The Stroppy Writer’s Rulebook by Bea Davenport
This post is all about my pet writing hates. So I should probably start with a disclaimer. If you as a writer find something in here that you do, or I have criticised a word/phrase you love to use – these are just my opinions. Although I should add that most of them are backed up with good writing sense and in some cases, the opinions of other, far more knowledgeable and experienced writers.
I tutor for a number of organisations and so I see a lot of new writing. All of these are words/phrases/habits I encounter in many, many pieces of work, so that may be one reason why I feel the need to get this off my teacher-ly chest. They’re in no particular order of hatred.
1. Aroma. Agh! The word ‘aroma’ makes me want to pull my own eyes out. I don’t care if it’s the aroma of fresh coffee or the aroma of sweaty socks. The word is a horrible affectation. OK – this is a very personal pet hate. But I think it is indicative of a new writer who is afraid of calling a spade a spade, or a smell a smell. Which brings me on to…
- Assaulted. As in ‘the aroma assaulted my nostrils’ or ‘the sunshine assaulted my eyes’. You’d be surprised how often this happens. It makes me want to assault the writer, though. Talk about over-sensitive.
- Seemed to/appeared to. Again: some pieces of writing are peppered with ‘seemed to’s and ‘appeared to’s. ‘She seemed to be heading in my direction.’ ‘He appeared to be looking over my shoulder.’ This is your story, for goodness sake. You should know whether she’s heading in your direction or looking over your shoulder. No need for this timidity.
- Which brings me to ‘I headed to…’ This has to be one of the dullest, most boring verbs ever. But some characters never stroll, run, creep or even walk. They always ‘head to’ somewhere. Bah!
- Wandering eyes. This may be a personal one, I admit. But I often get strange mental images when I read things like, ‘His eyes dropped to the floor’ or ‘my eyes landed on his desk’. Anyone else?
- As/whilst. There is multi-tasking – and there is ‘turning the key whilst dropping my shopping as I closed the door’. Some of the things writers have their characters doing ‘whilst’ or ‘as’ they are doing something else are physically impossible. Others are just grammatically incorrect but for the reader, equally painful.
- Adverbs. Yes, I am withStephen King in the anti-adverb camp, when it comes to prose fiction (Not everyday speech or chatty blog posts, before you get smart). One or two per thousand words – no more. Always ask yourself if that adverb is necessary or whether you could come up with a stronger verb instead. (You can). New writers’ prose is full of characters who ‘whisper softly’ or ‘fidget uncomfortably’ or ‘run quickly’. Readers will assume, unless told otherwise, that your character is not whispering loudly or running slowly. I recently read a Facebook post where aspiring authors were scoffing at King’s advice. Comments included, ‘I use them all the time!’ and ‘Rules are meant to be broken’. Were they published writers? What do you think?
- ‘I thought to myself’. Are you able to communicate telepathically? Then you do not need the words ‘to myself’. Who else would you be thinking to?
- And now I am going to get seriously grammarly: comma splicing. What is comma splicing? It’s when you have two independent clauses that should be two sentences but instead are broken up with a comma. Like this: ‘I have started to sound like my mother, I don’t know what they teach them in schools these days, no one knows how to use a full stop any more, it makes me want to cry.’ Most new writers – yes, most! – have no idea this is wrong. And why do so many new writers want to avoid short sentences anyway but let them run on and on and on and…?
- Staying with the seriously grammarly: dangling participles. As in, ‘Running round the corner the shopping fell out of my bag.’ No! The shopping was not running around the corner.
- ‘I was sat’. No, you were not. You were sitting. When did ‘I was sat’ become acceptable? Answer: it didn’t. Not in good writing.
- The final way to raise my blood pressure is to use the phrase, ‘And yet, and yet…’ I don’t know who used this first but it probably sounded very thoughtful. Now it’s just hackneyed.
I can probably go on all day, but I need to go and breathe into a paper bag.
I’d love it if you added your pet writing hates! What have I missed out of this list?
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Bea Davenport is the writing name of former journalist Barbara Henderson. Bea worked in newspapers and broadcasting for a long time, including seventeen years at BBC North in Newcastle, where she worked on TV, radio and online.
She left journalism to study for a Creative Writing PhD at Newcastle University. The children’s novel written as part of that, The Serpent House, was published by Curious Fox in June 2014. It is a historical time-fantasy inspired by the medieval leper hospital once sited in the village where Bea now lives. Before being commissioned by Curious Fox, it was shortlisted for the 2010 Times/Chicken House Award.
The Serpent House was Bea’s first novel for children, although she has two adult crime/suspense novels published by Legend Press.
In 2014, Bea worked with Fiction Express on an interactive e-book where school pupils read a chapter each week and chose what should happen next. Bea then wrote the next chapter in time for the following Friday! The paperback version of the book, My Cousin Faustina, will be published by ReadZone in March 2015.
She lives in Berwick-upon Tweed on the Northumberland-Scottish border with her partner, children and a naughty cat.