for cannibals.

Which is that? Weak or telling? (Oh, and if -ly words are to be snipped, how did "probably" end up in the sentence? And, thank you Aries for clarifying adjective from adverb. )

Frankly, passive is a necessity. Sometimes there is no choice but to be passive. Passive stuff happens.

The first time I posted my story on CC to be critiqued, I followed all those rules, right down to Elmore Leonard rule on no -ly words. (Okay. I had one in the whole book, but I saw no way around it. ) And then, thanks to my critters, I grew up.

It seems to me, it would have been quicker to grow up, if I wasn't taught all those rules that aren't rules. And I say that knowing I'm still very fond of rules. Just make sure they are complete rules, including exceptions, and with a complete understanding of why. That was the shortened-condensed version that didn't work.

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Lynn

New Goal: Get novel right before publication.

Candance 19 Apr 2014 at 10:13  
At risk of sounding like an obnoxious smart mouth, may I also point out....


Iíve noticed several common mistakes in work submitted on CC that could easily be fixed to improve oneís writing. For the most part, they are very simple, and would require only a search and replace.

Behold passive grammar, an adverb, four adjectives, a qualifier, two appearances of "to be" and filtering, all found in the first 50 words of this blog post.

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Caose77 19 Apr 2014 at 10:14  
Not to criticize this post, but I trust posts like this are best if it is accompanied with a disclaimer. And double disclaimer. And triple disclaimer.

DISCLAIMER: These things are not rules; they are guidelines, and there are always exceptions to them. Write as best you could, and then have credible beta readers scrutinize your writing.

DOUBLE DISCLAIMER: That said, prudence suggests that you shouldn't count on being an exception. Therefore, you'd be wise to try find out if any of these guidelines can actually improve your writing.

TRIPLE DISCLAIMER: Just write.
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Spaulding 19 Apr 2014 at 10:26  
Quote by: Bean60
There are many instances in which 'that' and other similar words make sense, but in reading over what I had written, I found that many of the words on the list were unnecessary. Not every word on the list needed to be removed, some did, many did not. Even having gone through critiques here on CC, and a local writer's group, I found that my work could be improved when I reread and rewrote it. My point was that in looking at my writing critically, I found places to improve. I'm not saying that yours could be improved in the same way. Yours could be perfect as is.

My local writers' group includes published writers of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. We find that even their writing can be improved by critiques.

Now, before I post anything on CC, or bring it before the local group, I will check for superfluous words, thereby making my writing better, maybe. My original point was that I will take any assistance I can get.


And you improve because you know an occasional that and an occasional -ly word is okay. That and adverbs aren't evil. They might hint on lame or semi-lame. I was an idiot. I assumed those were complete rules and took it to heart. My writing suffered from the other extreme.

The ideas in themselves work. It's when they cross over to absolutes, problems set in.
"Extra words" are only extra words if the same thing can be said in a shorter way. (The evolving story of that red hat showed how.)

"That" is needed. It just isn't need as often as it shows up.

-ly words. I spent whole paragraphs trying to show "hesitantly" when darn if just writing "hesitantly" would have worked. (Often a paragraph later, my critters were asking me what happened there. )

Passive—already explained.

Dialog tags. After all the effort of going from the extreme of buying all the advice in that post between the first and second round of posting my story, I still missed correcting my dialog tags. Darn if I didn't get called on a "he said" when it should have been "he asked." Add to that, what if one person asks and three people answer? Isn't there still room for "he answered," when he was the third one to answer?

The advice works. (It works better when an adverb is called an adverb, not an adjective, but that might just be Mom's Grammar Nazi ways still spinning in my conscious all these years later. ) It's when put to absolutes it doesn't. That's the complaint.

And, God bless you, because I know how daunting it feels to fix a whole book.
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Lynn

New Goal: Get novel right before publication.

Spaulding 19 Apr 2014 at 10:31  
Quote by: Candance
At risk of sounding like an obnoxious smart mouth, may I also point out....


Iíve noticed several common mistakes in work submitted on CC that could easily be fixed to improve oneís writing. For the most part, they are very simple, and would require only a search and replace.

Behold passive grammar, an adverb, four adjectives, a qualifier, two appearances of "to be" and filtering, all found in the first 50 words of this blog post.


