Dave Bricker's Blog

January 5, 2014

The World's Greatest Book

boring_wordsGeneric descriptions are telltale signs of lazy writing. Add color to your writing by replacing overused and boring words.


It's such a nice day today.
He's very bright.
My dog is really funny.
Bill is a good soccer player.
Shari is in a bad mood today.
I received some happy news in my mailbox.
Barbara was sad to see Jim leave.

These words are commonly used in speech; they’re close-at-hand when we need a  description on the fly. But unless a writer is intentionally emulating informal speech, these words make watery, vacuous, and weak additions to written prose.



Use your word processor’s “Find” function or a tool like autoCrit to sniff out generic descriptions and boring words. You’ll find a few false positives among the clunkers:


In 1989 I sailed to Great Abaco Island.

but you’ll also find great opportunities to substitute more impactful language.


Give every description conscious attention. It’s easy to use the words and patterns we naturally gravitate toward when we speak; most of us use the same jokes, adjectives, and pat phrases over and over. As we hammer out a draft, it’s to be expected that this “easy talk” will find its way into our writing. But the best writers go back, isolate the descriptions, and ask themselves, “does this add the tone, color, and intensity the sentence requires?”


John had a good time at the party.

Boring.


John had a splendid time at the party.

A bit old fashioned.


John had a magnificent time at the party.

Now we’re using flowery words for their own sake. Overwriting is as big a problem as underwriting. Balance is key.


Sometimes, the presence of a generic description is a cue that your narrative needs—well—more narrative:


John had just the right amount to drink at the gathering. He spoke to a cute young woman with dark hair and intelligent-looking glasses for over an hour without saying anything stupid or regrettable, ate at least $30 worth of shrimp, and managed to snap a photo of Harold's painting without being observed—and all on Hanman's dime.

The above example transcends simple descriptions of John’s experience. It allows our character to accomplish something and moves the plot forward. Each internal description reveals something about John’s tastes, values, behavior patterns, and motivations—as if we readers were there at the party observing him and forming our own conclusions. In fact, few words are dedicated to anything other than painting a picture of John having a good time at the party. While writing the first draft, the original, generic description serves as placeholder text. We can get the thought on paper, move on, and then come back later to add spices and garnish.


Leilen Shelton of the San Bernardino City School District has posted an inspiring guide for students called Banish Boring Words. Find 50 boring words and phrases to avoid on page 48 along with plenty of advice, examples, and word lists.


Descriptive words have an “intensity” analogous to color saturation. Words like “good” and “bad” are black and white; they’re functional and clear (and granted, sometimes the ideal word choice) but they lack color. Other words like “splendiferous” and “gargantuan” can perhaps be likened to hot pink or international orange. Words like “awesome” and “ominous” may once have been colorful but their intensity has faded from overuse.


As with visual arts, the best prose comes from careful and mature assessments of hue, saturation, texture, and tone. Writing is design.



For more “Writing is Design” articles, see:

Writing is Design: Avoid Bland Pronouns and Boring Verbs

Writing is Design: Avoid Writing Clichés for Better Prose

Writing is Design: Eliminate THAT Fat From Your Writing


Writing is Design: Boring Words & Generic Descriptions — Not Nice!

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Published on January 05, 2014 15:09 • 6 views

December 17, 2013

The World's Greatest Book

pubscamsMany self-publishers start their book projects with unrealistic expectations and misunderstandings about how publishing works. A huge industry has arisen to prey on writers who are unsure of the path. This article explains the basics of how publishing scams work and how writers can avoid them.


Publishers must learn the risks inherent to their business. If you fantasize you’ll earn your investment back as soon as you get on Oprah’s show, it’s not the supply chain’s job to pressure-test your assumptions.


“If I’m painter and you want purple zebra stripes on your pink house, someone’s going to take your money; it might as well be me.”


Though that kind of business practice isn’t strictly unethical, it overlooks the fact that the most important thing publishing service providers can sell is guidance. Too many author service companies take advantage of the fact that it really is your responsibility to know what you’re getting into.


To understand where the bait-and-switch usually happens in publishing scams, it’s essential to understand how the bookseller’s economic pie gets sliced.



