Thursday, December 12, 2013
The craft of rewriting-Technical Flaws-General Editing-Other Errors-Style
By OFW chief editor:
Carlos J Cortes And Renée Miller
Published: April 13, 2013
Style errors are overlooked because, hey, it’s style. That’s personal and unique isn’t it?
Style is how writers use words and sentences. It’s also the tense we choose to write in and the POV. What makes a good style versus a bad style? This is subjective, but we can try to write so that our style of writing suits the story. The least obtrusive writing is the best writing. The reader must stay interested in what is being said, not how it is being said. Common style errors include:
The level of formality in our tone will depend on the characters and type of story we are telling. Informal is personal, simple, and active. Sentences are shorter than with a formal tone. We use contractions and slang occasionally, but we still pay attention to proper grammar and punctuation. A formal tone is more impersonal, and mostly reserved for academic papers and research articles. Formal writing tends to use more passive voice, and writers using this tone use a more complex vocabulary and longer sentences. For example, a scene depicting a courtroom hearing would require a formal tone while a scene depicting teenagers hanging at the mall would be informal.
Too Much Passive Voice
Eliminate passive voice in fiction unless it is necessary. We check the manuscript to ensure all sentences are active. For example:
Passive: The man was hit by the ball.
Active: The ball hit the man.
Passive: Joanie was meeting her friends at the mall.
Active: Joanie met her friends at the mall.
Passive: The gun has been hidden by the culprit.
Active: The culprit hid the gun.
Passive: Her hair was brushed.
Active: She brushed her hair.
Unclear Words or Sentences
Use simple and concise words and sentences. No matter what our tone, be it formal or informal, writers should use clear sentences and words so that the reader is neither struggling to keep up nor bored to tears. When a short, familiar word is available, we use it. When we can state something in four words rather than ten, we should. Commonly, writers use phrases like “the fact that,” “in regards to,” or “because of.” If we see these in our prose, we know we’ve written something convoluted.
Wordy: She fell because of his shoes lying in the hall.
Better: She fell over his shoes.
Wordy: Due to the fact that Joe’s mother hated dogs, he’d never had a pet.
Better: Joe’s mother wouldn’t allow pets.
Wordy: Her call was in regards to his behavior the night before.
Better: She called to discuss his behavior.
We don’t need words like “very,” “quite,” or “fairly” because they add nothing to the prose. Often they add clutter, which is annoying for the reader. This is a style error made by many writers who believe the words give the reader a better image of what they’re describing. When words like these pop up in our prose, we rewrite, using a stronger modifier. For example, instead of “very big” try “huge” or “massive.” In most cases, we can delete the empty modifiers and lose nothing.
Improper Word Usage
Readers notice when writers use confusing words, and use them wrong. In section XXX we list commonly confused words and the correct usage. If we are unsure of a word’s usage or meaning, we must either delete it or find out the proper way to use it. This includes synonyms. The thesaurus is not always a writer’s best friend. Using the thesaurus to find ten ways to say the same word, is not clever unless we understand the word we’re using. For example:
Her lustrous brown eyes sparkled.
We agree this sentence is overwritten, but let’s just play along. Lustrous has several synonyms which include “shiny,” “glossy,” “gleaming,” “radiant,” “shimmering,” “glistening,” and “effulgent.” In this case, let’s say we used lustrous already to describe her hair, so we need another word to describe her brown eyes. Some writers might look at this list and think that effulgent surely won’t be a commonly used word, so why not use that? First, the reader might not have heard it. Even if she has, the problem is that effulgent reeks of showing off. Have we ever used the word in our lives until this point? How can we know we’re using it in the right context?
We don’t use effulgent for these reasons. If we’re struggling to find a synonym for a certain word, we should reconsider using the word. Maybe there’s another way to show what we’re trying to show in that particular sentence. In this case, why not just remove lustrous? Does it change anything? No.
When we look at the POV we’ve chosen, we look at both the POV of the story (first, third, or omniscient) and the characters we’ve chosen to tell the story. Are they best suited to the story we’re writing? We want the story to grab the reader immediately, and the wrong POV can affect how easily the reader can slip into the world we’ve created. For example:
I walked to the car, my keys ready, and I heard her call. Good God, could the woman not just leave me alone? I turned, waiting for her to emerge from the shadows. She always hid in the shadows, creepy witch.
Third Person Limited/John’s POV:
John held his keys, ready to get in his car. Behind him Gertrude called. Good God, the woman never left him alone. He turned, searching the shadows. Gertrude always hid in the shadows.
Third Person Limited/Gertrude’s POV:
John emerged from his house, keys in his hand, and strode to his car. He lifted his hand to the lock, and Gertrude called to him. His shoulders slumped and he turned. She covered her mouth to suppress a giggle. He made it too easy.
Which shows the story better? Hard to tell in such brief examples, but it depends on the story. Who is the protagonist? If it is John, does including a scene told in Gertrude’s POV contribute to the plot and move the story forward or does it only serve to slow it down? We want to use the POV that is going to do something for the story.
Style is personal for each writer and manifests as a unique voice in our work. What we must ensure when rewriting is that the style we’re using isn’t clunky or telling (as in not engaging for the reader) and that it produces a smooth well paced story that is easy for the reader to follow.
Renee Miller & Carlos Cortes
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