Don’t Do That!

Clickety-click clickety-click clickety-click…

“Honey!”

“Yes, Sweetie?”

“We’re taking off for the mountains.”

Excellent, bacheloring it for the weekend!

“Okay, have a lot of fun!”

Now, what time does Resident Evil 3D start?

Resident Evil: Afterlife

A rare weekend to myself, but one that I will take great advantage of. First, I can catch up on my writing tasks before taking in a “non-family” movie. After watching Up last night, I feel the need for something more … violent.

Last month, I taught you my process for making editing a more manageable task in your writing. If you wait till the end, you’ll give up in frustration at the monumental effort before you. By breaking it down into smaller pieces, your frustration level decreases while your writing quality increases. After all, reflection is a powerful learning tool.

This month, I would like to let you in on some of my most infamous editing faux pas in the hopes you will avoid them. The fact that I call these out in my book and blog would lead one to believe that I no longer make these mistakes. One would be wrong.

None of these are earth shattering, but they definitely can mean the difference between sounding like a beginner versus a professional. The first and foremost editing tip I will share is “Don’t do That!”. Really, I mean don’t use the word that unless absolutely necessary! This is one of those words that creep into our vocabulary regularly, but is really not necessary in our writing.

Here is an example to emphasize where it tends to show up:

It was really that he didn’t want to seem upset despite churning inside.

A better alternative would be the following:

He didn’t want to appear upset despite churning inside.

That is a wonderful word, but superfluous in most writing circumstances. There are times when it is necessary like “That was wonderful.”, but usually an alternative restructuring can remove it from a sentence. Do a global search in your document and read every instance of where you use the word. Then attempt to rewrite it out of the sentence. I think you’ll find a much better flow when you are done. I still put that into my writing, which is why I search them out and attempt to replace them.

An extemporaneous writing style creeps into my work on occasion, thus leading to the infamous “passive” writing that we are repeatedly warned about in numerous writing books and classes. Here are my most common “passive” combinations I search out while editing:

  • could hear
  • could see
  • could touch
  • would know
  • would be
  • would feel
  • was saying
  • was wondering
  • was hoping

The list is far from complete, but it is the most common set of offenses I find in my writing. Again, do a global document search for these passive verb combinations and you’ll be surprised how often they appear. Get rid of them. Sometimes they are appropriate, but very rarely.

Another very common problem is word repetition within a paragraph or set of sequential paragraphs. An example will best illustrate this. Read the following and see if you can pick it out:

He felt nervous when they started moving towards the car. What were they looking for? Him? Nervously, he crept around the back of the shed to get a better view of these intruders. They might be police, but until he was certain he would remain nervous.

Under the light post behind his car, one of the persons appeared to be in a uniform. Still, without confirmation they were not after him, he would be nervous. Best to wait them out before taking off. Suddenly, a flashlight swung in his direction, and he scrambled back behind the shed, nervously hoping they hadn’t spotted him.

See the problem? Feeling a little nervous after reading this? I suppose this is a bit contrived, but you would be amazed how often this type of repetition can enter your writing when you are ‘in-the-flow’. Look for this while editing.

Another problem I seem to create after blasting out twenty pages in a single sitting is the usage of very simple vocabulary. Let’s look at this through another example:

He went to the table to get the gun before they returned. It wasn’t like he would actually use it, but just in case. No one knew who he really was, but if they found out they might try to take advantage of it. If they did, he would have something to say about that.

At first blush, this seems a reasonable passage. It is clean, concise and hard to misinterpret. In fact, it is too clean and concise. This style is wonderful if you are writing technical documents, but you are trying to tell a story, so broaden the vocabulary to add interest. Here is a rewrite of this passage:

He retrieved the pistol from the table, certain he wouldn’t require it, but pleased it was available. He wisely assumed if anyone discovered his true identity they would take advantage, profiting from the information. With the additional firepower, he’d have something to say about that.

Although this was a quick edit, notice how the change in vocabulary changed the passage from utilitarian to something more dramatic. It adds interest simply through the use of a broader vocabulary. Don’t get me wrong, we aren’t going for more flowery prose here, we simply want to increase from the basic words to something more appealing. If you are not sure, have someone read both versions and tell you which is more interesting.

Okay, my final faux pas that even creeps into traditional, commercial writing is using the wrong word. See if you can pick them out of this passage:

When all was sad and done, there was little he could do. The parents had changed out the locks preventing him from assessing the box. Without the proper combination, he’d never reprieve the book. His friends would be appointed, especially Shelly.

Clearly this isn’t what the author intended to say, but since spell checkers won’t catch these correctly spelled but incorrect words, they are nearly impossible to find without careful reading. Even when you read these, you can easily miss them as our minds automatically replace the wrong word with the correct one. However, when it isn’t your work you are reading, these really stick out, making for an unpleasant reading experience.

With Microsoft Word, it often ‘helps’ me when I really don’t want the help. When I mistype something, a common error, it fixes it for me. Unfortunately, it usually replaces the misspelled word with a correctly spelled but wrong word. Yes, I have found this in even the best writer’s work.

As our software becomes more sophisticated, it becomes even harder to avoid this error. As if our writing didn’t suffer enough from our own mistakes, we now have to contend with our software adding more in a vain attempt to help us. Ain’t technology great!

There is so much more to editing that I cannot instruct you in all of it. There are thousands of books, seminars, classes, and examples of what not to do in writing. However, I assume you have already mastered most of these and only suffer from the same common blunders I still enjoy.

It is easier to say “Don’t do That!” than to actually do it. But if you are following my regular editing technique, you will easily sweep up these common pitfalls before they make it to press. Once you let a large chunk go unedited, you will be more likely to permit these faux pas into your writing. Edit regularly to avoid such rookie mistakes.

Okay, off to Fandango to check out movie times. Although I am not really into Zombie movies, you got to love Milla Jovovich in tight clothes holding a weapon. Alright, I’m a guy, I admit it!

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