Posts Tagged ‘common writing mistakes’

Common Writing Mistakes: Pronoun Confusion

Full confession, Squiders–this is something I had problems with for a LONG time. (Doing this today because I make no guarantees about Thursday.)

What is pronoun confusion? Well, take a look at this example:

Doug and Larry decide to go to the coffee shop from some of their seasonal coffees. He decides to get a peppermint mocha while he decides to get a pumpkin spice latte, because miraculously this shop offers both at the same time. Unfortunately, his coffee is burned and the whole thing tastes bitter.

Who’s doing what?

Who knows?

Pronoun confusion is where you have a pronoun that either cannot be directly tied to the proper noun or is tied to the incorrect noun.

As a quick refresher, a pronoun is a word that replaces a noun, such as he, she, they, or it.

The above example shows a situation where the pronoun “he” cannot be tied to either Doug or Larry, so the reader has no idea who is doing what.

Here’s an example of a pronoun tied to the incorrect noun.

Laura and Susie are on a tour of wine country. They have decided to ride bicycles between the wineries just in case. At their first winery, Laura decides to start with a nice, big Cabernet Franc. She decides to have a Riesling.

Who is “she” in that last sentence? If you think about it, you’ll probably decide it’s Susie, since we already know what Laura is having. But you don’t want to have your reader have to stop and think to figure out what’s going on.

Our brains automatically assume that the last appropriately-named noun that fits is the one that goes with the pronoun. So in this case, a reader’s first thought is going to be that we’re still talking about Laura.

These are fairly simplistic examples. The real issue comes when you have two characters (usually of the same gender) doing a complex action together. Fight scenes can be the worst offenders of this, with “he drew his sword to fend off his blow” and other such sentences, but pronoun confusion can sneak in anywhere.

So, how to you guard against pronoun confusion? The first step is just to be aware that it exists. Keeping “Is it clear who is doing what” in your head as you write can help a huge amount. It can also help to re-read complex sentences after you write them to make sure all your pronouns are pointing the right way.

Take special care with “it.” It’s especially easy to stick in without properly referencing an appropriate noun. Here’s an example.

Georgie has three pets: a turtle, a cat, and a dog. It is especially friendly.

Which pet do we mean? Who knows?

To fix a sentence that has an improperly used pronoun, you have two options:

  1. Add the noun in in place of the pronoun. (“Laura sighed and put her arm around Susie’s shoulders,” as opposed to “Laura sighed and put her arm around her shoulders.”)
  2. Rewrite the sentence so the pronoun is either not needed or obvious. (“Bob told Jerry that he didn’t like the way he looked at his wife” versus “Bob said, ‘Jerry, you don’t like the way I look at your wife.'”)

How about it, Squiders? Is this something you’ve had issues with? Any other advice for avoiding it?

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Common Writing Mistakes: Speech Tags

Happy Friday, squiders! Today we’re going to continue on with our series on common writing mistakes. We’re still in our first section, which is basic grammar/bad writing issues.

Today, we’re going to discuss speech tags. Just to be absolutely clear, speech tags in and of themselves are not a bad thing. You need them in many cases so it’s clear to your reader who’s talking. The problem is that people tend to feel they need to be “creative” with their speech tags, which can lead to issues.

A speech tag is a word to indicate someone is talking, such as “said,” “asked,” or “replied.”

Issue #1: Improbability

The first rule of speech tags is that they have to be something you can do with your mouth. In most cases, you do not speak with your hands, your head, your body, etc. Some of this is a punctuation problem. For example, you do not need a speech tag if the speaking character immediately does another action, but the two sentences cannot be connected.

WRONG: “It’s this way,” he gestured to the right.
RIGHT: “It’s this way.” He gestured to the right.

The second rule of speech tags that it has to be a sound you can make while talking. People often use words like “laughed” or “snorted” as a speech tag. However, people cannot easily laugh and talk in the same breath. People laugh, then talk, or they talk, then laugh. They can try to talk while laughing, but that’s something else altogether.

Issue #2: Distracting Modifiers

This is somewhat related to the filler/crutch words we discussed last week. This is something a lot of beginning authors do before they’ve figured out how to better express what their characters are trying to say, either through a stronger speech tag, the dialogue itself, or by replacing the speech tag with an action. Often, these take the form of an adverb.

Here’s an example: “That’s terrible,” she said sadly.

It’s not the worst sentence known to man, but there are stronger ways to show that the character is sad. Her shoulders could droop. She might look like she’s going to cry. Her voice could be shaky or waver.

Another example: “I hate you!” he said loudly.

Here you could use a better speech tag, such as “yell” or “scream.” You could also have the character do something, such as stomp away or ball his hands into fists.

Issue #3: Too Much Variety

You occasionally come across writing advice that says something along the lines of “Don’t use boring ol’ ‘said’! Here’s 500 other words you can use instead!”

Noooooo. No. Don’t do this. This sort of advice seems to inspire people to use the strangest and “most creative” speech tags they can think of, and to make sure they never repeat one. That’s not the point of the advice. It actually ties into issue #2, where you’re using too many adverbs as modifiers. Sometimes it is better to have someone beg or imply or protest. It’s truer to what you’re trying to convey.

But it is not an excuse to have someone bellow and your next character gloat and the one after that respond and the one after that whisper. The point is not to use a word that may not properly describe what you want just because it’s creative and special. That’s distracting to your reader and obnoxious. The point is to make sure you’re being precise.

And in most cases, you should use said. Most people just say things in most situations. And the nice thing about said is that it disappears into the narrative, so all readers take from “Barney said” is that Barney is the one currently talking.

This advice is also trying to avoid the “Bob said, Julie said, Linda said” issue, which we’ll address in issue #4.

Issue #4: Talking Heads

Have you ever seen a conversation like this?

“Look, I’m not okay with this,” Linda said.
“Do you think I care?” said Bob.
“Well, you should,” Linda said.
“I don’t care either,” said Julie.
“You stay out of this,” Linda said.

Man, all those saids are a mess, aren’t they? Let’s see if this is any better.

“Look, I’m not okay with this,” Linda yelled.
“Do you think I care?” snorted Bob.
“Well, you should,” Linda sniffled.
“I don’t care either,” inserted Julie.
“You stay out of this,” Linda snarled.

It’s not. Unfortunately, that’s what too many people do with the advice from Issue #3, when the problem is actually that what you’ve got a classic example of talking heads.

Talking heads is when your characters are just standing around, apparently doing nothing but talking. It’s boring, and it’s unrealistic. People don’t stand around and do nothing while talking. They fidget. They take sips of their drinks. They move around.

“Look, I’m not okay with this.” Linda stood, her chair tipping.
“Do you think I care?” Bob didn’t bother to look up from the letter he was writing.
“Well, you should.” Linda stalked over to the window, folding her arms across her chest.
“I don’t care either,” said Julie, sitting up straighter.
“You stay out of this.” Linda looked away from the rain just long enough to glare at the younger woman.

That’s not an amazing example, but it’s getting better. It’s fine to have a couple lines of dialogue where the characters don’t do anything else, but beyond that it gets boring. It can also help to help internal thoughts or feelings mixed in, depending on what your point of view is.

Well, squiders, did I leave anything out? Other issues with speech tags that you’ve noticed?

Common Writing Mistakes: Filler/Crutch Words

Let’s jump into our common writing mistakes series, squiders! We’re tackling grammatical and just plain bad writing mistakes first before we get into more complicated topics. And today, we’re going to look at filler and crutch words.

So we’re all on the same page, a filler word is a word that’s added into a sentence that isn’t actually adding anything to its meaning. People do this while talking as well as while writing, but these words are insidious because in most cases people don’t realize they’re doing it. A crutch word is very similar to a filler, in that it’s a word you fall back on because it’s familiar and easy.

Here are some common filler/crutch words:

  • very
  • honestly
  • actually
  • just
  • like
  • anyway

You may have a filler or crutch word you use more than others. Mine is “honestly.”

NOTE: A crutch word can be a word that is being useful, such as a verb like “smiled,” but it becomes a crutch word because it’s being overused.

Be aware that phrases can also be crutches. If you find you’re reusing the same phrase a bunch (“each and every,” “it might be hours, days, weeks,” etc.) you might be using it as a crutch as well.

There’s a couple of ways to check and see what your filler and crutch words are, such as picking a few pages of your manuscript and reading through them, circling suspicious words. Or, if you don’t trust yourself to catch them, you can ask a friend to read through, or use a feature such as Word’s AutoSummarize tool. (NOTE: Word’s AutoSummary tool has been removed from newer versions of Word.)

By knowing what your filler and crutch words tend to be, you can keep an eye out for them while writing or, if you find that’s not helping your flow, look for them specifically when revising and editing.

While fillers and crutches are related, fixing them works slightly different.

Remember that a filler word is a word that is not adding any meaning to a sentence. These are easier to catch in a revision phase than a writing one. When you’re revising and you come across a filler-type word (like just, very, really, etc.), look and see if the word is pulling any weight. In some cases, such as dialogue, these words can occasionally be left alone, because people do use fillers when they’re talking. Also look at adjectives and adverbs, which can be fillers as well. Is there a stronger word that can be used? (“hurried” instead of “walked quickly,” for example)

A crutch word is a word that you overuse. If you know what yours are going into writing, sometimes you can cure yourself of the habit just by being aware of it. You might create a new crutch word or words, however, so it’s good to check during revision. Whereas filler words can usually just be cut, crutch words are often providing some worth to the sentence, so you may need to do some rewriting.

WARNING: Don’t just go through with a thesaurus when switching out crutch words! While words may have a similar meaning, or, in some cases, you might find a better word than your original one, often times the words in the thesaurus won’t match your concept exactly. Rewriting to keep your concept clear is a better idea than just switching out a word when possible. A look is different than a gaze, etc.

What are your go-to filler and crutch words, squiders? Any more thoughts on how to catch what yours are and fix them?

Common Writing Mistakes Intro

Okay, squiders! We’re going to dive into the common writing mistakes series now on and off for the next month or so. I’m thinking the book will be divided into a couple of different sections: 1) a basic intro, 2) a discussion of common writing mistakes and how to spot them/fix them, and 3) general fixes that can be applied to a variety of writing wrongs and just to help improve it overall. I’m thinking we’ll do 1 and 2 here on the blog and leave 3 for the book.

I’ve got a variety of writing mistakes identified which basically fall into the following categories:

  1. Voice/point of view issues
  2. Pacing and structure issues
  3. Plot issues
  4. Grammar issues (just plain bad writing)

REMINDER: If you want me to touch on something, let me know!

So what makes something a “common” writing mistake? A lot of it comes from being a less experienced writer. Writing a book can be a hard thing to do, and there are a ton of things to remember, from what color that character’s eyes were on page 5 to what you named your fictional quaint seaside town, let alone where your major plot points need to be.

Some of it comes from being unfamiliar with your genre of choice. If you’re writing a mystery but aren’t used to the conventions of the genre, it can be easy to miss things.

But one way or another, a “common” writing mistake is one that probably most, if not all, writers will make at one point as they learn their craft. I’ve made most of these. But the good news is that you can learn what these mistakes look like, and you can learn how to stop making them, or at least how to fix them after you do.

We’ll dig in next Thursday, starting with grammar issues, since those are more universal across all forms of writing, and some of the other ones are more applicable to fiction specifically.