You're my mother reincarnated, aren't you?

lol

Grammar-challenged lady (me) only picked up about five mistakes before trying to catch any.
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Lynn

New Goal: Get novel right before publication.

Candance 19 Apr 2014 at 10:33  
Quote by: Spaulding
-ly words. I spent whole paragraphs trying to show "hesitantly" when darn if just writing "hesitantly" would have worked. (Often a paragraph later, my critters were asking me what happened there. )

That's the issue I encountered a lot with Ansonia. She often did actions with texture, like hesitant smiles, reluctant agreement, impatient questions, and distant closeness. There are gads of adjectives and adverbs in that story. I kept them to a minimum as much as I could, but there are some actions you can't describe without a modifier.
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Spaulding 19 Apr 2014 at 14:59  
Quote by: Candance
Quote by: Spaulding
-ly words. I spent whole paragraphs trying to show "hesitantly" when darn if just writing "hesitantly" would have worked. (Often a paragraph later, my critters were asking me what happened there. )

That's the issue I encountered a lot with Ansonia. She often did actions with texture, like hesitant smiles, reluctant agreement, impatient questions, and distant closeness. There are gads of adjectives and adverbs in that story. I kept them to a minimum as much as I could, but there are some actions you can't describe without a modifier.


Not "gads;" however your story was what helped me get -ly words aren't evil.
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Lynn

New Goal: Get novel right before publication.

Linda5216 19 Apr 2014 at 17:53  
The laws I live by.

Linda
Aries75 19 Apr 2014 at 20:06  
Quote by: Candance
That's the issue I encountered a lot with Ansonia. She often did actions with texture, like hesitant smiles, reluctant agreement, impatient questions, and distant closeness. There are gads of adjectives and adverbs in that story. I kept them to a minimum as much as I could, but there are some actions you can't describe without a modifier.

There's also this:

Subjective Point of View: expressing judgment with adverbs and verbs


If you remove filter words, your sentences won't have the distance that the filter words created, but neither will they necessarily have any markers directly connecting them to your pov character (since the pronouns are gone)
...
Fortunately, there are some great grammatical tools available for creating a connection between your character and his/her perceptions: evidential adverbs, and modal verbs. These are fantastic for a writer striving to achieve subjective point of view, because they express the character's judgment of events.


The article (which I'd highly recommend reading in full for the great examples) defines the terms as follows:


Evidential adverbs are adverbs that express certainty or uncertainty. They include such adverbs as: obviously, clearly, evidently, surely, no doubt, of course, naturally, probably, likely, etc. I'm sure you can think of more than I can list here. There are lots of them!

Modal verbs are auxiliary verbs that change the meaning of the verbs they sit next to, in a very particular way. The nine modal verbs and their definitions are below


I won't rehash the list here, because you can find it at the link, but some examples are must, could, and will. Plus, if you use the looser definition of modal verb provided here, words like appear and seem qualify as well. So, these words have a perfectly valid use if one wants to show a POV character's judgement of events (just think of the differences between "He seemed to be lying", "He had to have been lying", and "He lied" - they aren't interchangeable!)
Candance 19 Apr 2014 at 20:33  
I've long held that one day psychology will fully understand speech patterns, and when that happens, it will transform literary theory.
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Spaulding 19 Apr 2014 at 20:49  
Quote by: Candance
I've long held that one day psychology will fully understand speech patterns, and when that happens, it will transform literary theory.<br>

The Philadelphian accent (which is really the Mid-Atlantic Dialect) is the most studied accent in the world, and yet they still haven't fully understood it. Don't hold your breath on them getting all speech patterns understood.
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Lynn

New Goal: Get novel right before publication.

Bean60 20 Apr 2014 at 04:02  
I never knew that there was a specific Philadelphia Accent, very interesting. I'm sure my granddaughters' mother speaks it, as she was born and reared there. I never knew that it was different from any other northern accent. Thanks for letting me know there is a difference.

In the course of looking at Wikipedia, I looked up Southern American Accent. I found that there is a spot in southern California, the Bakersfield, Kern County area, where the Southern American Accent is still spoken. This is due to the migrants from the south central states who settled there during the Dust Bowl. This useless piece of trivia brought to you by a fairly inquisitive mind, now back to your intellectual discussion.
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Clareeast 20 Apr 2014 at 04:53  
Quote by: Aries75


If you remove filter words, your sentences won't have the distance that the filter words created, but neither will they necessarily have any markers directly connecting them to your pov character (since the pronouns are gone)



I've always had an uneasy feeling about completely removing filter words, but couldn't have put my finger on it as perfectly as this. My characters often observe and analyse from the sidelines, and I find myself needing that distance. Thanks for these finds, Aries!

