Misuse of the word ‘incidence’ is becoming so common that I think it’ll be one of those words that will change its meaning over time. But we’re not there yet, so I’ll take this moment to unravel the confusion.
An incident is an episode or an event. The incidence of something is the rate or extent of its occurrence. An instance is a case or example. For instance [that was deliberate, FYI], a car accident is an incident, whereas the incidence of car accidents refers to the rate or number of car accidents in a place and/or time. And if we’re talking about speed as a cause of car accidents, we might describe a particular car accident as an instance in which speed was a factor.
I recently read in an author’s note (in a published novel) that ‘all the incidences in this book really happened’. No! She meant ‘incidents’. Clearly the editor didn’t get to check the author’s note!
It’s the details that bring a story to life: the sights, sounds, smells and feelings. In my recent book about the voyage and quarantine of a typhus-stricken 19th century emigrant ship, for instance, I wanted to create a vivid scene – to immerse the readers in those foul conditions. The dimness below decks, the stench of steerage (think of vomit and dirty nappies), the cramped prickling of the 18-inch-wide berth and its straw mattress, the strains of the hymns typically sung during a funeral at sea. The good captain’s distress and outrage at the media’s finger-pointing.
In fiction or narrative non-fiction, these details are crucial. But they don’t just have to be there; they also need to be credible! Include an implausible detail and your readers will no longer feel part of the scene. Examine every detail. Is it the right time of year for the roses to be in bloom? Would you truly find mangroves so far inland? Your character’s wearing a singlet top – but wasn’t it mid-winter in the last chapter, just days ago? A cassette tape is playing in the 1950s – but weren’t they invented in the early 60s?
Writing a timeline can help to plot the chronology and keep track of the seasons, so that you can at least get the weather conditions right. Check everything in a scene: the flora, the fauna, the geography, the history. Even in a fantasy novel, you’ll need internal consistency, so it’s important keep track of your details.
You don’t need to overdo the details, but including little observations that are pithy, fresh and unique will really make your writing shine.
Sometimes we use particular words or phrases more often than we should, and we’re not even aware of it. For instance, a reader of a draft of my novel recently pointed out that I’d written ‘…she said, unnecessarily’ three times. Unnecessarily, indeed. Once would have been enough.
Try to be conscious of your favourite words and look out for overuse – but don’t expect a 100% success rate. This is where feedback from family, friends, beta readers and, of course, editors is valuable.
I’ll admit it: this one drives me more nuts than it should. When people say ‘potentially’ (and they say it far too often, in my opinion!) they usually mean ‘possibly’ – but the two words are not strictly interchangeable. If something is potential then it’s expected to happen in the future. If you ever studied physics, think of potential energy.
‘He was potentially murdered’ is illogical because the murder happened in the past. What the speaker (or writer) means is ‘He was possibly murdered’ or ‘He might have been murdered’.
‘Potentially’ is also one of those words people tend to throw in for padding. At best, it’s often redundant. Consider this: ‘If she’s late for work one more time, she could potentially get fired’. Take out ‘potentially’ and what happens? Your meaning remains clear, you’ve saved yourself from sounding officious, and you’ve made my day.
I was taught English by a strict traditionalist. She taught me what an infinitive was and warned me that I should never, ever, ever split one.
If you don’t know what an infinitive is, don’t worry. I won’t bore you with examples, because they really don’t matter. It turns out that my high school English teacher might have been wasting her energy on this point. When I studied editing, I learned that avoiding split infinitives was just some rule that a seventeenth-century poet (I think it was John Dryden) thought up because he had a thing about Latin, and in Latin infinitives can’t be split.
Apparently avoiding splitting infinitives has nothing to do with how clever you are (sadly, because avoiding splitting infinitives used to make me feel quite clever). The truth is that sometimes a sentence sounds awkward when you split an infinitive, and sometimes it sounds awkward when you don’t. Sometimes the placement of the adverb affects your meaning. So now I split to my heart’s content if it improves the clarity and flow of my prose – and when the ghost of my English teacher comes back to haunt me, I do my best to ignore it. There’s some guilty pleasure in that …
This tip ties in with tip #1: Be concise. It’s such an important tip that it’s worth elaborating on. Most of us use redundant words without noticing. As you revise your work, look at every word and ask yourself: is it necessary? Does it benefit the sentence?