Publishing: Editorial and Production Costs

Production costs are an essential aspect of bringing a well-made book to market. Every writer pays for quality in the short run or for shortcuts in the long run. Every publisher must pay for ink and paper, and (I hope) for editing and design. Editors and designers are part of the essential supply chain that results in ready-to-retail books. The professionals who make their living providing printing, cover design, editing, typesetting, and binding can quite reasonably be expected to earn a profit.


If these costs aren’t clearly stated, don’t pretend your “publisher” has some magical ability to “make them go away.” Anyone claiming to be your publisher—even a legitimate operator—expects to pay these bills. Knowing where that money comes from is important.


Publishing: Distribution and Sales Costs

Additional costs include shipping, distribution, and seller commissions (which usually run half of cover price). These costs occur after your book is made available to the public and an order is placed.


Do you know what it costs to sell one copy of your book? Do the math. Subtract your editorial and production costs from what you have left after the seller’s commission is paid. If you don’t know what it costs to print, ship, and sell a book, you are not in control of your publishing business.


The Publisher’s Cut

If you received an advance payment against royalties on your book, you most likely have a traditional publisher backing you. Publishers are investors who buy and sell intellectual property for profit. Your publisher thinks your book will sell and has paid for editing, design, marketing, printing, and distribution on top of your advance. Consider what an enormous risk that is if you’re an unknown author. Your publisher is gambling on making enough profit on book sales to cover your production costs and your advance—before they see a dime. It’s no wonder publishing contracts are so difficult to come by. Publishers certainly care that your book is good, but they mostly care whether your book will sell.


Many a traditionally published author has wondered why nothing came in after the initial advance. “I thought I was going to make $2 per book. I know you’ve sold books; where’s my money?” Very often, the book has sold but it hasn’t sold enough copies to cover the publisher’s investment.Your publisher is in business, too. After investing in you, they expect to recover their outlay before they skip merrily down the profit sharing road with you.


Other Risks

If you’re selling books in traditional bookstores, returned books can bury you. If you distribute 3000 books and sell 1000, you can still lose money when you have to pay for 2000 unsold books to be  returned or destroyed (tragic but cheaper than shipping them back and figuring out what to do with them). Read more about returns here.


How Publishing Scams Work

Vanity publishing scams usually target first-time publishers. Most have a rough draft manuscript ready and have begun to ask questions about how to publish. They need editing, typesetting, design, and distribution. A web search soon brings them to xUniverseHouse who offers one-stop shopping for all the needed services and a distribution package. They offer a platinum plan, a gold plan, a silver plan, and a tin plan with services that fit any budget. You get to keep your copyright so the deal is “risk free.” When Penguin calls offering a big contract, you won’t be locked in to your deal with xUniverseHouse.


Most authors have heard all the bad doo doo about self-publishing. They want a “real” publisher and xUniverseHouse offers to assume that role. xUniverseHouse inflates the retail price and skims the cream back off  every sale as a “publisher’s” royalty. Here’s where the red bullshit indicator light on your dashboard should be flashing. XUniverseHouse hasn’t invested a dime in your book. Why should it earn a royalty from it? If anything, xUniverseHouse has put you at a disadvantage by increasing your retail price (and by putting their kiss-of-death logo on your book’s spine). This is why “self-publishing companies” are oxymoronic: you’re either self-publishing or someone is publishing you. Paying someone to be your publisher is like hiring someone to take a vacation for you so you can stay home and work.


Here we find a useful definition for the term, “publisher.” A publisher is an entity that invests in and assumes the risks for producing and distributing a piece of media.


Escaping the Trap

So maybe you “published” with xUniverseHouse before you read this article or had someone point out the typos in your book. Maybe you got an informed critique of the cover art and found out it’s formulaic or cliché. Probably, the work done by xUniverseHouse isn’t horrible; it just never got past “pretty good.” Maybe your book’s just too expensive?


No big deal. The contract says you can get out at any time. But the small print says the cover art and the typesetting and other digital assets belong to xUniverseHouse. As the publisher of record, xUniverseHouse also owns the ISBN number on your book. You can end your contract but you’ll have to start over with a Word document and find your own sources for design and distribution. After spending a lot of money, you’re back at square one.


You can republish but you’ll also have to compete with cheap, “used” copies of your original xUniverseHouse edition on Amazon.


