Warrior Writer: Blood Lessons—Deadly Sins of Writing (1-3)

“Details are often the only difference between mediocre and magnificent.”

~Author Unknown

As a copy editor, I’ve developed a different set of eyes that detect details often unseen by the rest of the world. But let me clarify. Just because something is unseen, in no way means it has gone unnoticed. To the untrained, small mistakes can collect in the subconscious. A reader might put a book down and never know exactly why they couldn’t get engaged, or why he felt the text was too confusing, or why he simply just gave up.

Well, as they say, the Devil is in the details.

I love writing, and I love to make other writers’ work the absolute best it can be. I’ve worked with all skill levels, and after almost a decade of experience, enough writing has passed beneath my pen for me to see certain patterns emerge. I call these my Deadly Sins of Writing.  

The Deadly Sins are often among the first Blood Lessons for new writers. Why? Because formal English classes (high school and college), in my opinion, frequently:

  1. Permit bad writing habits.
  2. Encourage bad writing habits.

I’m in no way picking on teachers. It is incumbent upon any writer to learn her craft. To believe college English constitutes proper schooling for commercial fiction is like saying Home Economics is proper training for a chef. Yet, many new writers believe that because they made good grades in English, they know how to write (Yeah, I’ll confess. I was one of them).

So after a couple of years critiquing fiction, I began to notice a pattern of common errors. These flubs were so distracting that I often found I couldn’t even GET to critiquing plot, character, or voice. Thus, I wrote out my Deadly Sins as a reference. I believe that if a writer can eradicate most or all of these types of errors, then he will leave the reader with a clearer view of the story.

Today we are only going to go over three. Why? Because most of us haven’t had formal grammar since that awful experience with sentence diagramming back in the eighth grade. And while I could just list the Sins, I believe it will be more helpful if you understand WHY these errors can be so detrimental to even the best of stories.

Deadly Sin #1

Was Clusters— There is nothing wrong with using being verbs (am, is, are, was, were, be, being, been, —Remember them?). But, they do tend to have a nasty habit of flocking together. A couple of being verbs are all right. But, if there are 42 on one page? You might have a problem…or an infestation.

Was often acts as a screaming beacon directing me, the editor, to places where the writing could be tightened.  Was can also lead you, the writer, into dangerous passive voice waters so beware.

The door was kicked in by the officers. (Passive)

The officers kicked in the door. (Active)

Deadly Sin #2

Overuse of “ing” Whether as Gerunds or Participles—First, a quick review for those of us who have slept since our last grammar class. A gerund is a verb used as a noun—i.e. reading glasses. Participles are often used with a helping verb to show progression (also called progressive verbs)—i.e. I am walking to the car.

***I have left Point A and have not quite reached Point B. Therefore the action is in progress, ergo the term progressive.

There is nothing wrong with using either, but like was, these critters also tend to cluster together. When they do so, they tend to:

a. Create a monotonous pattern

b. Signal places the writing could be made more active.

Joe was walking to the car while smoking a cigarette and thinking about his day. He was wondering if it was all worth the effort. Tired, he pulled out a set of reading glasses. He was scanning the Dear John letter one last time before driving home when a car came barreling out of nowhere heading straight for him.

Don’t laugh. I have seen more than my fair share of similar passages. Technically, nothing is incorrect. Yet, the pattern of ing ing ing ing ing creates a monotony that can diminish the literary effect.

Deadly Sin #3

Modifier overload.  Ever heard the term less is more? The same holds true in writing. Why? When you modify everything, you modify nothing. The reader can get so bogged down in lovely similes and metaphors that he forgets the original point of the story, and that is bad.

Have you ever been to a lecture where the speaker’s voice is flat, and nothing is emphasized? Think of Ben Stein, the guy who does the eye drop commercials.

Monotone.

Now think of that lunatic Billy Mays who does all of the Oxy Clean commercials. HE STRESSES ABSOLUTELY EVERYTHING!!!! By the end of the commercial, the audience needs a nap…or a drink.

Again, monotone.

Modifiers can make beautiful writing that transports us and makes us part of an entirely different world.