Consider phrases like ‘for a long period of time’ and ‘at this point in time’. Rephrasing them as ‘for a long time’ and ‘now’ respectively will likely make your point more elegantly. And what about ‘reversed back’, ‘advance planning’ and ‘global pandemic’?
This brings me to the current fad of throwing ‘moving forward’ or ‘going forward’ into every second sentence. This is done more often in speaking than in writing, but it’s enough of a crime against language for me to feel it merits mentioning here. Unless you’re talking about literal movement – say, in a car, where the distinction between forwards and backwards is important – those phrases are almost always redundant. I’ve not yet found a sentence that benefitted from their inclusion.
I don’t mean all your sentences should be short; on the contrary, varying your sentence length will aid the rhythm and flow of your writing. What I mean is that it’s best not to cram unrelated ideas into one sentence and try to make them fit. This is a mistake I often see from inexperienced writers.
Consider this: Kathy was now thirteen and sang Robin a song as they both sat on the front steps of the house.
In this sentence, there are two completely unrelated ideas: Kathy’s age and the singing of the song. It’s clumsy.
Do readers need to know Kathy is thirteen? If not, delete it. Try this: ‘Kathy sang Robin a song as they both sat on the front steps of the house.’ (Or, better: ‘Kathy sang to Robin as they sat on the front steps.’)
If it is important for readers to know Kathy’s age right at this point, try rephrasing: ‘Thirteen-year-old Kathy sang to Robin as they sat on the front steps.’) Better still, if readers need to know Kathy is thirteen, find another place to tell them so – but not in this sentence.
Contrary to popular belief, disinterested does not mean bored or uninterested. It means impartial, or not having an interest – where the word ‘interest’ refers to a benefit or advantage. Think of ‘disinterested’ as not having a vested interest, or not having something to gain.
Here’s a thought that may help: You would expect a judge to be disinterested but not uninterested in your case.
But language evolves, you might protest – and yes; you’d be right. Pretty soon no one will remember that ‘disinterested’ once meant impartial. But now you know, and you can decide how you want to use it. I rather like the original meaning.
In English we don’t have a well-known dedicated non-gendered pronoun in the singular form. (Well, we do have ‘it’, but you can hardly use that when writing about humans.) Fortunately, however, we can use the word ‘they’ to fulfil this function.
In the past, the default was to use ‘he’ or ‘his’ when the gender of the noun was unknown or irrelevant. For instance: ‘The author relies upon his editor.’ Defaulting to the male pronoun, understandably, has become unacceptable. The alternative, which is still sometimes used, was to replace ‘he’ or ‘his’ with the unwieldy ‘his/her’ or ‘his or her’ or even ‘s/he’. For example: ‘The author relies upon his or her editor.’
This becomes tiresome if it appears often in a passage. It also fails to account for non-binary members of the community.
For these reasons, the plural pronoun, ‘they’ (or the possessive form, ‘their’), is perfectly acceptable: ‘The author relies upon their editor’.
Granted, for those of us who have grown up carefully ensuring that the pronoun matches its antecedent, the singular use of ‘they’ can be jarring. But we’ll just have to get used to it. In fact, using ‘they’ in this way is not a new thing; it’s been happening for hundreds of years. What’s new is the use of ‘they’ as a singular pronoun for a person with non-binary gender. For example: ‘Sandy relies upon their editor’.
There is often a better alternative, and that is to recast the sentence so as to avoid this mismatch. In the example I’ve given, ‘Authors rely upon their editors’ solves the problem nicely. But sometimes this isn’t possible – and in those cases, using the singular pronoun ‘they’ is perfectly appropriate.
Read more about it here: https://www.academicwritingsuccess.com/the-astonishing-history-of-singular-they/ to edit.
‘Comprised’ and ‘composed’ have related meanings but they’re NOT interchangeable. Here’s an INCORRECT sentence construction I see often:
‘The deck was comprised of fifty-two cards.’
The writer here has confused the word ‘comprised’ with ‘composed’.
The following two sentences are both CORRECT:
‘The deck was composed of fifty-two cards.’
‘The deck comprised fifty-two cards.’
Here’s a tip to help you get it right: replace the word ‘comprised’ with ‘included’. Does it make sense? If so, you’re on the right track.
About this blog
Through my experience as an editor, a reader and a book reviewer, I’ve noticed that some writing faults keep just popping up again and again. As an author, I’m especially aware of those writing crimes that I’m frequently tempted to commit myself. This series of brief tips addresses the common writing problems that I’ve encountered. Following them will help make your writing clear, accurate and stylish.