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.’
Inconsistency in tense is one of the commonest writing errors I see. Writing in the present tense is quite difficult to maintain, so authors who start off in the present tense often find themselves drifting back to past tense. Switching like this is distracting and indicates a lack of attention to detail. Decide from the outset whether you’re writing in the past tense or present – and stick to it!
In this passage from my book Captain Starlight: The Strange but True Story of a Bushranger, Impostor and Murderer, I’ve deliberately messed up the tenses:
They continued on, up and on towards the Warrego. It was nine o’clock in the morning when they reached William Shearer’s Warrego Inn. Senior Constable McCabe and Constable McManus dismount and pass their reins to the trackers, instructing them to take the horses to the waterhole half a mile away. The trackers obeyed. McCabe and McManus mount the wooden steps onto the verandah and make their way into the bar. It is a typical bush public house: simple and rough; a mere ten feet by eight. They passed a door to the bedroom and settled themselves at the counter, McCabe opposite the door and McManus to its right.
Can you spot the inconsistencies in tense?
In a sentence that consists of two independent clauses, those clauses should be separated by a semicolon, not a comma. Separating them with a comma but no conjunction is a very common writing error called a ‘comma splice’.
Where you have two independent clauses, they should be (1) separated by a semicolon, OR (2) joined by a conjunction OR (3) broken into two sentences.
Here's an example: ‘It was a long trip home, I had to catch two buses and a train.’
I could rewrite this as:
‘It was a long trip home. I had to catch two buses and a train.’ (separate sentences) OR
‘It was a long trip home; I had to catch two buses and a train.’ (substitute semicolon) OR
‘It was a long trip home, because I had to catch two buses and a train.’ (add a conjunction).
Speech tags are words that tell the reader who is speaking and, sometimes, how they’re speaking. Using too many and trying to be too creative with speech tags can result in writing that’s awkward and amateurish. For example:
‘Don’t you dare go out that door,’ Frank shouted.
‘But I’m bored with staying inside,’ Mary complained.
‘I don’t care,’ Frank insisted angrily.
‘I miss all my friends,’ Stephanie lamented.
‘Friends!’ Ralph laughed. ‘You don’t have any.’ [Can you really laugh a word?]
Minimise your speech tags and keep them simple. Use them only when you need to identify the speaker and omitting them would cause ambiguity. If your dialogue is expressive enough, you shouldn’t need elaborate speech tags to convey the manner in which the words were spoken. If you stick with a good old ‘said’, the speech tag will be almost invisible.
‘Don’t you DARE go out that door!’ said Frank.
Stephanie folded her arms.* ‘But I’m bored with staying inside.’
‘I don’t care.’
‘I miss all my friends.’
‘Friends!’ Ralph said. ‘You don’t have any.’
* Having the speaker perform an action helps to identify who’s speaking without a speech tag; it can also show the reader how they’re speaking.
Writing natural dialogue is hard to do. Natural speech is full of stops and starts, contractions, ummms, clumsy grammar and choppy sentences. If you write all your dialogue exactly as people speak, it will be a chore to read, but if you write it the way you’d write an English assignment, no one will believe in your characters. Strike a compromise. And remember: different characters from different cultures or with different levels of education will speak differently – but don’t try to convey their differences by simply throwing a slang word in from time to time. The whole speech needs to make sense and ring true for that character. When you’ve finished writing your dialogue, read it aloud and ask yourself: Would this character really say this?
Consider this example, which I’ve exaggerated for effect:
‘I am sorry, Rory, but I can no longer employ you in my carpentry business. Now you are no longer an apprentice, I cannot afford your wages. Although my sons have left home, I still have two younger children to support. But do not worry; I have arranged for you to begin working for Mr Taylor instead. It is a good job and Mr Taylor is a considerate employer. You will not regret going to work for him.’
Yikes. What’s gone wrong here? There are two main problems:
1. For a start, the author has tried to give us background information through dialogue. They clearly want us to know that Rory has just finished his carpentry apprenticeship, and that his employer has older sons and two young children – and they’ve decided that using dialogue would be a great way to tell us this. It’s not. People just don’t talk like that; it comes across as contrived.
2. The other problem is that the language is too formal. People don’t say ‘I am’ and ‘it is’; they say ‘I’m’ and ‘it’s’. Neither do most people speak in grammatically perfect, fluent sentences or long monologues.
Here’s the above sentence revised: ‘Sorry, Rory, I just can’t afford to keep you on – not now you’re on full wages. You know Mr Taylor? He offered to take you on. Don’t worry, he’s a good bloke. You’ll be fine.’
My first tip is simply this: economise with your words. Since wordiness is my own number-one fault as an author, this is my number-one tip. Reread your writing and ask yourself: which words can I do without? Which phrases can be condensed? Could I replace an adjective/noun combination with a more descriptive noun? Or an adverb/verb combination with a more powerful verb? Trim the fat from your writing to make it concise, punchy and compelling.
This was my first draft of the above paragraph:
Be economical with your words. This is my number one tip because wordiness is a fault that I’m prone to, and so I must always be on my guard against using unnecessary words. Don’t overdo the adjectives. Instead of using an adjective/noun combination, try using a more descriptive noun, and instead of using an adverb with a verb, use a more powerful verb. Reread everything you’ve written and ask yourself: which words can I do without? Which phrases can be condensed? If you can trim the fat from your writing, your prose will be tighter, more punchy and more compelling.
I could probably trim this further. Have a go at improving it yourself!
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.