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Candance 20 Apr 2014 at 04:58  
Everything has value when you use it correctly.
Mhender668 20 Apr 2014 at 12:44  
What a lively discussion caused by such an innocuous blog. So many well-spoken advocates of bad writing. Keep doing what you're doing, I don't need the competition.




Spaulding 20 Apr 2014 at 13:25  
Quote by: Mhender668
What a lively discussion caused by such an innocuous blog. So many well-spoken advocates of bad writing. Keep doing what you're doing, I don't need the competition.





Anyone who disagrees is automatically a bad writer and not in competition with you?

Well, I'll agree with the second half of that. No competition if one can and the other can't.

Did you just take your bat and ball home with you because the other kids were mean? Telling someone first base is to the right of home plate isn't mean. It's teaching something about how to play baseball. We have our own bats and balls.

Wow. You must have a tough time when you're work is on the queues to be critted. Any time someone disagrees with you, instantly they're wrong. I see that as a much bigger problem than your "innocuous" lesson.

I hope that post wasn't branding for you, because if it didn't fail enough, your response to this thread sunk it the rest of the way.
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New Goal: Get novel right before publication.

Candance 20 Apr 2014 at 13:54  
Unless mhender plans to break into the dark inspirational genre and help me go after evangelicals, his readers wouldn't be mine anyway, so we're not competition. Sad when colleagues are cynically seen as adversaries.

God forbid mhender ever gets NY Times to review his novel with feedback less than gushing.
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Jcdrake 20 Apr 2014 at 14:31  
You had me at "bulldozed by zombies."
Fairchild 20 Apr 2014 at 15:04  
All jokes aside, I heeded precisely this kind of advice when I was green on the vine. It helped as an eye-opener to things that can be overdone. But as a newbie, one tends to do everything...er, overly, like sticking too strictly to one set of rules, believing it will Make Me Gud Naow! More times than not, I had to dial it waay back over time.

That's the rub. It takes time, and lots of it, for a writer to find his or her sweetspot—a style and technique that works for them from story to story—but you have to start somewhere and work towards it. I suppose this one is as useful a place to start—if only to make one stop and say "Hmm...am I overdoing it?"—so long as a writer keeps moving towards finding that balance of Good Writing and Personal Best.
Card 20 Apr 2014 at 17:53  
Quote by: Mhender668
What a lively discussion caused by such an innocuous blog. So many well-spoken advocates of bad writing. Keep doing what you're doing, I don't need the competition.


Some of the responses were more harsh than I would condone, so if they bothered you, then I would understand. But I'm disappointed that you didn't engage with people more. Many of us are here to learn and even the more experienced ones can sometimes pick up a thing or two.
Benjaminlg 21 Apr 2014 at 02:43  
Quote by: Mhender668
What a lively discussion caused by such an innocuous blog. So many well-spoken advocates of bad writing. Keep doing what you're doing, I don't need the competition.





Well this riposte is very poor — very poor indeed. I was hoping for something far more acerbic. And I would have liked an additional comma splice too — for giggles, y'know?
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Icmartin 21 Apr 2014 at 05:48  
Can I play devilís advocate here and ask whether itís possible that the tone of Mhender668ís post has been misread. Could his intent have been to be amusing or sarcastically playful, rather than snide or provocative? It is really easy to misinterpret plain text.

Mhender668, could you please tell us what you intended?
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Spaulding 21 Apr 2014 at 07:57  
Quote by: Icmartin
Can I play devilís advocate here and ask whether itís possible that the tone of Mhender668ís post has been misread. Could his intent have been to be amusing or sarcastically playful, rather than snide or provocative? It is really easy to misinterpret plain text.

Mhender668, could you please tell us what you intended?


As an expert in screwing up between what I meant to write versus what I did write, my usual approach when finding out I communicated poorly is "ah, man! Sorry about that. I should have done better." That may or may not include trying to get my point across a second or third time. It's never to counter with "So many well-spoken advocates of bad writing. Keep doing what you're doing, I don't need the competition." Or, it's never countered with "you suck."