Or…

It can make us feel like we’re trapped in that nightmare where we never really graduated high school, and have been forced to repeat Sophomore-Level English if we want our college degree to be valid. Jane Eyre. Enough said.

Just remember some simple rules of thumb. Adverbs are almost always a no-no. Why use window dressing on an inferior verb if there is a superior verb that can take its place?

He walked quickly across the room.

He strode across the room.

As far as adjectives, similes, and metaphors? Use good judgment. Don’t be the Oxy Clean guy. Have a fellow writer look at your work and see which ones might be weakening your story. Or, take a highlighter and strike through all the modifiers, and see how many there are, and how many can go. Heck, if they are really good, you can use them later. I promise.

Grammar is not a whole lot of fun for most people, but it is necessary to understand it as part of understanding the craft. And you are going to make mistakes. Blood Lessons are a critical part of learning. Good writing comes from wisdom, and wisdom comes from experience. Experience comes from writing some real crap. But as NY Times Best-Selling Author Bob Mayer constantly hammers into his writing protégés:

The Number One Rule of Rule-Breaking is ‘Know the rules.’ If you break rules without knowing the rules, you are not clever, you are ignorant.

Sloppy technique, bad grammar, and poor sentence construction can cling to your writing like a dirty film that obscures story and characters. Clean up your writing so your stories can shine.

Until next time…

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  1. #1 by Bob Mayer on June 11, 2009 - 3:22 pm

    Breaking rules is critical in order to become published. But first you have to know the rules. Which means learn the craft. Then you must have a very good reason for breaking the rules. I see people doing things in writing all the time without knowing what they are doing. Or worse breaking Rule 2: not really having a good reason for doing something different. Everything in a novel is done for a purpose. Even the tiniest little detail.

  2. #2 by freestories on June 11, 2009 - 3:37 pm

    Very cool. Always a good reminder. Thank you for posting this. I’ll refer to it frequently to ensure better writing habits. 🙂

    Ironically, my current project experiments with a narrative that blends banal and economic/evocative language to create a unique voice. Rules are there to be broken (but only if you know why / how), right?

  3. #3 by Jenni Holbrook on June 12, 2009 - 12:01 pm

    I like this topic. Sort came at all this from the opposite angle. I had horrible grades in English. Actually failed 10th grade English twice with the same teacher. A very long story short, I am dyslexic, but wasn’t diagnosed until I was nearly 20. I slipped through the cracks of the system for a lot of reasons, some of which I can take the blame for. Once I learned how to deal with my learning disability, I started reading. I always loved a good story, so this opened up a new world for me. I even went to college where I got I degree in Business Education with a concentrating in Marketing and Sales. One of my English Prof. told me that if I could ever learn grammar, I should consider writing. I laughed. Although, deep down I knew I wanted to write. It took another 15 years before I took pen to paper. I didn’t have a clue and it wasn’t just the whole grammar issue.

    I spent a few years fumbling around. I submitted bad manuscripts. Then I took one of Bob Mayer’s workshops and read his book The Novel Writer’s Toolkit and a whole new world opened up to me. It had to be the biggest light bulb moment I have ever had. Since then, I have been focusing on craft. Learning all I can about how to put together a great story. I know I have good ideas, but as Bob says, Idea is not Story.

    I think the biggest lesson I have learned through this process of becoming a published author is that you always have to learn, but more importantly, you have to apply what you have learned. As a conference chair for an RWA chapter, I have seen many writers get excited about a topic or new technique a speaker has brought to the table. They will talk about it with other writers, explaining what they have learned, yet, they never really apply it to their writing. I do find it hard to break some habits. I tend to beat the reader over the head and foreshadow too much in the opening. Sometimes I can’t see it, other times it jumps out at me. I really have to look for my weaknesses and then do what I can to correct them.

  4. #4 by The Hook on August 25, 2012 - 3:52 pm

    “The Number One Rule of Rule-Breaking is ‘Know the rules.’ If you break rules without knowing the rules, you are not clever, you are ignorant.”
    Words to live by!

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