3 Disparaging and Harmful Writing Trends

Copywriting (writing text for the purpose of advertising or other forms of marketing) has seeped into the mainstream, and its frequency is harming literature.

Inaccurate and blatantly false information repeated enough times often becomes “truth.” Urban legends are examples, as are quotes attributed to the wrong person. Bad grammar can be added to the list.

Last year I wrote a series of posts on Don’t Believe What THEY Say about writing rules and when to break them. The main thrust was that if a writer knows the rules, and has good reason, the “rules” become “guidelines” and can effectively be ignored. Has Good Reason remains the crucial point.

The First Trend: Many Get it Wrong, Period.

Lately I have noticed the “period”—and comma, for that matter—is not getting the respect it deserves, often an afterthought rather than fulfilling its basic function. This type of punctuation is unfortunately becoming commonplace:

Dan said, “I don’t know anything about it”.

The period must be within the quote for clarity, not outside as a forgotten cousin.

From a blog post:

Do not ask for permission. In other words, do not say anything like “it seems to me”, “in my opinion”.

Instead of disregarding the above examples as written by inexperienced or amateur writers, what follows is an article’s opening paragraph from a trusted and long-standing professional publication.

Newsweek Mon, Jun 5 5:00 AM PDT

The countries have accused Qatar of embracing “multiple terrorist and sectarian groups”. Qatar has called this move “unjustified”, claiming the accusations have “no basis in fact”.

Are there no editors at Newsweek? The three errors—each the same type—are glaring examples of poor punctuation, and thereby, bad writing. In each case, the writing is easily corrected by placing the comma or period within the quotations.

Why does it matter? “Oh, Rick,” you say, “you’re just a Grammar Nazi.” I don’t think so.

Whenever writing stops the reader, credibility is harmed, both to the writer and the topic.

From Strunk and White’s Elements of Style: “Typographical usage dictates that the comma be inside the marks . . .”

The example the “Little Book” uses:

“The Fish,” “Poetry,” and “The Monkeys” are in Marianne Moore’s Selected Poems.

Clarity for the reader is paramount; without clarity, readers turn away from the writing. A reader prematurely leaving our stories is not what we want.

Second Trend: Even Favorite Authors Disappoint

Jim Butcher is a favorite fantasy writer and best-selling author; his Alera series is a fine example of multi-viewpoint epic fantasy—some of his concepts border on genius.

Yet, his recent writing has left me underwhelmed. Although the story itself piques my interest by its uniqueness, and much of the characterization is finely tuned, poor grammar has halted my reading several times—writing that “stops” a reader, thereby pulling them from the illusion of disbelief, is salt poured on an open wound.

The use of exclamation points from The Aeronaut’s Windlass:

“Creedy!” Grimm called as he made his way over the mist-shrouded gangplank from the airship dock in the Fleet shipyard atop Spire Albion, and onto Predator. “With me!”

Captain on deck!” called Kettle, down in the hold. “Mister Creedy to the deck!”

When a character “calls” or “yells” or “screams,” an exclamation point is, well, pointless: one or the other is correct, though I would declare using four exclamation points—twice coupled with “called”—in four sentences effectively detracts from the importance of the story’s action.

There’s also the problem of five prepositional phrases strung together (over, from, in, atop, onto) in a single sentence, but I won’t delve into that here.

Whether lazy writing or poor editing, or perhaps both as the book was rushed to publication, there are no excuses for ineffectual grammar that stops the reader.

More on using exclamation points here:

Third Trend: Fragments Without Purpose

A recent headline:

Henry Cavill has the cutest giant dog and we. must. pet.

I know writers who love and frequently use fragments. Fragments are effective tools when the writer wants to emphasize a particular point or speed a story’s pace, and is especially telling when used within dialogue.

Taking the last part of the prior sentence, writing as, “. . . and is especially telling when. used. within. dialogue,” is simply poor writing.

Don’t do it.

Don’t do it is more effective than don’t. do. it.

Strive to be a better writer than what passes for current trends.