And if you agreed to distribute 100 books to xUniverseHouse’s list of “qualified reviewers,” you can count on seeing dozens of fifty-cent “like new” copies of your book on eBay


Co-Publishing

If a publisher wants to negotiate a deal where it splits the production costs with the author and then splits the royalties, co-publishing might qualify as one of the non-traditional publishing models that isn’t  a scam, but I found a tiny handful of operators who appeared to be playing that game straight.


When entering into such a “partnership,” make sure that all the costs—production, distribution, and selling—are fully disclosed. Your publishing partner may be able to invest sweat equity or access outsourced services at a reduced cost, but you should understand the value of those services.


Install some quality control measures. What recourse do you have if you find typos in your book that your publisher’s editor missed? Do you retain the right to approve the cover design?


Taking Control

Don’t fly your publishing plane with the visor down. Writing is an art but publishing is a business. If you intend to share your work, run some numbers and take control.


Start with a hypothetical cover price. Price is driven by the market, not by your costs. If other books in your genre sell for $20, you need to find a way to profitably bring your book to market for $20.


Subtract 50% for the seller commission (Lightning Source allows you to set seller commissions as low as 20% but don’t expect brick-and-mortar bookstores or non-traditional retailers to play along).


Do you know the cost to print, ship, and distribute a book? Reputable publishing services provide a cost calculator or at least a solid estimate.


Someone spent money on editing, cover design, and typesetting. If that someone is you, add up those costs and then amortize them over 100 books, 1000 books, 5000 books, etc. How many books do you have to sell before the production costs are paid and you can start taking a profit? You can’t know how many books you’ll sell but figure out where the break-even point is. If you have a traditional publisher, find out how many books the publisher needs to sell before the “production debt” is paid. This debt includes any advances against royalties paid to you when the deal was signed.


And though you may have thoroughly enjoyed researching and writing your book, if you’re seriously in the publishing business, you’ll want to see your writing hours paid for. You put 1000 hours or more into writing your manuscript but you’re the last link in the income chain. Know how many books you need to sell to start taking royalties and then know how many books you need to receive royalties for to compensate your publishing company’s “in-house writing staff.”


It’s easy to see why so many writers don’t pay attention to these details. Publishing cost analysis can be discouraging. Everyone downstream of the publisher generally risks nothing yet makes a bigger cut. Looking at books from a numbers perspective, could you find a worse retail product?


All the same, people like you are out there writing and marketing good books for profit. Though the odds are against them, some find receptive audiences. A few find fame and fortune, either through careful planning or dumb luck (or a bit of both).


Publishing: Doing it Right

I’ve said it many times on this blog and I’ll say it again: Do your homework! If you have published a book but don’t know the publishing food chain basics described in this article, you’re swimming in shark-infested waters. This ain’t rocket surgery. Read up on the biz for a few hours.


Phony publishing companies aren’t risk-takers. They provide budget editorial and design services and then mark them up for a profit. You get less and pay the same prices you would pay a professional. Vanity publishers don’t get you bookstore distribution. Usually, the smokescreen is that they’ll get listed with Amazon.com and all the major bookstores. And after you’ve paid them to broker production services, you get to pay them a “publisher’s royalty” on every book you sell.


True self-publishers understand the risks and adjust their expectations accordingly. They invest in professional editors, typesetters, and designers and hold their contractors to the highest standards. They work with printers and distributors who offer straight talk about costs and profits, and they make their own decisions about prices, seller commissions, and return policies. Some make peanuts on book sales but are able to use the fact that they “wrote the book on the subject” to bring in consulting or contract work.


Make objective, fact-based decisions. Smart publishers aren’t concerned about what the rumor mill has to say about self-publishing or traditional publishing on today’s forum discussions. Self-publishing is ideal for certain authors in certain circumstances and traditional publishing is ideal for others. Prejudice, gossip, and ignorance contribute nothing to sound business choices. Choose your route carefully.


Above all, remember that you, your ideas, your time, and your work are valuable. Assume full control over all these assets before handing them over to any third party. Anyone sharing your publishing pie must absorb cost or mitigate risk if they are to be of any value to you.


