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.
Or, to give it a more positive slant: make every word a strong one.
Some words need to be approached with caution! My least favourite word is ‘several’.
Honestly, if someone tells you there are several people in the room, can you picture the scene exactly? Are there four people or twenty? Or what about this one: ‘Several moments passed before she spoke’. OK, so how long is a moment? Multiply that undefined moment by the ambiguous number ‘several’ and you’ve got … how long? Be specific and be firm.
An alternative title for this tip is ‘Use passive voice judiciously’.
In active voice, the subject of the sentence is performing the action. For example, ‘The mouse ate the cheese’. In this sentence, the mouse (the subject) is doing the action (eating). In passive voice, the subject has the action performed upon it. If you were to rewrite the previous sentence in passive voice – ‘The cheese was eaten by the mouse’ – the subject is now the cheese, and the action is being performed on it (being eaten).
Sometimes passive voice is fine. Sometimes it’s necessary – for instance, when you don’t know who or what performed the action (‘The cheese was eaten’). It’s also useful when the entity performing the action is irrelevant. For instance: ‘You are not allowed to eat in the library’. Who is not allowing you to eat in the library? It doesn’t matter. What matters is that you (subject) have to put your sandwiches away.
As with any sentence construction, it’s best not to overdo the passive voice. Variety is important, but active voice is often clearer, stronger and more concise.
This is a VERY common error.
‘Walking down the street, a car cut across Betsy’s path.’
Can you see what’s wrong with this sentence? In the first phrase, ‘walking down the street’, the (implied) subject is Betsy. In the second phrase, however, we find that the car is the subject. What the author intends to say is that Betsy is walking and the car is cutting across her path – but what they’re actually saying is that the car is walking down the street and cutting across Betsy’s path. Rephrased: ‘As Betsy walked down the street, a car cut across her path.’
Obviously, in this instance we know what the author means to say, and many readers would skim it without noticing the grammatical blunder. But sometimes sentence constructions like this cause confusion, and sometimes they even make for ridiculous reading. Here’s one I came across recently: ‘Sweeping across the paddock, Fran's eyebrows rose as she saw him approach’. Unless I’m mistaken, the author is not trying to tell us that Fran's eyebrows were sweeping across the paddock; I'm pretty sure Fran's eyes were sweeping and her eyebrows were rising. But that’s not how it’s written.
A ‘modifier’ is a word or phrase that adds a description (‘Walking down the street’ in my first example). This grammatical fault is called a ‘dangling modifier’ because the subject of the modifying phrase is missing, leaving the modifier dangling. You might also see it called a ‘dangling participle’.
Ouch! This is something I’m tempted to do all the time.
You may be sorely and dangerously tempted to use flowery, long-winded, extravagant sentences full of beautifully expressive and clever words to get your profound meaning across vividly, but please vigorously resist this unhelpful, often counter-productive and somewhat irritating urge.
Or, to put it another way: there’s nothing wrong with adjectives or adverbs, just as there’s nothing wrong with small children. You just don’t want seventeen of them in your house at once.
I’m getting better at this, and you can too. It’s all in the editing! Trim back, and trim back again.
Once I was editing a novel set in World War Two. When the author referred to an ‘MP’, I thought she meant ‘Member of Parliament’ – which, in the context, didn’t make sense. I queried it and discovered that by ‘MP’ she meant ‘Military Policeman’.
Watch out for jargon and acronyms and anything else that might be second nature to you but not, perhaps, to a reader who lacks your knowledge of the subject. And while you’re at it, watch out for plot holes. You know your story so well that sometimes you won’t notice it when some vital facts haven’t made it from your head to the page.
This is a surprisingly common mistake. I’m guilty of it myself; once I wrote a scene in which my character was on a verandah, but in the next breath he was at the bottom of the stairs. I’d seen him tumble down the stairs in my head, but I hadn’t written it down. Luckily, my editor picked it up. (Note: this is one of many good reasons to hire an editor!)
Don’t leave your readers scratching their heads!
Authors are so fond of saying this that it’s become a cliché, but it’s valid advice just the same. Consider the two passages below, adapted from my current work in progress. The first one ‘tells’ and the second ‘shows’. Sometimes ‘telling’ is more appropriate – and remember, variety is important too. But often you’ll find that ‘showing’ will make your writing more powerful.
Here's the first version:
Meggy knew Mrs Scott didn’t like her, though her sister Jean said Mrs Scott was just annoyed because Meggy had turned down the job offer. Meggy didn’t care.
They heard voices, and Henrietta’s stooped figure appeared in the doorway. Mrs Scott hovered behind her.
‘Meggy,’ Henrietta said, clearly delighted to see her daughter.
‘Ma.’ Meggy said warmly, rising to greet her mother. ‘Good day to you, Mrs Scott,’ she added.
Mrs Scott said, ‘The Lovies are feeding you well.’
‘They look after me,’ Meggy said, embarrassed.
And here's the revised version:
‘Mrs Scott’s a mean old thing. She doesn’t like me.’
‘She thinks you’re a fool for turning down Scott’s offer—that’s all.’
‘Phht.’ Meggy raised her chin. ‘What would she know.’
Jean sipped silently.
They heard voices, and Henrietta’s stooped figure appeared in the doorway. Behind her, the shadow of Mrs Scott hovered. Henrietta's eyes creased into smiles when they lit upon her younger daughter. ‘Meggy!’
‘Ma.’ Meggy rose and kissed her mother. ‘Good day to you, Mrs Scott,’ she said over her shoulder as she grasped Henrietta's arm and steered her towards the fire.
Mrs Scott nodded, looking Meggy up and down. ‘The Lovies are feeding you well.’
Meggy coloured. ‘They look after me.’
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.