Saturday, 12 April 2014

How to Avoid Bad Writing – Part 3


In the final instalment of how to avoid bad writing, we’ll take a look at a few more common errors that writers haven’t yet understood, or have chosen to ignore at their own peril.
There are quite a few, but I’ve highlighted the ones that crop up all the time in narrative, common errors that can be and should be avoided.
Adverbs
One of many things that drive me crazy is the use of too many ‘ly’ adverbs (although they’re not to be confused with adjectives that end in ‘ly’). 
Adverbs are used to modify a verb, an adjective, or another adverb. They’re words that don’t really belong in the narrative – that’s not to say you have to eliminate all traces of them, because you don’t have to go that far. Some are needed at certain points and can be useful, but on the whole, many are unwelcome. For example:
She looked up at him lovingly, his face so fetchingly constructed…
This is the kind of stuff found in a lot of romance-style novels, and it’s awful. The use of adverbs weakens the sentence. It seems as though many writers have left their creativity behind; they don’t consider the power and strength of the words in their sentence structures.
The use of adverbs also includes them being used as dialogue tags, too. Once again, they weaken the dialogue in the same way adverbs weaken narrative.
‘Oh, I didn’t see you there,’ she said, falteringly.
This sentence is better: She faltered. ‘Oh, I didn’t see you there.’
‘Your place or mine?’ he whispered lustily.
This sentence is better. His voice brimmed with lust. ‘Your place or mine?’
Adverbs are universally hated, simply because too many will make your narrative look as though a ten year old wrote it. And not only that, but editors hate them. So if you are out to impress editors with your writing skills, first make sure that you haven’t littered your novel with adverbs.
Hanging Participles
My absolute favourite thing to hate about fiction writing.
I detest seeing these whenever I critique, so much so it makes me breath fire. And if I hate them so much, imagine what agents and editors think about them…
Never start a sentence with a hanging participle.  If you want to create ambiguity, or you want to confuse the reader; if you want to weaken the sentence structure and make it look like your 7 year old niece wrote it, or you want to make your potential agent choke on his coffee with your lazy writing, then go ahead and hang your participles.
If, on the other hand, you want to achieve a correct, tight and unambiguous sentence structure, then avoid starting your sentences with them. If you’re not convinced, take a look at these beauties:-
Carrying her coffee, she stormed into Derek’s office.
Turning from the door, he saw the shadow in the corner.
Reaching for her phone, she knew she had to call her mother.
There is nothing remotely good about these examples. And still writers start their sentences like this.
Instead, take the time to read what you have written, learn to spot adverbs and hanging participles. Learn to be creative with sentences; learn to care about what you write.
Flat narrative
Another cause of bad writing is flat narrative (telling, not showing). This is down to either the writer isn’t that confident about writing descriptive scenes, they’re afraid and not sure about them, or they’ve been advised that too much description spoils the story.
There seems to be a lot of contradictory advice about how descriptive narrative should be. On one hand there are those that love description, because when properly used it builds a picture for the reader. Then on the other hand, there is a sturdy contingent of anti-narrative folks who are advising writers to keep it simple.
I personally think balance is important. Think of description as the cement between your building blocks. Without it, there isn’t much support. It’s that simple.
Those who advise against being descriptive are not helping writers; they’re hindering the creative process. Descriptive narrative is a must; all you have to do as a writer is keep the balance between sounding flat and boring, or being colourful and evocative.
Not every scene will require lots of description, but your key scenes, those that are relevant and need atmosphere and tone, senses and surroundings etc., are there  to help the reader build a mental picture, and do require it.
Here’s an example:
He looked ahead through the forest. There was no one around. The coast was clear and he made his way back to the farmhouse.
While there is nothing essentially wrong here, there isn’t much for the reader to work with. The narrative is flat. It’s telling rather than showing. And, surprisingly, some people advocate this simplistic approach to description. That’s fine, but let’s compare it with some descriptive elements added:
He looked ahead through the forest, senses pricked. There was no one around and no sound, except for muffled heartbeat in his ears. Silence coiled between barren branches and swept low across the snow. Cautious, he made his way back to the farmhouse.
This second example doesn’t overpower with description, however this time there are enough snippets of information to help the reader visualise the scene. It’s balanced, and that’s what writers should be looking for.
Bad writing disappears with experience. The more you write, the better you become. The better you become, the more experienced you become with editing and spotting your own errors, so there is no excuse for bad writing once you have gained some experience.

Next week: Dialogue Dilemmas

8 comments:

  1. Hi, again thanks for your posts, I always look forward to a new one and tell everyone about the helpfull info you give us.
    I have a question, is the adverb thing a moden problem. The reasion I ask is because I am reading some classics that I have missed. Books that have have become sucessfull and been turned into films. I am reading Minority report by Philip K dick which was published in 1956. I am finding it difficult to get through simpley because of the adverbs. Some are shocking, I wondered if I was missing the point or getting the lesson wrong. Or was it ok back then and have we just let the adverb get on our goat over time?
    D

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    1. Hi Darren, good question.

      The early part of the 20th century has seen some change in the way fiction is written. What was once quite normal and acceptable pre 1960's is now frowned upon. Hence the heavy use of adverbs is not a favourite with readers or publishers alike.

      In the 18th and 19th century they would have been considered necessary for a good old yarn. But things change, tastes change, and the English language moves forward.

      Nowadays adverbs really do kill the pace and strength of the narrative. It's not a matter of them annoying us, it's a matter of them actually making your writing look and sound atrocious. Ask any editor what they feel about an adverb, and I guarantee the reaction will not be a good one!

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  2. Hmmm, I actually like the sound of the Hanging Participle and use it on purpose.

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  3. All of your examples of hanging participles have obvious subjects, though. If I were writing from a character's POV, I might write:

    Mary stepped into her office and froze when she saw the note taped to her desk, then turned and walked back out into the hallway. _Carrying her coffee, she stormed into Derek’s office_.

    In this (albeit weak) paragraph, there's never any doubt who is carrying the coffee, since the 'she' can only refer to Mary.

    This kind of participle seems extremely useful in conveying concurrent action without cluttering up the prose. Have I misunderstood your point?

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  4. Even with objects, the sentences created are not well constructed, which is why it's better to write it thus:

    She carried her coffee and stormed into Derek's office.

    It's that simple. Hanging participles undermine the strength of sentence structures, with or without objects, regardless. They also create ambiguity and confusion. Your example still weakens the narrative. As an editor, I would eliminate it and strengthen the sentence instead.

    Hanging participles are not at all useful, and like adverbs and adjectives, should be weeded from the narrative if you want to write better fiction.

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    1. I disagree. I constrained my example to the basic elements of yours, so naturally they aren't ideal. My point is that, so far as I can tell, you're alone on this one. I can't find a single other reference (online, anyway) that argues against modifiers that are tied off properly.

      While they do complicate a sentence, are therefore prime targets for line-editing, sometimes you need/want complicated sentences that communicate many things happening at once. It also introduces some nice variety into sentences.

      I understand the ideal of Hemingwayesque prose, but I think there's more than one good sentence out there. Not everything needs to follow "Subject+verb+adjective+object; repeat" to be enjoyable to read.

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  5. I'm most definitely not alone, Brad. When I worked for publications, these things were cause for rejections. No one is saying it's carved in stone, because it isn't, no one is making the writer do anything. This is merely guidance for writers to construct better and stronger sentence structures, particularly for beginners who tend to make erroneous mistakes.

    More importantly, if they are submitting to agents, then the finished product needs to be as error free as they can make it - that's the accepted consensus. I've seen MSS rejected for less.

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