‘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.
It’s easy – and therefore tempting – to describe your characters for the reader up front and just get it all over and done with. Resist the urge! This is a very common mistake, and to avoid it takes careful thinking and planning.
Too often, I read that so-and-so ‘always’ does this or that. It’s just not convincing. For instance, you might want to tell us that Leo is always polite and respectful, and that he always dresses formally (even at home). You could describe him that way, but we probably wouldn’t be convinced, or even interested. Instead, make Leo say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ a lot and address people by their formal titles. Have him standing up whenever someone enters the room, opening doors for people, letting others go first into a lift. Have him straightening his tie, or brushing the cat hair off his suit jacket after he gets up from the lounge chair. Have his wife complaining that his suits need dry-cleaning too frequently because he doesn’t take them off when he gets home from work.
Does this advice sound familiar? It should; it’s a variation of tip #6: ‘Show, don’t tell’.
Here’s another example. Maybe you want us to know that Ruth has a short fuse. Don’t tell us up front that she’s hot-tempered; let her reveal those traits through her actions. Have her thump the bench when the kids are too loud, or swear at the traffic lights, or throw her purse across the room when she can’t find her credit card in it.
You get the idea, I hope. Letting your characters reveal themselves in this way brings them to life. When we meet a new person in real life, we don’t learn everything about them all at once; we get to know them gradually over time. Revealing your characters’ traits through their actions and dialogue allows the reader to get to know them bit by bit. It’s more interesting and more convincing.
And yes – it’s much, much harder. To do this successfully, first you have to observe real people and note how they reveal particular traits. What are some ways in which people show they’re angry? Or that they’re dreamers? Or that they’re anxious, or introverted, or kind? Then you have to think deeply about the characters you’re creating. Which of these traits do your characters have – and how might they display them? And then, rather than telling us your character is ‘always’ this or that, let them show us that characteristic in different ways throughout your manuscript. Your book will be much more profound and interesting for it.
When you make a noun out of another word (usually a verb or an adjective) you are nominalising it. For example, by changing the sentence, ‘He educated his son’ to ‘he gave his son an education’, I am nominalising the word ‘educated’. Academic authors frequently use nominalisation (or should I say: ‘academic authors frequently nominalise’?). Nominalising is OK, but don’t overdo it. You want your writing to be stylish, not just correct – right? By minimising nominalisations, your writing will be more powerful and you’ll have a better chance of adhering to writing tip #1: Be concise.
Here are some more examples of nominalised verbs, with a better alternative:
They undertook an investigation (They investigated)
We must come to a decision about … (We must decide on … )
She gave the appearance of being sad (She appeared to be sad. OR: she looked sad.)
Adjectives can be nominalised too. Again, it can be OK to nominalise an adjective, but always ask yourself which version is stronger. For example:
The street had considerable length … OR … The street was long
In this instance, I prefer the latter.
Establishing the point of view is a vital part of writing a story. In general, books are written in the first-person or the third-person point of view. In first-person point of view, the narrator is one of the characters. You’ll see sentences saying ‘I did this’ or ‘I did that’. In the third-person point of view, you’ll read ‘he’, ‘she’ and ‘they’. If you’re writing in the first person, the narrator can’t know what other characters are thinking because the action is seen through that character’s eyes. The reader only ‘sees’ the narrator’s point of view. If you’re writing in the first person and you describe the thoughts in another character’s head, readers won’t be convinced.
But beware – even if you write in third person, it’s important to be consistent in your point of view. There are two ways you can approach third person point of view. One is where the narrator is omniscient. In other words, the narrator can know what’s going on in any character’s head and can be ‘present’ in any scene. This point of view is usual for non-fiction but not as popular in modern fiction as it might have been a long time ago. It’s hard to do it well, for the writer has to work harder to get readers to connect with any of the characters.
A popular alternative is to write in the third person, but from only one or just a few characters’ perspectives. It’s easier for readers to feel a connection with characters this way than with an omniscient narrator. It’s also easier to let a character’s personality come through strongly, because you’ll be using the same ‘voice’ throughout the story. As with first person, the reader should only be able to ‘get inside’ the head of the character whose point of view we’re seeing the action from.
Some writers switch between characters’ points of view from one chapter or section to the next, and that’s fine; it can be a useful technique. But switching from one character’s thoughts to another’s within the same passage or chapter can be confusing and can prevent the reader from developing a deeper connection with any one character. This is a very common mistake called ‘mind-hopping’. Consider the following passage, in which we jump from Mary’s head to Kelvin’s and back.
Mary scurried along the darkening street.
I never imagined I’d end up living in this neighbourhood, she thought. What a dump.
A figure stepped out of the shadows. Mary yelped, her heart thundering.
‘It’s OK, Mary, it’s just me, Kelvin. From the office?’
The figure moved slightly and in the street light she saw his features: receding hairline, long nose, moustache. It took her a few seconds to recognise him out of his uniform.
Mary sighed. ‘You gave me a fright.’
‘Sorry,’ said Kelvin, feeling guilty. She’s very jumpy, poor thing, he thought. I guess she’s not used to living in the city. He made a mental note to be kinder to Mary at work.
‘It’s OK,’ Mary said, embarrassed. She wanted to ask him to walk her home, but she didn’t want to appear pathetic.
Rather than mind-hopping from one character to another in an exchange like this, it’s better to choose the point of view of one character and stick to it.
We all have quirks. Maybe you prefer a particular sentence construction or overuse a favourite word. I once came across a novel in which the author was too fond of the word order ‘He did x before doing y’. For instance: ‘She placed the meal on the table before taking a seat. She licked her lips before dabbing them with her napkin. She turned to her brother, glaring at him and shaking her head before telling him to remove his elbows from the table.’ I’m exaggerating, of course, but I hope you get my meaning. There’s nothing wrong with that sentence construction; the problem arises when the same construction is used again and again. Know your quirks and be on your guard against them! Variety is key.
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.