Thousands of writers are snookered by publishing scams every year, mostly because they’re afraid and they want an “expert” to handle everything. If you use a traditional publisher, hire a lawyer to review your contract; it’s a small price to pay for protection when dealing with a big company. Otherwise, heed the old adage: if you want a job done right…


Publishing Scams and How they Work

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Published on December 17, 2013 02:52 • 5 views

The World's Greatest Book

Many self-publishers start their book projects with unrealistic expectations and misunderstandings about how publishing works. A huge industry has arisen to prey on writers who are unsure of the path. This article explains the basics of how publishing scams work and how writers can avoid them.


Publishers must learn the risks inherent to their business. If you fantasize you’ll earn your investment back as soon as you gets on Oprah’s show, it’s not the supply chain’s job to pressure-test your assumptions.


“If I’m painter and you want purple zebra stripes on your pink house, someone’s going to take your money; it might as well be me.”


Though that kind of business practice isn’t strictly unethical, it overlooks the fact that the most important thing publishing service providers can sell is guidance. Too many author service companies take advantage of the fact that it really is your responsibility to know what you’re getting into.


To understand where the bait-and-switch usually happens in publishing scams, it’s essential to understand how the bookseller’s economic pie gets sliced.



Publishing: Editorial and Production Costs

Production costs are an essential aspect of bringing a well-made book to market. Every writer pays for quality in the short run or for shortcuts in the long run. Every publisher must pay for ink and paper, and (I hope) for editing and design. Editors and designers are part of the essential supply chain that results in ready-to-retail books. The professionals who make their living providing printing, cover design, editing, typesetting, and binding can quite reasonably be expected to earn a profit.


If these costs aren’t clearly stated, don’t pretend your “publisher” has some magical ability to “make them go away.” Anyone claiming to be your publisher—even a legitimate operator—expects to pay these bills. Knowing where that money comes from is important.


Publishing: Distribution and Sales Costs

Additional costs include shipping, distribution, and seller commissions (which usually run half of cover price). These costs occur after your book is made available to the public and an order is placed.


Do you know what it costs to sell one copy of your book? Do the math. Subtract your editorial and production costs from what you have left after the seller’s commission is paid. If you don’t know what it costs to print, ship, and sell a book, you are not in control of your publishing business.


The Publisher’s Cut

If you received an advance payment against royalties on your book, you most likely have a traditional publisher backing you. Publishers are investors who buy and sell intellectual property for profit. Your publisher thinks your book will sell and has paid for editing, design, marketing, printing, and distribution on top of your advance. Consider what an enormous risk that is if you’re an unknown author. Your publisher is gambling on making enough profit on book sales to cover your production costs and your advance—before they see a dime. It’s no wonder publishing contracts are so difficult to come by. Publishers certainly care that your book is good, but they mostly care whether your book will sell.


Many a traditionally published author has wondered why nothing came in after the initial advance. “I thought I was going to make $2 per book. I know you’ve sold books; where’s my money?” Very often, the book has sold but it hasn’t sold enough copies to cover the publisher’s investment.Your publisher is in business, too. After investing in you, they expect to recover their outlay before they skip merrily down the profit sharing road with you.


How Publishing Scams Work

Vanity publishing scams target typical first-time publishers. Most have a rough draft manuscript ready and have begun to ask questions about how to publish. They need editing, typesetting, design, and distribution. A web search soon brings them to xUniverseHouse who offers one-stop shopping for all the needed services and a distribution package. They offer a platinum plan, a gold plan, a silver plan, and a tin plan with services that fit any budget. You get to keep your copyright so the deal is “risk free.” When Penguin calls offering a big contract, you won’t be locked in to your deal with xUniverseHouse.


Most authors have heard all the bad doo doo about self-publishing. They want a “real” publisher and xUniverseHouse offers to assume that role. xUniverseHouse inflates the retail price and skims the cream back off  every sale as a “publisher’s” royalty. Here’s where the red bullshit indicator light on your dashboard should be flashing. XUniverseHouse hasn’t invested a dime in your book. Why should it earn a royalty from it? If anything, xUniverseHouse has put you at a disadvantage by increasing your retail price (and by putting their kiss-of-death logo on your book’s spine). This is why “self-publishing companies” are oxymoronic: you’re either self-publishing or someone is publishing you. Paying someone to be your publisher is like hiring someone to take a vacation for you so you can stay home and work.