See you on the next page,

Rick

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Critique Meat

The critique goal is to improve your writing and editing skills; the fall-out is helping another writer do the same.

As writers, we understand noun and pronoun usage, plot movement, character arc, overstating, under-explaining, but they are at times hard to gauge in our own stories. Am I telling the reader what they need to know, or too much? Enough description or does the particular paragraph border on purple prose? How and when should I emphasize an important point to make sure readers do not miss it?

These are the more difficult things to know. Readers will pick up on different nuances depending on their skill (and yours), and some will be missed. So be it—I do not recommend writing to the lowest common denominator. Still, we writers must be cognizant of the reader with each word choice, every sentence, and the order delivered.

James’s critique of my novel surprised me in what he noticed, and alternatively, a couple items he missed . . . or did he? Will a foreshadowing seed hinted in the early part of the book bear fruit when he arrives at the fulfillment? Some items remain to be seen. Just because he did not mention a particular hint does not mean the seed did not get filed away to sprout at a future time in the novel. I wait to see if I succeeded or vagueness undermined me.

Critiquing involves a slew of issues (contextual, logistical, rational), but the most helpful is the sentence and phrasing missteps a fellow writer will see that the creator missed—the “Meat” of improving your writing.

The following items from his critique point to the common things we know as writers but still miss when editing our own writing. I will comment as necessary. James pointing out the flaws magnifies the need for me to improve my editing skills—again, one of the main reasons for finding an honest critique partner.

Readers can and do put aside some logistical issues demonstrated by readers who have “studied” the Harry Potter books—what they won’t forgive is poor writing.

What follows are examples of poor writing James found in my manuscript: some work as originally written, others need improvement, and others are just bad.

Examples

Set-up: Aban is my protagonist’s mount. At this point my MC is taking a seriously injured comrade to a healer.

Example: Aban dashed, smooth and sure through the narrow pass, across the bridge to Nychelle’s Gate where sentries yelled for him to stop, closed gates forcing him to do so.

James’ comment: This would carry a little more urgency broken up. eg., “Aban dashed through the narrow pass and across the bridge. The gates were closed. Sentries yelled for them to stop.”

Urgency is an important ingredient.

Next sentence: The gate swung outward.

James’ comment: Needs a small beat there. “There was a pause (tension), then the gate swung outward.”

Tension is good.

Example: “Tristyn’s allegiance is critical to any success of defeating the King.”

James’ comment: omit “any success of.”

Yes, cut unnecessary words.

Example: “Winter will be upon us, and we need to get a base camp to work from.”

James’ comment: Omit “to get.”

Again, cut unnecessary words. I might even shorten it further and remove to work from.

Example: Her face grew hopeful, he thought. “We should travel together.”

James’ comment: Filtering. Just “her face grew hopeful” tells us that he is thinking it.

Overwriting, check; one of my flaws where special attention is needed. This is a good reminder.

Example: The trainer turned when he rode up, and Aban slowed to a gentle stop beside her. He nodded in greeting.

James’ comment: Name who nodded (the MC). The last “he” was Aban.

My take: Actually, the last “he” referenced my MC, but there remains ambiguity as to who nodded.

Correct noun-pronoun mix-up.

The listed examples involve inferior phraseology, items that can and should—for the most part—be corrected. There are more. Some are embarrassing.

Letting others read your writing opens a chest of concerns and fears. These are normal emotions, ones you can use in your own writing to enliven characters into the minds and hearts of your reader. Study the feelings, the how’s and why’s, the circumstances causing the emotions to better understand yourself and others—and just as important, the people living in your stories.

Writing is growing, and as creators we must continue to learn and improve. Critiquing is a good tool to help on the path of becoming a better writer. I encourage you to find a critique partner, and together, both of you can evolve into the writers you are meant to be.

See you on the next page,

Rick

Sign up to follow Knights of Writ — Fiction Musings, and receive all future posts in your email. SHARE with fellow writers, and as always, comments are encouraged and highly appreciated.