From Rick:

Let’s continue where we left off last time with those common writing mistakes I encounter all too frequently.

OVERUSE OF “AS” CLAUSES AND PARTICIPLE PHRASES: I feel as if I’ve beaten these two topics to death, but since I see them all too often, they bear another mention. Rather than rehash them completely, here is a previous post on the problem. It contains references to two earlier posts on the topic.

PROBLEMS WITH PARTICIPLE PHRASES AND “AS” CLAUSES

If you find this problem in your writing, be very careful that you don’t fix it by creating an equally bad problem to replace it. “As” and “ing” clauses and phrases are not evil things, but they tend to be weaker writing, and when you overuse them, you give your writing less punch than it deserves.

Therefore, do not make the mistake to cutting out all of them and replacing them with some equally repetitive phrasing. One of the writers whose work I recently edited did just that. He substituted simple sentences or compound sentences for them too much. During the edits, I ended up re-inserting some of the participle phrases. Compare these three passages.

*****

[ORIGINAL—TEDIOUS AND WEAK WRITING]

“Just saying,” Rob said, sipping his beer, watching David sitting at the computer as he did so.

“I don’t care,” David said, typing furiously as he talked, looking up occasionally at Rob calmly sitting on the couch. “I refuse to apologize. She cheated on me! With my best friend!”

“So what are you doing there?” Rob said as he placed his empty bottle on the coffee table.

“I just let all her Facebook friends know what she did,” David replied as he slid his chair back, standing.

*****

[OVERCOMPENSATED CORRECTIONS]

“Just saying,” Rob said. He sipped his beer and watched David sitting at the computer.

“I don’t care,” David said. He typed and looked up occasionally at Rob calmly seated on the couch. “I refuse to apologize. She cheated on me! With my best friend!”

“So what are you doing there?” Rob said and placed his empty bottle on the coffee table.

“I just let all her Facebook friends know what she did,” David replied and slid his chair back and stood.

*****

[BALANCED, WITH REPETITIVE WORDS ALSO FIXED]

Rob sipped his beer while watching David seated at the computer. “Just saying.”

“I don’t care,” David said. Typing furiously as he talked, he looked up occasionally at Rob calmly reclining on the couch. “I refuse to apologize. She cheated on me! With my best friend!”

Rob placed his empty bottle on the coffee table. “So what are you doing?”

“I just let all her Facebook friends know what she did.” David slid his chair back and stood.

*****

I don’t claim that even the “balanced” version is a stellar piece of writing. It’s only here as an illustration of what not to do.

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USE OF “THERE WAS/WERE” AND “IT WAS”: Again, I’ve covered this before as well.

WEAK WORDS AND FAULTY PHRASES

All too often I see writers using “there was” to start a sentence. (Yes, I do it sometimes here in the blog, but I avoid it in my fiction.)

“There was” is a weak phrase, and mostly the only times you should use it are these:

—When “there” is referring to a location, and usually not in that word order. (He was there just a moment ago. There he was just a moment ago.)

—In dialog, because we do tend to say “there was” a lot. But even then, it makes for mundane dialog. Try to keep your dialog crisp and interesting.

—When it would be awkward to say it another way. (There was nothing he could do about it.) It’s usually possible, however, with a little thought, to craft a stronger, more precise sentence. (He could do nothing to change it. Nothing he could do would stop it.)

Let’s close this common mistake with one last example.

*****

It was a beautiful morning. There were several inches of fresh snow on the ground. The sun was shining, and it was very cold out for sure, but Chad promised to take his younger brother sledding the next time it snowed. There wasn’t any reason couldn’t. It was a perfect time for some good brotherly bonding, he thought.

*****

See my point? Yes, it paints the scene and tells us a bit about the character. It’s not bad writing. It’s just not good writing. It lacks emotion. As an exercise, you might try your hand at rewriting this to make it stronger and better.

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USING CHARACTER NAMES WHEN NOT NECESSARY OR OVERUSING NAMES INSTEAD OF PRONOUNS:

How often do you specifically mention a character’s name in your writing? Is it always necessary to do so, or can you use a pronoun instead?

