Monday, August 20, 2007

Writing for Style: Writerisms and Other Sins 1

Copyright © 1995 by C.J. Cherryh

Writerisms: overused and misused language. In more direct words: find 'em, root 'em out, and look at your prose without the underbrush.

1) am, is, are, was, were, being, be, been … combined with "by" or with "by … someone" implied but not stated. Such structures are passives. In general, limit passive verb use to one or two per book. The word "by" followed by a person is an easy flag for passives.

2) am, is, are, was, were, being, be, been … combined with an adjective. "He was sad as he walked about the apartment." "He moped about the apartment." A single colorful verb is stronger than any was + adjective; but don't slide to the polar opposite and overuse colorful verbs. There are writers that vastly overuse the "be" verb; if you are one, fix it. If you aren't one---don't, because overfixing it will commit the next error.

3) florid verbs. "The car grumbled its way to the curb" is on the verge of being so colorful it's distracting. {Florid fr. Lat. floreo, to flower.}

If a manuscript looks as if it's sprouted leaves and branches, if every verb is "unusual," if the vocabulary is more interesting than the story … There are vocabulary-addicts who will praise your prose for this but not many who can simultaneously admire your verbs as verbs and follow your story, especially if it has content. Fix it by going to more ordinary verbs.

The car is not a main actor and not one you necessarily need to make into a character. If its action is ordinary and transparent, don't use an odd expression. This is prose. This statement also goes for unusual descriptions and odd adjectives, nouns, and adverbs.

5) odd connectives. Some writers overuse "as" and "then" in an attempt to avoid "and" or "but," which themselves can become a tic. But "as" is only for truly simultaneous action. The common deck of conjunctions available is:
  • when (temporal)
  • if (conditional)
  • since (ambiguous between temporal and causal)
  • although (concessive)
  • because (causal)
  • and (connective)
  • but (contrasting)
  • as (contemporaneous action or sub for "because") while (roughly equal to "as")
These are the ones I can think of. If you use some too much and others practically never, be more even-handed.

, BTW, is originally more of an adverb than a proper conjunction, although it seems to be drifting toward use as a conjunction.

is really a peculiar conjunction, demanding in most finicky usage to be placed *after* the subject of the clause. Don't forget the correlatives:

  • either … or
  • neither … nor, and
  • not only … but also
  • so that
  • in order that, and
  • the far shorter and occasionally merciful infinitive: to … {verb}something.

No comments: