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Bad Writing Advice

December 5, 2012

So, on a list I’m part of, an author posted up a link to this list of words to avoid when you write: Now, first and foremost, I hate these kinds of lists. HATE. Usually, they do more damage than good. But, as I was trying to be part of the group after a gentle poke from a mod, I went and looked at the link.

I then spent half an hour ranting, mainly because the ‘advice’ was badly given. I feel my response to it might help other authors, so I’m sharing it here.

Below is that rant. 🙂

I’ve read through this and have to say I don’t find things like this helpful. In fact, I find them detrimental to authors because it cripples them. The problem with lists like this is they are not writing tips, they’re editing tips, and authors shouldn’t be editing as they write. Writing will never be done if you’re too busy worrying over every single word choice. Yes, word choice is important, but write the story first, and then question word choice during the editing phase. I tell my authors all the time to just write their story and let me worry about their word choice. Authors can seriously overthink something (I know I have), and a good editor will help them smooth out bad word choice.

This particular list isn’t about not using words, but using them correctly. I agree with some of what’s said here, but I would never tell an author to avoid those words (just like I wince when authors are told to avoid all adverbs, adjectives, epithets, this list of words, that list of words, dialogue tags…). Eventually, if an author followed all those lists and pieces of advice, they’d be left with simple ‘See Spot run. Run, spot, run!’. 🙂

I’m also suspect of this list because of #5. The author of the piece says to avoid the word ‘is’ and all its forms. What they are actually describing is all the forms of the verb ‘to be’. From the way they word it, they don’t know what they’re actually telling you to avoid. The example they give–“Hey guys, I can’t–I’m busying am-ing.”–what do they think that apostrophe ‘m’ means? ‘I am busy’, which is a legitimate sentence with no other way to say it to avoid all forms of ‘to be’. 🙂 I will admit, the ‘to be’ + ‘-ing verb’ or ‘to be’ + ‘-ed verb’ (which are called participle forms) can frequently be replaced with an ‘-ed’ verb (simple past form), but not always. Consider these two sentences:

I was sprinting toward the door when the shot rang out.

I sprinted for the door when the shot rang out.

The sequence of events for those two sentences are completely different, and they cannot be used interchangeably. That’s the bitch of the English language. 😉 In the first, the character is already running before the shot is fired. In the second, the shot fires, and then the character starts moving. This is why lists say ‘Don’t do X’ are unhelpful because there are always exceptions, situations where X is not only useful, but necessary.

The biggest problem I have with the poster’s ‘fixes’ to these problems is they continually try to replace one word with 10, 15, 20 words of exposition. One perfectly good word swapped out for dozens of purple prose I would hack at with red pen the minute the author sent it my way.

I do agree that 98% of the time, ‘that’ can be removed from writing. I advise authors to do a search for words like ‘that’ and ‘just’ and ‘very’ and ‘really’ in their manuscripts and read the sentences aloud with that word omitted. If the sentence reads the same, delete the word. Sometimes, though, ‘that’ is very necessary. “Do you remember what happened that day on the beach?” though needs the ‘that’ to make sense. 🙂

The poster also doesn’t seem to know what a metaphor or a simile is, despite trying to make a point about them.

I apologize for the lengthy response to this, but as an editor, it really ruffles my feathers when I see this sort of well-meaning advice that usually doesn’t come from an editor but another writer or a meta-writer. Writers just need to write. I would rather be sent a manuscript with an awesome story told that is bloated with ho-hum word choice that I can fix through the editing process than a technically perfect manuscript that avoids all ‘pitfalls’ but is dry and lifeless because the author overthought it. I can’t speak for all editors, but the editors I work with tend to think the same way I do. Don’t send a grammatically bad manuscript, of course, first drafts and the like, but what are being said in this article aren’t rules like grammar. This is a writer who writes about writing telling other writers how he thinks they should write.

My advice? Write how you write. Write with passion and with purpose. And, if you have a few extra words thrown in there, your editor will catch them. 😀

2 Comments leave one →
  1. December 5, 2012 6:54 pm

    Word. Glad people in the comments let the guy have it, too. I’m not a master editor. It’s not my forte. That’s why I’m not the one from Storm Moon Press doing blogs about editing and grammar and punctuation. XD

  2. December 6, 2012 10:17 am

    Hear, hear. Half the time those lists just suggest padding your text with a paragraph or more of beating around the bush that still doesn’t get across the same effect a single word could have. Maybe it’s my old college professors talking, but I’ve always appreciated conciseness over wordy purple prose mistaken for show-don’t-tell.

    And I agree about not worrying about words too much while writing. I know from experience that if you get obsessed about word choices or sentence structures while writing, your story isn’t going anywhere. Do it in the second draft, and if you have a section you can’t figure out, have your editor help.

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