Here we find a useful definition for the term, “publisher.” A publisher is an entity that invests in and assumes the risks for producing and distributing a piece of media.


Escaping the Trap

So maybe you “published” with xUniverseHouse before you read this article or had someone point out the typos in your book. Maybe you got an informed critique of the cover art and found out it’s formulaic or cliché. Probably, the work done by xUniverseHouse isn’t horrible; it just never got past “pretty good.” Maybe your book’s just too expensive?


No big deal. The contract says you can get out at any time. But the small print says the cover art and the typesetting and other digital assets belong to xUniverseHouse. As the publisher of record, xUniverseHouse also owns the ISBN number on your book. You can end your contract but you’ll have to start over with a Word document and find your own sources for design and distribution. After spending a lot of money, you’re back at square one.


You can republish but you’ll also have to compete with cheap, “used” copies of your original xUniverseHouse edition on Amazon.


And if you agreed to distribute 100 books to xUniverseHouse’s list of “qualified reviewers,” you can count on seeing dozens of fifty-cent “like new” copies of your book on eBay


Co-Publishing

If a publisher wants to negotiate a deal where it splits the production costs with the author and then splits the royalties, co-publishing might qualify as one of the non-traditional publishing models that isn’t  a scam, but I found a tiny handful of operators who appeared to be playing that game straight.


When entering into such a “partnership,” make sure that all the costs—production, distribution, and selling—are fully disclosed. Your publishing partner may be able to invest sweat equity or access outsourced services at a reduced cost, but you should understand the value of those services.


Install some quality control measures. What recourse do you have if you find typos in your book that your publisher’s editor missed? Do you retain the right to approve the cover design?


Other Risks

If you’re selling books in traditional bookstores, returned books can bury you. If you distribute 3000 books and sell 1000, you can still lose money when you have to pay for 2000 unsold books to be  returned or destroyed (tragic but cheaper than shipping them back and figuring out what to do with them). Read more about returns here.


Taking Control

Don’t fly your publishing plane with the visor down. Writing is an art but publishing is a business. If you intend to share your work, run some numbers and take control.


Start with a hypothetical cover price. Price is driven by the market, not by your costs. If other books in your genre sell for $20, you need to find a way to profitably bring your book to market for $20.


Subtract 50% for the seller commission (Lightning Source allows you to set seller commissions as low as 20% but don’t expect brick-and-mortar bookstores or non-traditional retailers to play along).


Do you know the cost to print, ship, and distribute a book? Reputable publishing services provide a cost calculator or at least a solid estimate.


Someone spent money on editing, cover design, and typesetting. If that someone is you, add up those costs and then amortize them over 100 books, 1000 books, 5000 books, etc. How many books do you have to sell before the production costs are paid and you can start taking a profit? You can’t know how many books you’ll sell but figure out where the break-even point is. If you have a traditional publisher, find out how many books the publisher needs to sell before the “production debt” is paid. This debt includes any advances against royalties paid to you when the deal was signed.


And though you may have thoroughly enjoyed researching and writing your book, if you’re seriously in the publishing business, you’ll want to see your writing hours paid for. You put 1000 hours or more into writing your manuscript but you’re the last link in the income chain. Know how many books you need to sell to start taking royalties and then know how many books you need to receive royalties for to compensate your publishing company’s “in-house writing staff.”


It’s easy to see why so many writers don’t pay attention to these details. Publishing cost analysis can be discouraging. Everyone downstream of the publisher generally risks nothing yet makes a bigger cut. Looking at books from a numbers perspective, could you find a worse retail product?


All the same, people like you are out there writing and marketing good books for profit. Though the odds are against them, some find receptive audiences. A few find fame and fortune, either through careful planning or dumb luck (or a bit of both).


Publishing: Doing it Right

I’ve said it many times on this blog and I’ll say it again: Do your homework! If you have published a book but don’t know the publishing food chain basics described in this article, you’re swimming in shark-infested waters. This ain’t rocket surgery. Read up on the biz for a few hours.