I also don't pass off blame to the host of that poor writing. Not only did Mhender put down every person on this thread, he put down the owners of the blog. ("What a lively discussion caused by such an innocuous blog.") Common sense says not to bite the hand that feeds you. It's a big deal when a trusted site accepts an article from a writer. Even if the article goes over like a hail of bullets, you just don't attack the people who gave you the opportunity to post it. Bad form. Imagine this happening in the "Letters from Readers" section of a famous magazine. Would you really ask the author to repeat and clarify?

I got sarcasm. There's no way that was amusing or playful. And I say that as an expert in screwing up what I mean to say.

How to recover from a poorly worded article? Apologize and learn from the experience. Suck it up, because truthfully, anyone who has ever had an article published knows it will receive some kind of negative response. We just don't know how until we see the responses.
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New Goal: Get novel right before publication.

Aries75 21 Apr 2014 at 08:33  
Quote by: Spaulding
How to recover from a poorly worded article? Apologize and learn from the experience. Suck it up, because truthfully, anyone who has ever had an article published knows it will receive some kind of negative response.

Just want to add that apologizing and/or correcting an error becomes much easier when the article has a reasonable, measured tone in the first place. If one starts out all prescriptive, doctrinaire, and "I know better than thou", it makes it a lot more awkward to gracefully back down (which may be why the knee-jerk response in those circumstances tends to be doubling down instead )

Card 21 Apr 2014 at 09:37  
Quote by: Spaulding
Not only did Mhender put down every person on this thread, he put down the owners of the blog. ("What a lively discussion caused by such an innocuous blog.")

Just a quick comment: I don't think "blog" in this case is meant to refer to the blog as a whole. "Blog" can be used as shorthand to refer to a blog post (the word "post" simply being left out).
Rhodes 21 Apr 2014 at 15:10  
I'm always skeptical of writing advice dressed up as hard and fast rules, especially when the author comes back to criticize those who disagree as being "advocates of bad writing."

I don't think I could say anything that hasn't already been covered by the comments above, except that there is no such thing as a universal rule that will improve anyone's writing no matter what its weakness. In such subjective media there is no room for "this works, use it all the time." And competition? There are so many markets and submarkets that there's no singular spot for a top author, so there's no point in competing with other authors, only finding your own avenue to success. This is a craft, or to others a hobby, not a "he who dies with the most fans wins" contest.
Kids_table 21 Apr 2014 at 15:30  
Yesterday I heard an old proverb for the first time, that I think might apply here: the road to hell is paved with good intentions. I think Mhender668 meant well with this post, but the tone, which is vitally important when writing, was way off. We see crits like this all the time on CC, and they tend to get the submitter's hackles up. Everyone is here to improve, it does no good to come in with a mightier-than-thou attitude.
Quote by: Mhender668
What a lively discussion caused by such an innocuous blog. So many well-spoken advocates of bad writing. Keep doing what you're doing, I don't need the competition.
We can all agree this was just childish.

A writer who wants to be 'good' will learn and understand the rules.

But a writer who wants to be great will learn when to break them.
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Aud 1 May 2014 at 04:37  
I always find it interesting how in school teachers have this whole unit on adverbs. I have to switch over to 'high school' mode when I read student's papers (I'm the librarian). Everything I see an adverb it's like this warning light goes on in my head, but I switch it off and when I go home I revert into 'writing' mode and squash those adverbs when they bubble up except for the odd one that wants to live.
As a former passive writer and lover of putting 'was' in by sentences, I love the 'by zombies'. That is so going to help me because I sometimes can't tell if I'm passive or not.
Tls_6669 4 May 2014 at 06:07  
There really aren't any "rules" so much as common things agents, editors, etc see in beginner's work and hate. Instead of figuring out why they hate these uses, people in the business just ask us not to do "these naughty things that scream amateur." For example, the "ly" word moratorium probably stems from a use of too many descriptors. A sentence like, "She happily strolled through the freshly mowed grass, laughingly picked a flower and giggled," (deliberately horrible, lol) is obviously going to put off an agent or an editor. There are just too many descriptors that "tell" us what she's doing rather than evoke a feeling of the place. And unless this sentence is necessary to the work overall it can be cut completely. However, we have to ask ourselves, "Why is she happy?" and, even more important, "How can we express these emotions in a way that isn't so bland?" I'm just using the "ly" thing as a specific example, but all of these so-called rules have their basis in a deeper dysfunction of the writer's craft, and making a list of things you're not supposed to do doesn't solve these bigger issues, it just creates new ones. "Was" is another example of this issue. Many for-writer's blogs tell us not to use "was", just cut it out of your writing completely. Why? The only adequate explanation I've found for this rule has been on Emma Darwin's blog, here: emmadarwin.typepad.com/thisitchofwriting/2011/05/have-you-heard-the-one-about-was.html

