Sunday, July 25, 2010

Clean Writing: The "Avoids"

Writing science research papers taught me the process of clean writing—manuscripts free of too many useless words. "Just the facts, ma'am." As a result, my first fiction manuscript was a failure. The editor told me my writing read like a textbook. That sort of hurt, but the statement opened a floodgate of words that's still gushing. I could use adjectives! And adverbs! And descriptions!
But also…too many useless words and phrases.
Still, I absolutely love to embellish sentences with adjectives, adverbs, and well…a long list of writing errors. If I remove the useless words in the previous sentence, I think it reads like a textbook. Where is that fine line?
AVOID USELESS WORDS: We consider good writing concise, vigorous, and active. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, as a machine should contain no extra parts. Fine idea. But an automobile is a machine. The first cars were little more than a buggy with an engine attached. They were unattractive and uncomfortable. The automobiles today contain endless useless parts, but we buy them because of those extra appealing parts.

I do agree, though, certain useless words or phrases need to go.
1. "there is no doubt but that" should be "no doubt" or "doubtless"
2. "this is a subject that" should be "this subject"
3. "the reason why is that" should be "because"
4. "owing to the fact that" should be "since" or "because"
5. "he is a man who" should be "he"

AVOID USE OF QUALIFIERS: A qualifier is a word or a word group that limits the meaning of another word or word group. The worst offenders are rather, very, little, and pretty.

"I should do pretty well on the exam, for I am a rather brilliant student, but if I make very many mistakes, I'll try to do a little better."

AVOID LOOSE SENTENCES: A loose sentence is one consisting of two clauses, the second introduced by a conjunction or relative. Too many loose sentences in one paragraph will sound mechanical and singsong. The compound sentence is the framework of writing, when used wisely and sparingly.

"The last concert of the season was given last night, and the hall was filled to capacity. Jane Doe was the soloist, and John Smith accompanied her on the piano. She proved to be quite capable, while he performed admirably. The concert series has been successful, and the committee was gratified. The committee will plan for next year's programs, and they will offer an equally attractive program." Blech!

Today's subject appeared because I've been in edits the last two weeks. A kind editor—in so many words--told me: You begin too many sentences with well, now, so, or why. In some cases, these words are acceptable, especially when included in dialogue. Southern people talk this way, but in narration, use sparingly.

This made sense to me, because when I talk with a friend—on-line or face to face—those little words pop up all the time.

"What did she say when you said her hair was orange?"
"Well, first she stared. Then her eyes sort of bugged out, and before I knew it, why, she started bawling."
"Oh, my goodness. Now, here's what you should have said, darlin'. You just do not want to make her any madder."
"So, what should I have said?"

And so, well, I need to bring this post to a halt. I need to make a little lunch, because the fact is that my husband is mowing this morning, and he'll be starving. There's no doubt, though, that he won't say an unkind word to me if lunch if just a little late.
(if you can edit this paragraph, you will receive an A+)

Celia Yeary
Romance…and a little bit o' Texas

TEXAS BLUE-eBook and Print


  1. Hi, Celia. I wouldn't dare edit you, but I think your blog is spot-on. I've been working to make my writing more sparse without losing the vigor. Tough to do, but a great exercise.

    What's for lunch?

  2. Hi Celia,
    Enjoyed this one bunches. I am so guilty of tucking in too many words in trying to be descriptive and interesting. Another fine line we definitely have to carefully trod as writers.

  3. How about:

    "Gotta run. Lawn-mowing hubby is hungry!"


    The difference between textbook writing and useless words while still adding personalized beauty to that car?

    Textbook: While driving, Joe should have used his turn signal, therefore avoiding the accident.

    Useless Words: While driving his very stylish uppity-looking car, Joe should really have used his darn turn signal. That way, the ugly green thing coming up from behind him wouldn't have hit his fender so hard.

    Personalized Beauty: Joe sighed as he studied his Jaguar's dented fender. If only he'd used his blinker, that puke-green Element might not have rammed him. He wouldn't forget that lesson again.

    I love word play like this! And I don't think you sound textbook. ;-)

  4. KEENA--It is a fine line, but I know my weaknesses--now I need to learn to correct them. When writing something Southern/Texan,many useless words sneak in because that's the way we talk. I do know the difference--I just get carried away. But isn't it fun to learn new ways to write? Celia

  5. REBECCA--that's my next post--"Descriptions-how much is too much?" Oh, I have some good examples, too. Glad you enjoyed the post. Celia

  6. KEENA--oh, sorry. Lunch was peach yogurt with Sunbelt granola on top and peanut butter and crackers. My husband is happy with anything I put on a plate and hand to him. Never complains. When you're one of 12 kids, you learn to take whatever is available. Don't even marry a spoiled man, a mama's boy, or an only child---so I've heard. Celia

  7. LORAINE--I didn't know you were so funny! Very nice! I like the description "puke-green"--that leaves no doubt the color of the car. Thanks for the word playing--and thanks for the compliment--I'm learning! Celia

  8. Celia-- You are so right about useless word. The only acceptable place I would guess is in a dialogue line to qualify a person who is used to always talk with a lot of verbiage.

  9. MONA--you're exactly right. This was a lesson I learned the hard way. Thanks for coming by--Celia

  10. My first editor brought to my attention that I began too many sentences with She or He. That really made me look at the page as a pattern. Are all the sentences / paragaphs the same length, sort of thing.

    But 'useless words' is an interesting one. Strings of adjectives annoy me as a reader - I always want to say 'Get on with the story!! - even worse a page sugared with adverbs.

    I maintain that it shouldn't be me writing the narration, but my viewpoint character, so a change in viewpoints should aim for a subtle change in thought processes, all set out through the filter of me, the author.

    Dialogue, though, should be relatively true to the type of character and his/her traits - I say 'relatively' because we are writing fiction, not verbatim. Subsidiary characters can get away with a lot more as they are not on the page all the time.

    It's a moveable feast, though, depending on genre, publishers' directives and our own style.


  11. This is so true! I'm ruthless on myself when I'm editing a piece. The over use of "with" is another good one :-) Or "look". I can't tell you how many people way overuse that word!

  12. LINDA--everything you say is spot on. All of us need another person--editors are best--to see patterns of errors we glass over because we've seen them so many times.
    Descriptions--that post is next--I've about had it up to HERE with line after line telling me about eyes, skin, hair, mouth, tongue--and we're seeing it more and more. We want to break the habit of some bad writing, but now---editors are allowing too much description. It seems to be a trend, doesn't it? Thanks for you thoughts--very good, as always.Celia

  13. SANDRA--I hate when that happens! Reading the same word over the over in a novel, so that soon, that's all I'm seeing. Thanks for your input--Celia

  14. Celia, I wouldn't dare edit that last paragraph... why? it's perfect for what is happening.

    Dialogue is different. In my next release, I use 'little' a lot because that's how my heroes speak. I also use 'cain't', at times, because of their twang.

    Overall, the editor didn't make many suggestions on correction of my dialogue. However, where she did, most of them I ignored because it was way too technical sounding.

    Okay, some readers/authors would definitely feel I use too many words and too many descriptive words... well, personally, I only like sparse writing when it fits the actual story. For example, a spy or suspense/thriller story.

    In romances, while I don't want pages of description. I want the flavor, the mood. I want to feel and experience as if I'm living the story. I can't do that with what I would label over-sparse writing.

    Even though, the editor didn't take out any of my words, I did take out a few where I did feel they were superfluous.

    Lest you think the editing didn't present any challenges... think again! Some of the grammar changes suggested were right on. While some were just 'weird' imo. As I explained, I don't want to write a grammatically perfect novel. I want to write a sizzling romance novel.

    Perfect grammar can kill the mood.

    Also, what's up with the word 'that'? Why has it become a darling for some authors and editors. Yeah, I didn't add any more 'thats' to my story. I don't care if THAT is grammatically correct or not.

  15. SAVANNA--wow, you have many very good thoughts.One book I wrote was filled with you're describing. It was difficult to write. My crit partner explained that each one of those would make the reader pause, one of the worst things in her opinion. So I did remove many of them but kept the Texas grammer as a country person in 1901 would speak. "I heard he didn't want to go over yonder.Who does he think he is? He ain't nobody." Before, I wrote "heard" as "heered". And "didn't" as "din't." That made the entire ms so much easier to write the rest of the story. And I thought it still kept the flavor of the time and educational level of my characters.

    Description is a hard thing for me. Lands, I want to write--and do--paragraphs describing the land and the girl and everything. I had to learn not to do that--(Elmore Leonard calls such "hooptedoodle" and he says he reads every word).
    I Just finished judging 7 historical romance entries--25 pages for each. One author wrote very long paragraphs to describe her characters. When she introduced a new one, she'd stop and tell you every single thing about her. It took away from her plot.

    I'm reading an old Jill Marie Landis Western Historical, and her character has returned home in shame right after the civil war--she's in rags and that's about all we know for a while. But then she finds her old clothes and tries on a yellow silk, but when she looks in the mirror, she cries. She hates how thin she's become, and mentally compares how she looked only three years ago. That was done so well, I was impressed.

    "That" is like the last comma after the second in a series--add or remove? Each publisher will have different guidelines. Very confusing. My first book---my editor removed every single that, and in a few cases the meaning of the sentence changed. It took several e-mails back and forth to get her to see what I meant.

    Thanks so much for your comments--you might want to check out my next one--"Writing Clean: How much description is too much?"
    As usual, I love to read your answers. Celia

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  17. Celia, so much of writing is a balancing act, isn't it?

    I think your editor was wise to keep the flavor of your 1901 characters.
    Too much exact dialogue in that case would be overkill for most readers, and take them out of the story.

    Giving that much description for each new character as they arrive on scene is a rookie mistake we aspiring authors often make. For one thing, it's not organic to the life experience. Most of us don't automatically know everything about a person. We learn more as we get to know them or interact with them. So, why not intersperse that as the story continues?

    The 'yellow gown' is a beautiful poignant example of presenting the heroine and her life.

    I'll definitely have to check in, as long as you don't mind having me.


  18. Just checking back in to catch up on your feedback and read some very interesting comments. I also can't wait for your next post on descriptions. A major weakness of mine!!!

  19. Celia, awesome. Thanks for the little tips. One of the things I'm learning is to leave "as if" out of things as well.


  20. Celia,
    Well, now, that was a very, very good post, you cute little darlin' you.

    This was a great post. I'll be waiting for the one on descriptions.