Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Some more (bad) writing habits

The more editing I do, the more I realise how we, the writers, are not very creative when it comes to developing bad habits. I most assuredly include myself in this. My novel Maybe they’ll remember me has just been re-edited in preparation for publication by Satalyte Publishing. As I went through the suggested changes I constantly slapped myself for having written what I had written. Of course, I originally completed the novel three years ago, and I think I have learned a little since then.

In an earlier post, ‘Bad writing habits’, I discussed some of these, but here are a few more. 

He turned

‘He turned...’; ‘she turned...’ Sometimes I feel for the characters in a novel. They must become very giddy with all this turning. Usually it’s something like this: ‘He turned and looked at her and said...’ I covered ‘looked at’ in the earlier post. To ‘look’ we now add ‘turn’. What immediately comes to my mind are those dramatic moments, just prior to a scene change in a soap opera. Two characters have been engaged in a tense exchange. One leaves the room, but just before they make it through the doorway, they turn, look at their enemy and deliver their final cutting remark.

As with all these words and phrases, it might on occasions be necessary to draw attention to a character’s turning motion. Usually it isn’t.

It seemed

‘It seemed to her (me) as though...’ This arises from excessive timidity. As human beings we are right to be cautious about guessing what someone else is thinking and feeling. As often as not we get it wrong. So our characters (who are generally human beings) are similarly cautious. They can’t know what the other person is thinking/feeling, so we are inclined to shroud this with cautionary moderators: ‘It seemed...’, ‘He thought that...’ As a reader I become very annoyed at this. I understand that what I am being told, whether it is a third or first person narrative, is what the character thinks, or is what seems, to them, to be the case.

As I was speaking, Fred seemed to become angrier and angrier.

As I was speaking, Fred became angrier and angrier.

Neither is a literary gem, but I know which I prefer. Be more bold, assertive and godlike in your narration.

She started

Unless she didn’t finish, and this is somehow important, don’t clutter the page with this or similar expressions. ‘She began to feel frightened.’ Really? If I say to you ‘She felt frightened’, I think we can safely assume that at some point this feeling actually arose. ‘He began to pack his suitcases.’ Unless Fred is going to burst into the room and stop him, unless he is going to pause and gaze dreamily out of the window for a while, all we need to know is, ‘He packed his suitcases.’

Most of the time, when writers use this expression, all they mean is ‘He packed his suitcases.’ He began to pack them, he continued for some time to pack them, and, finally, he finished packing them.

This (like the other words and phrases I have mentioned) are pointless fillers that add nothing to the narrative.


I can’t finish this blog without mentioning ‘that’. By deleting unnecessary instances of this little word from a manuscript I can sometimes reduce the word length by several hundred. ‘He said that he was going to the shops.’ No, ‘He said he was going to the shops.’ 

So (I start to say as I turn to look at you) it seems to me that there are many ways in which we can make our writing more crisp and concise.