When I first started writing I didn’t have an academic background in English. I was not what one would consider "well read". I did what anyone in my position who wants to be a writer would do: I started writing. What I wrote looked correct to me at the time, but it lacked a lot of fundamental components.
I joined a writing workshop in Phoenix, where I communed with other writers (some with editor credentials) weekly to read my writing and exchange constructive feedback. Since then, I’ve become exponentially more skilled at sentence construction. I only wish that as a beginning writer someone would have pulled me aside and given me a crash course on some of the basic concepts that we as writers encounter in almost every sentence we write.
This post will point out 5 rudimentary challenges in a simple way that I hope can benefit any new writer who comes upon it. Editors or grammar masters could write dissertations on the topics I’m going to cover, that is not my intention. The point of this blog is to give some very simple, clear guidance that will make you a better writer instantly (OH! I just used an unnecessary adverb... more on this later).
Passive vs. Active voice
Avoiding passive phrasing will enhance your description of animated, moving things. Always try to avoid using helping verbs (is, was, to be) when describing an active thing.
Active: A red glow lit up the sky as the sun set into the clouds.
Passive: The sky was red because the sun beamed through clouds.
That being said, there is a place for passive phrasing. If something just is and it’s not moving or doing anything then don’t try to use flowery language to make it seem active.
Passive: The chair was in the middle of the office.
Active: The chair sat in the middle of the office.
Congratulations to me! I wrote a sentence without a helping verb! Have you ever seen a chair sit? Unless you’re writing a sequel to Beauty and the Beast, the chair is where it is. Don’t give it an action just to avoid helping verbs. They have their place if you know when to use them.
This is one that gets under my skin when I see it. Don’t tell us what something “seems” to be, tell us what it is! Unless, you’re emphasizing the fact that the character’s interpretation is relevant, nothing should seem to be anything.
Wrong: The red sky seemed like something out of a post-apocalyptic world.
Better: The red sky loomed over me with an ominous presence that evoked images of a post-apocalyptic world.
One correct usage of seem: The red glow in the sky seemed harmless at first, but as it spread so did its ominous presence.
Notice in the third example, I’m using “seem” in a way that emphasizes the characters misinterpretation, which is a more effective (still not the best) use of the word.
Another one that drives me nuts. Again, I don’t need you to tell me the character “saw” something. Just tell me what that something is! Avoid: I saw, I heard, she tasted, he smelled, etc.
Correct: The car sped by, nearly running over an elderly man in the crosswalk.
Incorrect: I saw the car speed by as it nearly ran over an elderly man in the crosswalk.
A highly talented writer I know once told me: “Stop using so many adverbs. Use better verbs.” For those of you who may not completely know: adverbs are those “ly” words we frequently throw around verbs when we’re overly describing something. Not to say never use an adverb, but try to use them sparingly. (I underlined the adverbs above. Notice my overuse of them.)
Example: The man quickly jumped out of the way as the car rapidly sped through the intersection.
So how do I get across the “quickly jumped” and “rapidly sped” without the pesky adverbs? Pick better verbs that describe the action and insinuate “quickly” and “rapidly” without saying it.
Example: The man darted out of the way as the car barreled through the intersection.
This is a tough one. Stephen King suggests in his book On Writing that one should just go with:
He argued that it’s pointless and distracting to use phrasing like:
I agree with his advice, but here’s a little tip that can help you avoid too many tags and enhance your visual description.
Example: “Watch out!” I screamed.
Fix: I lunged off the bench. “Watch out!”
Example: “Your eyes are beautiful,” I said.
Fix: I took a drag from my cigarette and gazed at her. “Your eyes are beautiful.”
You can also write characters that have unique personalities that don't need dialogue tags for the reader to know who’s speaking. For instance:
“Enough of this crap! I’m gonna have your head on a damn platter for this.”
“Why… I… I am so sorry. I am forever sorry for what I have done to you.”
Hopefully this helps. Feel free to comment if you have any additional questions, contradictions or want me to expand upon these ideas. Happy writing!
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