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Article by CJ Cherryh
Oct 19th, 2010 at 6:28pm
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Writerisms and other Sins: A Writers Shortcut to Stronger Writing

Copyright 1995 by C.J. Cherryh

Copy and pass Writerisms and other Sins around to your hearts content, but always post my Copyright notice at the top, correctly, thank you, as both a courtesy and a legal necessity to protect any writer.

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 dont 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 arent onedont, 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 its distracting. {Florid fr. Lat. floreo, to flower.}If a manuscript looks as if its sprouted leaves and branches, if every verb is unusual, if the vocabulary is more interesting than the story fix it by going to more ordinary verbs. 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. The car is not a main actor and not one you necessarily need to make into a character. If its action should be more ordinary and transparent, dont use an odd expression. This is prose.This statement also goes for unusual descriptions and odd adjectives, nouns, and adverbs.
4. 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. Then, BTW, is originally more of an adverb than a proper conjunction, although it seems to be drifting toward use as a conjunction. However is really a peculiar conjunction, demanding in most finicky usage to be placed *after* the subject of the clause.

Dont forget the correlatives, either or, neither nor, and not only but also.

And so that, in order that, and the far shorter and occasionally merciful infinitive: to {verb}something.
5. Descriptive writerisms. Things that have become conventions of prose that personally stop me cold in text.
* framed by followed by hair, tresses, curls, or most anything cute.
* swelling bosom
* heart-shaped face
* set off by: see framed by
* revealed or revealed by: see framed by. Too precious for words when followed by a fashion statement.
* Mirrors avoid mirrors, as a basic rule of your life. You get to use them once during your writing career. Save them for more experience. But it doesnt count if they dont reflect by which I mean see the list above. If you havent read enough unpublished fiction to have met the infamous mirror scenes in which Our Hero admires his steely blue eyes and manly chin, you can scarcely imagine how bad they can get.
* limpid pools and farm ponds: I dont care what it is, if it reflects your hero and occasions a description of his manly dimple, its a mirror.As a general rule your viewpoint characters should have less, rather than more, description than anyone else: a reader of different skin or hair color ought to be able to sink into this persona without being continually jolted by contrary information.Stick to what your observer can observe. Ones own blushes can be felt, but not seen, unless one is facing .a mirror. See above.
* as he turned, then stepped aside from the descending blow First of all, it takes longer to read than to happen: pacing fault. Second, the then places action #2 sequentially after #1, which makes the whole evasion sequence a 1-2 which wont work. This guy is dead or the opponent was telegraphing his moves in a panel-by-panel comic book style which wont do for regular prose. Clunky. Slow. Fatally slow.
* Again or worse once again. Established writers dont tend to overuse this one: it seems like a neo fault, possibly a mental writerly stammerlacking a next thing to do, our hero does it again or once again or even yet. Toss still and yet onto the pile and use them sparingly.
6. Dead verbs. Colorless verbs.
* walked
* turned
* crossed
* run, ran
* go, went, gone
* leave, left
* have, had
* get, got

You can add your own often used colorless verbs: these are verbs that convey an action but dont add any other information. A verb youve had to modify (change) with an adverb is likely inadequate to the job you assigned it to do.
7. Colorless verb with inadequate adverb: He walked slowly across the room.More informative verb with no adverb: He trudged across the room, He paced across the room, He stalked across the room, each one a different meaning, different situation. But please see problem 3, above, and dont go overboard.
8. Themely English With apologies to hard-working English teachers, school English is not fiction English.Understand that the meticulous English style you labored over in school, including the use of complete sentences and the structure of classic theme-sentence paragraphs, was directed toward the production of non-fiction reports, resumes, and other non-fiction applications.The first thing you have to do to write fiction? Suspect all the English style you learned in school and violate rules at need. Many of those rules will turn out to apply; many wont.{Be ready to defend your choices. If you are lucky, you will be copyedited. Occasionally the copyeditor will be technically right but fictionally wrong and you will have to tell your editor why you want that particular expression left alone.}
9. Scaffolding and spaghetti. Words the sole function of which is to hold up other words. For application only if you are floundering in too many which clauses. Do not carry this or any other advice to extremes.What it was upon close examination was a mass the center of which was suffused with a glow which appeared rubescent to the observers who were amazed and confounded by this untoward manifestation. Flowery and overstructured. What they found was a mass, the center of which glowed faintly red. Theyd never seen anything like it. The second isnt great lit, but it gets the job done: the first drowns in which and who clauses.In other wordsbe suspicious any time you have to support one needed word (rubescent) with a creaking framework of which and what and who. Dump the which-what-who and take the single descriptive word. Plant it as an adjective in the main sentence.
10. A short cut to who and whom.
* Nominative: who
* Possessive: whose
* Objective: whom

The rule:
1. treat the who-clause as a mini-sentence.If you could substitute he for the who-whom, its a who. If you could substitute him for the who-whom its a whom.The trick is where ellipsis has occurred or where parentheticals have been inserted and the number of people in important and memorable places who get it wrong. Who do I see? Wrong: I see he? No. I see him. Whom do I see?
2. Who never changes case to match an antecedent. (word to which it refers)
* I blame them who made the unjust law. CORRECT.
* It is she whom they blame. CORRECT: The who-clause is WHOM THEY BLAME.
* They blame HER=him, =whom.
* I am the one WHO is at fault. CORRECT.
* I am the one WHOM they blame. CORRECT.
* They took him WHOM they blamed. CORRECTbut not because WHOM matches HIM: that doesnt matter: correct because they is the subject of blamed and whom is the object.
* I am he WHOM THEY BLAME. CORRECT. Whom is the object of they blame.

Back to rule one: who clauses are completely independent in case from the rest of the sentence. The case of who in its clause changes by the internal logic of the clause and by NO influence outside the clause. Repeat to yourself: there is no connection, there is no connection 3 x and you will never mistake for whom the bell tolls.

The examples above probably grate over your nerves. Thats why that is gaining in popularity in the vernacular and why a lot of copyeditors will correct you incorrectly on this point. Im beginning to believe that nine tenths of the English-speaking universe cant handle these little clauses.
11. -ing.

Shouldering his pack and setting forth, he crossed the river

No, he didnt. Not unless his pack was in the river. Implies simultaneity. The participles are just like any other verbal form. They arent a substitute legal everywhere, or a quick fix for a complex sequence of motions. Write them on the fly if you like, but once imbedded in text theyre hard to search out when you want to get rid of their repetitive cadence, because -ing is part of so many fully constructed verbs {am going, etc.}
12. -ness A substitute for thinking of the right word. Darkness, unhappiness, and such come of tacking -ness (or occasionally ion) onto words. Theres often a better answer. Use it as needed.As a general rule, use a major or stand-out vocabulary word only once a paragraph, maybe twice a page, and if truly outre, only once per book. Parallels are clear and proper exceptions to this, and dont vary your word choice to the point of silliness: see error 3.

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Re: Article by CJ Cherryh
Reply #1 - Apr 7th, 2014 at 9:47am
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In writing, I do not like "elegant variation". People can get up to many sorts of unclear contortions to avoid repeating a word. See the Wikipedia article about elegant variation.

Also, I am not fond of people thinking that one word needs another word as a personal servant. For example, "the SHADO base is at West Harlington" is enough, and the word "at" can stand on its own feet, and the word "situated" or "located" is not needed.
« Last Edit: Apr 7th, 2014 at 1:49pm by Citlalyani »  
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