From Scott:

We all have habits in our lives, some of them helpful, others not so much. They range from the route we take to work, to the foods we eat, to the way we talk. But when these habits find their way into our writing techniques, they can cause some major problems with the quality of our work. In this entry, we’ll take a look at a few of these habits and how to avoid them. A common habit is the construction of sentences. We were taught in college English classes that short sentences appear choppy and distract the reader. This is true if the short sentences appear frequently. Keep in mind that college English classes are typically designed around formal writing. In literature, the style needs to be looser and relaxed. A writer should vary the sentence forms to avoid pulling the reader out of the story. Consider the following rewritten passage from my new fantasy novel, A Matter of Faith. I have rewritten it to demonstrate what happens when you use the same form repeatedly.

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He gestured across the courtyard toward the stone wall behind the crowd. The wall stood unbroken except for a single opening, and it was warded by a steel portcullis. With a heavy rattle of chains, the gate ground slowly upward, and a hushed silence fell over the crowd. Two horses emerged from the dim passageway beyond, and they pulled a two-wheeled wooden cart behind them. A pair of priests sat beside Verod, and he was dressed in a white loincloth. He had been bathed following his purification, and horrific wounds marred his body. The fingers on his remaining hand were mangled beyond belief. Jocane had witnessed a portion of the purification, and he had been impressed with this heretic’s tenacity. A red-hot iron had been used to staunch the flow of blood from his battle injuries, and then the High Priest’s interrogator had begun his work. For two hours, Verod endured pain beyond imagining, and he had steadfastly refused to admit to crimes against the Church. Jocane wondered how long the man had endured the ordeal before his confession finally came.

The two priests lifted Verod from the cart, and they carried him to a low-backed wooden bench atop the platform. They secured his arms behind his back, a task made difficult by the missing right hand, and Verod’s head dropped to his chest. A stream of drool ran from one corner of his mouth, and he seemed almost unaware of his surroundings as his unfocussed eyes stared at the wooden planks beneath his feet. Arloc gave a cold, humorless smile.

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Granted, no one (okay, almost no one) uses the same sentence construction this much. But it demonstrates my point. Almost every sentence follows the same pattern: independent clause – conjunction – independent clause. While this is a perfectly valid way to design a sentence, when done redundantly is becomes a problem. What happens if you avoid the construction altogether? After all, those are independent clauses, which means each could stand on its own. Let’s take a look.

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He gestured across the courtyard toward the stone wall behind the crowd. The wall stood unbroken except for a single opening, warded by a steel portcullis. The heavy chains rattled. The gate ground slowly upward. A hushed silence fell over the crowd. Two horses emerged from the dim passageway beyond. They pulled a two-wheeled wooden cart behind them. A pair of priests sat beside Verod. He was dressed in a white loincloth. He had been bathed following his purification. Horrific wounds marred his body. The fingers on his remaining hand were mangled beyond belief. Jocane had witnessed a portion of the purification. He had been impressed with this heretic’s tenacity. A red-hot iron had been used to staunch the flow of blood from his battle injuries. Then the High Priest’s interrogator had begun his work. For two hours, Verod endured pain beyond imagining. He had steadfastly refused to admit to crimes against the Church. Jocane wondered how long the man had endured the ordeal. The confession finally came.

The two priests lifted Verod from the cart. They carried him to a low-backed wooden bench atop the platform. They secured his arms behind his back. The task was made difficult by the missing right hand. Verod’s head dropped to his chest. A stream of drool ran from one corner of his mouth. He seemed almost unaware of his surroundings. His unfocussed eyes stared at the wooden planks beneath his feet. Arloc gave a cold, humorless smile.

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As you can see, this doesn’t work either (RICK ADDED: because it gives the prose a choppy feel). The key to success is to vary the sentence construction. You have a lot of tools in your writer’s toolkit, so make sure you use them all. Here is the same passage, in its original form.

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He gestured across the courtyard toward the stone wall behind the crowd. The wall stood unbroken except for a single opening, warded by a steel portcullis. With a heavy rattle of chains, the gate ground slowly upward. A hushed silence fell over the crowd. Two horses emerged from the dim passageway beyond, pulling a two-wheeled wooden cart behind them. A pair of priests sat beside Verod, dressed now in a white loincloth. Although he had been bathed following his purification, horrific wounds marred his body. The fingers on his remaining hand were mangled beyond belief. Jocane had witnessed a portion of the purification, and had been impressed with this heretic’s tenacity. After a red-hot iron had been used to staunch the flow of blood from his battle injuries, the High Priest’s interrogator had begun his work. For two hours, Verod endured pain beyond imagining, but he had steadfastly refused to admit to crimes against the Church. Jocane wondered how long the man had endured the ordeal before his confession finally came.

The two priests lifted Verod from the cart and carried him to a low-backed wooden bench atop the platform. They secured his arms behind his back, a task made difficult by the missing right hand. Verod’s head dropped to his chest. A stream of drool ran from one corner of his mouth, and he seemed almost unaware of his surroundings as his unfocussed eyes stared at the wooden planks beneath his feet. Arloc gave a cold, humorless smile.

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Another frequent problem among writers is the –ing form. Too many characters are running, laughing, jumping, flying, crashing, and so on. Again, -ing forms are an excellent writing tool, but not if they are overused. Two or three times on a given page is fine. But on many of the works in progress I have reviewed (and even in finished/published novels), I frequently find five or six consecutive sentences containing the –ing form. At that point, the writer is using it as a crutch, and the writing becomes very weak. [RICK NOTES: Some of the grammar checking and editing programs out there specifically look at the -ing forms. One of these is Master Edit, which I just purchased and will be doing a review of in a future blog.]

Before you go back to your writing and delete all of the words that end with –ing, here’s another point: not all –ing forms are created equal. Sometimes, the word is a gerund, where it is used as a noun: Running is good for you. They can also be a present participle, when used as an adjective:

Gamboe’s new fantasy novel is exciting. There are other forms and uses for –ing words (check your Chicago Manual of Style for further details). The point is, if you read through your work and frequently find your characters “reaching for the newspaper,” “running across the street,” and “falling to the ground,” it’s time to take a look at other ways to write those sentences.

One final habitual issue to look at is that of habit words. When I wrote The Killing Frost, I had problems with the word that. I read and reread the manuscript, but I just couldn’t see it. Perhaps I used the word “that” so much in my daily speech that it just seemed normal. When my editor pointed out the issue to me, I had MS Word go through and highlight all uses of the word. And what I saw was sobering: as many as a dozen times per page, that that that that that. So it was back to the drawing board, so to speak.

When correcting for habit words and phrases, don’t overdo the correction. Had I gone through and removed all instances of the word “that,” the results would have been worse than the problem I was trying to fix. Some writers I know have been given that faulty advice to deal with habit issues. All I can say about it is: DON’T! Once you’ve found the habit issue, reduce it. But don’t eliminate it completely!

So watch for those repeated forms, phrases, and words. When you find them, realize that you need to thin out their numbers, not eliminate them. The best way to avoid them in the first place is to know your art. The more writing tools you are aware of, the more variety you can put in your work. And your readers will enjoy your work that much more.

–Scott