Check out her toolkit section, she debunks these rules and actually explains where they come from and why people in the business hate stuff like "was" or "ly" or any of the other rules we find online.
Swat 5 May 2014 at 22:50  
See, this is why my writing hasn't been well received. I assumed the top 5 things I should do to improve my writing were as follows:
1) Do hard liquor
2) Do hard drugs
3) Contact the spirit of Hunter S. Thompson for spiritual guidance
4) Take up smoking a pipe in a purple velvet jacket
5) Own a cat

I've been stuck on number 3 for so long... This, this all makes sense now!
Tls_6669 8 May 2014 at 07:18  
LOL Swat
Dreinhart 8 May 2014 at 22:01  
Allow me to return to the original topic—-Michael Henderson's list of five things to avoid in one's writing.

The passive voice is determined solely by the relationship between the subject and verb. If the subject is doing the action of the verb (even verbs that express state of being), that clause is active. If the subject is being acted upon, or is receiving the action of the verb, that clause is passive.
Tom lost his wallet—-active because Tom, the subject, did the losing.
The wallet was lost by Tom—-passive because the subject wallet did not do the losing; it GOT lost by someone else.


A passive verb must contain at least one form of "to be" (am, is, are, was, were, be, being, been) along with a main verb (e.g., was hunted, had been seen); there is no such thing as an English passive verb that consists of one word.

Forms of "to be" can be used by themselves (always active) or with other auxiliary verbs (have, did, might, should) and can be active or passive.
Tom (must have been) in the house during the storm—-active because the subject Tom is doing the "must have been-ing"
Tom (was hunting) deer out of season—-active because the subject Tom is doing the hunting
Tom(is) a great dancer—-active because Tom is doing the "is-ing"
Tom (was struck) by lighting—-passive because the subject Tom did not do the striking; he GOT struck

The possible combinations are myriad. The only relevant criterion in determining voice is the relationship between subject and verb.

Don't disregard the value of the passive voice. Politicians love it because they don't have to tell who is doing what.

It was reported today that 50% of Americans use dirty words daily.

Who reported it? Who knows?

The "by zombies" test is frequently helpful but not always.
For example, benjaminlg added "by zombies" but the resulting expression is still not in the passive voice.

"and the common sense award goes to...Aries for the excellent debunking of rule-myth (by zombies)"

"award goes to" is active because the award, the subject, is doing the "going" and the remainder of the sentence is not a clause with a subject-verb pair, so it has no voice. The action of debunking is implied in the gerund of that verb used in the sentence, but there is also an implied subject who is doing the debunking, and thus is active. The inclusion of "by zombies" does note automatically make a verb passive (e.g., He stood by zombies no matter what insidious behavior was attributed to them.)

Michael, your earliest discussion containing very good suggestions inspired many insightful responses, and you should be thanked for that.
When I started this response, I realized I was frozen—-scared to write anything for fear of making mistakes that fall into any of the categories mentioned above. I thawed out by realizing I can be as cavalier as I choose to be—-random dashes, inconsistent use of quotation marks, erratic punctuation, etc. Don't mean to be catty or dismissive of the precision in usage urged above, but after teaching English for 36 years, I feel my old friends grammar, syntax, diction, punctuation, etc., are willing to humor me.
It's great to read the thoughts of those who care so passionately about this topic!


By the way, what about the -ly word "contumely"?
Benjaminlg 9 May 2014 at 04:47  
Just so long as we all know my addition of (by zombies) was both purposeful and deliberate ...
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Candance 9 May 2014 at 05:27  
Quote by: Dreinhart
A passive verb must contain at least one form of "to be" (am, is, are, was, were, be, being, been)

I'm sorry, but this is wrong. If I say Mhender got lambasted for his blog post, I've used passive voice. No to-be in there.