If you’re in a particular character’s POV, using the character’s name tends to pull the reader out of the character’s head simply because we don’t think of ourselves by name. When we talk to other people, do we always refer to them by name? No. Most of the time, we say “you.” If we’re talking about someone else, we only need to mention the person’s name once or twice because the listener then knows who we’re talking about. The only times we may need to use the names in that case is if we’re mentioning multiple people and we need to clarify, or if we need the name for emphasis.

If you’re writing a scene about one character and no others, then why do you need to keep reminding the reader of the character’s name? Here’s part of a scene with only two characters in it, a male and a female. Which version feels more natural? Do we really need all those name references in the second version? Believe me, I’ve seen writers do this even worse than I’ve done here.

*****

[VERSION 1]

Eli came up beside Ling Lu on the Detroit Riverwalk, looking out across the black, nighttime water. With the moon and a few distant streetlights the only illumination, his vampire nightsight easily discerned the details of her Asian beauty and the warmth of her brown eyes. Her modern suit had classic Oriental red and black colors. She didn’t wear this one often. In it, her slender body appeared delicate. Ling was anything but.

He gave her a light kiss on the right cheek. “Thank you for meeting me here.”

“Your phone call worried me.” She turned her head at him. “You look like hell.”

He shut his eyes. All last night, he’d walked, finally returning home to sit in his library, reading, meditating, finding ways to distract himself so he could relax and get some sleep.

“I’m tired of it,” he said. His soft voice barely rose above the faint rippling of the water. “I’m tired of all the pain here.” He rubbed his hands down the sides of his face and braced his palms against the metal railing.

“But it can’t touch us,” she said.

He didn’t believe that. “In 1920 when I arrived, Detroit was so different. Today, kids can’t play safely on the streets, they respect nothing, and everyone sells drugs.”

From the corner of his eye, he saw her shake her head. “You’re living in the past, Eli. These are human problems, not ours; they’ll pass us by.”

*****

[VERSION 2]

Eli came up beside Ling Lu on the Detroit Riverwalk, looking out across the black, nighttime water. With the moon and a few distant streetlights the only illumination, Eli’s vampire nightsight easily discerned the details of Ling’s Asian beauty and the warmth of her brown eyes. Her modern suit had classic Oriental red and black colors. Ling didn’t wear this one often. In it, Ling’s slender body appeared delicate. Ling was anything but.

Eli gave her a light kiss on the right cheek. “Thank you for meeting me here.”

“Your phone call worried me.” Ling turned her head at Eli. “You look like hell.”

Eli shut his eyes. All last night, Eli had walked, finally returning home to sit in his library, reading, meditating, finding ways to distract himself so he could relax and get some sleep.

“I’m tired of it,” Eli said. His soft voice barely rose above the faint rippling of the water. “I’m tired of all the pain here.” Eli rubbed his hands down the sides of his face and braced his palms against the metal railing.

“But it can’t touch us,” Ling said.

Eli didn’t believe that. “In 1920 when I arrived, Detroit was so different. Today, kids can’t play safely on the streets, they respect nothing, and everyone sells drugs.”

From the corner of his eye, Eli saw Ling shake her head. “You’re living in the past, Eli. These are human problems, not ours; they’ll pass us by.”

*****

Can you also feel the difference in these passages? Doesn’t the second one seem much more distant, almost as if you’re less in Eli’s head and more looking at him from the outside? That’s because, as I pointed out, we don’t think of ourselves by name. Even though this is in third person, the use of the name pushes us back from the character. Sometimes that what you want, but more often you don’t. You want your reader involved with the character, closer to him or her. Written this way, it almost gives the impression that the author doesn’t trust the reader to keep the characters straight.

Remember this the next time you’re tempted to use your characters’ names. Make sure it’s necessary. And if your character is the only person in a scene and no one else is being referred to, then why use the name except once or twice to let the reader know who you’re talking about? After that, pronouns will usually suffice. Trust your reader.

Even when your character is talking about another character, still try to use pronouns as much as possible. Your writing will be stronger and more personal as a result.

I have a couple more of these common mistakes that I’ll save for next time, then I’ll delve into some less common ones.

—Rick