Weeding the Word Garden

If you are a gardener of any kind, you know that weeds (and bugs) are the enemies of your careful planning, planting, and fertilizing. Our word gardens – our books, stories, articles, etc. – need care, too. Hiding beneath the lush scenery of our imaginations, there are weeds and bugs that have got to go.

Just because something is unseen, in no way means it has gone unnoticed. To the untrained, small mistakes can collect in the subconscious. A reader might put a book down and never know exactly why she couldn’t get engaged, or why she felt the text was too confusing, or why she simply just gave up. (Kristen Lamb, The Devil is in the Details)

Whether you are going the traditional route or taking on the adventure of self-publishing, you can’t afford to ignore the pests that are ruining your prose. I am enjoying the publishing revolution, but I am also finding that far too many e-books are riddled with errors. Punctuation, grammar, and spelling mistakes eat big holes in the verbal vegetation, distracting me and lowering my interest in whatever book I am reading. Worse, I won’t want to pick up the author’s next book; and if my escape in the garden is being ruined by bugs and thistles, what is the average editor going go say about the infestation?

Kristen Lamb’s post goes on to say:

[…] formal English classes (high school and college), are there to teach command of the English language, not prepare us for publication in NY. 

It is incumbent upon any writer to learn her craft. To believe college English constitutes proper schooling for commercial fiction is like saying Home Economics is proper training to become a premiere chef. Yet, many new writers believe that because they made good grades in English, they know how to write.

I submit that even authors that do know how to write can get careless, rushed, or just plain cocky.

“The tragedy is, without self indulgence, the book would have been a massive hit.” (Christine Carmichael, in response to Kristen Lamb’s aforementioned post.) 

Whether a writer is writing ‘just for friends and family,’ or if he dreams of making it to the best-seller list, the last thing he wants to do is alienate his readers with poor technique. Daniel Reisel, in his style guide, lists The 10 Mistakes. Here is the condensed version of them:

1. REPEATS 

Crutch words are usually unremarkable. That’s why they slip under editorial radar – they’re not even worth repeating, but there you have it, pop, pop, pop, up they come. Readers, however, notice them, get irked by them and are eventually distracted by them, and down goes your book, never to be opened again.

2. FLAT WRITING 

“He wanted to know but couldn’t understand what she had to say, so he waited until she was ready to tell him before asking what she meant.” 

Something is conveyed in this sentence, but who cares? The writing is so flat, it just dies on the page. You can’t fix it with a few replacement words – you have to give it depth, texture, character.

3. EMPTY ADVERBS 

Actually, totally, absolutely, completely, continually, constantly, continuously, literally, really, unfortunately, ironically, incredibly, hopefully, finally – these and others are words that promise emphasis, but too often they do the reverse. They suck the meaning out of every sentence. 

4. PHONY DIALOGUE 

Be careful of using dialogue to advance the plot. Readers can tell when characters talk about things they already know, or when the speakers appear to be having a conversation for our benefit. You never want one character to imply or say to the other, “Tell me again, Bruce: What are we doing next?”

5. NO-GOOD SUFFIXES 

Don’t take a perfectly good word and give it a new backside so it functions as something else. The New York Times does this all the time. Instead of saying, “as a director, she is meticulous,” the reviewer will write, “as a director, she is known for her meticulousness.” Until she is known for her obtuseness.

6. THE ‘TO BE’ WORDS: 

Once your eye is attuned to the frequent use of the “to be” words – “am,” “is,” “are,” “was,” “were,” “be,” “being,” “been” and others – you’ll be appalled at how quickly they flatten prose and slow your pace to a crawl.

7. LISTS 

“She was entranced by the roses, hyacinths, impatiens, mums, carnations, pansies, irises, peonies, hollyhocks, daylilies, morning glories, larkspur…” Well, she may be entranced, but our eyes are glazing over. 

8. SHOW, DON’T TELL 

If you say, “she was stunning and powerful,” you’re *telling* us. But if you say, “I was stunned by her elegant carriage as she strode past the jury – shoulders erect, elbows back, her eyes wide and watchful,” you’re *showing* us. The moment we can visualize the picture you’re trying to paint, you’re showing us, not telling us what we *should* see.. 

Handsome, attractive, momentous, embarrassing, fabulous, powerful, hilarious, stupid, fascinating are all words that “tell” us in an arbitrary way what to think. They don’t reveal, don’t open up, don’t describe in specifics what is unique to the person or event described. Often they begin with cliches.

9. AWKWARD PHRASING 

“Mrs. Fletcher’s face pinkened slightly.” Whoa. This is an author trying too hard. “I sat down and ran a finger up the bottom of his foot, and he startled so dramatically …. ” Egad, “he startled”? You mean “he started”?

10. COMMAS 

Compound sentences, most modifying clauses and many phrases *require* commas. You may find it necessary to break the rules from time to time, but you can’t delete commas just because you don’t like the pause they bring to a sentence or just because you want to add tension.

Be sure to go to his webpage to read the entire post, it will be well worth your while. One of the marvels of the digital age is the availability of knowledge at our very fingertips, and I am so grateful to all the amazing people who are so willing to share their experience and expertise with us. In the few months since I sat down to start putting some real effort into the publishing endeavor I have learned so much. I hope you, too, will take advantage of the fantastic teachers available to all of us.

Here are a few more “weeding” websites to help you out:
 What have your editing experiences been like? Do you have some tricks you can share? What are your favorite sources for help?

4 thoughts on “Weeding the Word Garden

  1. @Narratus Too much sun? 😀

    I am one of those writers that tends to edit as they go. When I don't, I discover that, yes, my story is better and faster-paced, but I *do* use infringe on the suggested rules. Having a list of things to look for (and examples) is a real help to me. I hope you find those other links helpful, too.

  2. Apparently I need to proofread my responses better. "use infringe"? Oish.

    @Kate I keep telling myself that the book would get done about ten times faster if I just wrote first, *then* edited. There has to be a happy medium! I just don't know how to achieve it. Do you?

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