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Spaulding 9 May 2014 at 07:26  
Quote by: Dreinhart
A passive verb must contain at least one form of "to be" (am, is, are, was, were, be, being, been) along with a main verb (e.g., was hunted, had been seen); there is no such thing as an English passive verb that consists of one word.

Forms of "to be" can be used by themselves (always active) or with other auxiliary verbs (have, did, might, should) and can be active or passive.


Just checking...

He was dinner (for cannibals, zombies, or a serial killer.)
Active or passive?

Logically, it seems like a passive act. It's not like anyone is going to pursue being someone's dinner and dinner isn't a verb. Then again, if English were logical, I'd have a better chance of understanding it.

And to be clear, I didn't pick that sentence out of a hat. Because I don't understand grammar rules half the time, every time I think of a passive sentence, I can usually turn the sentence around to active, but "he was dinner" reminds me that sometimes we just can't be active, therefore, passive is fine.
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Dreinhart 9 May 2014 at 07:54  
benjaminlg, I figured your (by zombies) was deliberate, but I thought you were using it as an example of how it makes a clause passive. Sorry if I misunderstood your intent.

Candace, you are correct, of course. Mea culpa.
I should know by now that as soon as I say "never" or "always" I have invited an exception to that rule. English is crazy.

Spaulding, your sentence is active because the only verb is "was" and the subject "he" is doing the was-ing (he is the one who IS dinner). Was is a linking verb connecting he and dinner—-they rename each other. If dinner were a verb, we'd have to reevaluate.

He was eaten? Eaten is a verb so now you would say did the subject do the action of eating? Nope. This is passive.


Jhimes504 12 May 2014 at 07:48  
I think this post is some great advice. Thanks for the information.
Belindella 22 May 2014 at 17:42  
So funny. When I read, "Go through your story and take out all occurrences of the word ?that,? except in cases where the sentence makes absolutely no sense," I thought, "Ugh, he needed to cut the adverb," and then the next point was to cut adverbs (you called adjectives). And then we have, "Go through your writing and see if you can?t 1) simply delete the ..." where the word "simply" could have been deleted, because - ahem - it is an adverb that can be "simply" left out.

I'm so glad this was the first post on CC I read — it'll help me be humble if I ever write one of my own. Scary that we mustn't be able to edit our blogposts once they're up.

Comeaux 23 May 2014 at 09:28  
SWAT, I laughed so hard at your post that I got spasms. I couldn't breath for laughing so hard. I AM CONVINCED if you ever want to be a devil's advocate and stir up trouble, mention "passive" versus "active" voice and the fight is on. It never ever fails that a posts that goes on for days, sometimes weeks, is sure to have "passive v. active voice" as its subject. I read these posts every two or three months just to have a good laugh. Don't get me wrong. I learn from them. I'm a sponge constantly gathering information along my journey. And I've made many notes from this post. I have the same issues all of you encounter. But I've come to realize that these writing issues are enough to make you take two aspirins and go to bed. At worse, throw in the towel and take up quilting. God, I hate quilting. No patience for it. Yet, I knit. Hmm . . . Bottom line . . . just write! And keep writing!!!! The important factor that MHENDER668 failed to keep in mind is this: Though he/she didn't get a thing out of this post, except a reason to sprinkle wrinkled cheer, MHENDER668 failed to realize someone else might benefit from it. When someone doesn't stroke you just right, move on. Don't liter unhappiness. There's joy somewhere else waiting for you, MHENDER668. Keep searching 'til you find it. But keep your mineral deposits to yourself. Look at this way: If you aren't sharing joy, what are you sprinkling on your reader. Think twice. Matter of fact, if you have to think too long, don't post it. A safe rule, don't you think? For the rest of us, as with all critiques, take what you need from this post and shuck the rest.

In the meantime, keep writing! Cast a blind eye to those who have eyes but can't see.

HAPPY WRITING! . . . and have some fun along the way!!!!
Comeaux 23 May 2014 at 09:31  
SWAT, your post was intoxicating. I don't need hard liquor. But I assure you, I will revisit this post again and again in between dead spots of my writing endeavors! What a hoot!!

Wityewell 17 Jun 2014 at 12:35  
From Vol. 1, Chptr. 11, Great Expectations, Charles Dickens. "a blandly vicious personage".

While I can appreciate that it is a worthwhile endeavor to make each modifier work for its right to stay, I would suggest rigid application of a "ditch the -ly words" rule would be a loss here.

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