Phony publishing companies aren’t risk-takers. They provide budget editorial and design services and then mark them up for a profit. You get less and pay the same prices you would pay a professional. Vanity publishers don’t get you bookstore distribution. Usually, the smokescreen is that they’ll get listed with Amazon.com and all the major bookstores. And after you’ve paid them to broker production services, you get to pay them a “publisher’s royalty” on every book you sell.


True self-publishers understand the risks and adjust their expectations accordingly. They invest in professional editors, typesetters, and designers and hold their contractors to the highest standards. They work with printers and distributors who offer straight talk about costs and profits, and they make their own decisions about prices, seller commissions, and return policies. Some make peanuts on book sales but are able to use the fact that they “wrote the book on the subject” to bring in consulting or contract work.


Above all, remember that you, your ideas, your time, and your work are valuable. Assume full control over all these assets before handing them over to any third party. Anyone sharing your publishing pie must absorb cost or mitigate risk if they are to be of any value to you.


Publishing Scams and How they Work

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Published on December 17, 2013 02:52 • 7 views

October 21, 2013

The World's Greatest Book

thatfatThe word “that” is often abused. “That” is a perfectly useful pronoun but it’s often the useless fat that slows down an otherwise good sentence.


I think that you and I need to talk.
I told my readers that I would post another article about writing.

Two scoops is particularly fattening


I think that that is a capital idea.



As in the examples above, the use of “that” as a conjunction for introducing a subordinate clause expressing a statement or hypothesis is technically correct, but in many cases, “that” is superfluous. It adds no clarity. The sentence functions just as well without it.


I think you and I need to talk.
I told my readers I would post another article about writing.
I think that is a capital idea.

Of course, “that” can help to differentiate between “this” and an array of other choices. In my “two scoops” example, I highlighted the second “that” in green because that one isn’t the “that” that’s causing the problem (sorry—couldn’t resist). “That” is fine when used as a pronoun or an adjective.


Could you hand that to me? (that used as a pronoun)
I don't like that sentence. (that used as an adjective)
That's what it takes to be a writer. (that used as a pronoun)

“Writing is Design” is based on the premise that design—a conscious, aesthetic decision-making process—can be broken down and understood according to patterns and principles. Just as the sheet music is not the symphony, an insightful analysis of grammar and style is not the same as a great paragraph. My goal is not to break writing down into a series of rules, but rather, to create a set of “lenses” or “filters” through which writers can view their work objectively. Our own style habits are often invisible to us, but words like “that” can be easily searched for and found with your word processor’s “find” function. Find each occurrence of “that” in your manuscript and make a conscious decision about whether to leave or delete it.


Sometimes, you’ll find that an unnecessary “that” sounds better—leave it. Sometimes “that” is used correctly as a pronoun or to make a distinction—leave it. But great design is a process of subtraction. Use “red flag” words and writing patterns to get the objective handle you need to track down and eliminate fat from your writing.


And that is that.



Other Writing is Design Articles include:

Writing is Design: Avoid Bland Pronouns and Boring Verbs

Writing is Design: Avoid Writing Clichés for Better Prose

Writing is Design: Eliminate THAT Fat From Your Writing

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Twitter_icon like  • 
Published on October 21, 2013 03:47 • 4 views

The World's Greatest Book

thatfatThe word “that” is often abused. “That” is a perfectly useful pronoun but it’s often the useless fat that slows down an otherwise good sentence.


I think that you and I need to talk.
I told my readers that I would post another article about writing.

Two scoops is particularly fattening


I think that that is a capital idea.



As in the examples above, the use of “that” as a conjunction for introducing a subordinate clause expressing a statement or hypothesis is technically correct, but in many cases, “that” is superfluous. It adds no clarity. The sentence functions just as well without it.


I think you and I need to talk.
I told my readers I would post another article about writing.
I think that is a capital idea.

Of course, “that” can help to differentiate between “this” and an array of other choices. In my “two scoops” example, I highlighted the second “that” in green because that one isn’t the “that” that’s causing the problem (sorry—couldn’t resist). “That” is fine when used as a pronoun or an adjective.


Could you hand that to me? (that used as a pronoun)
I don't like that sentence. (that used as an adjective)
That's what it takes to be a writer. (that used as a pronoun)

“Writing is Design” is based on the premise that design—a conscious, aesthetic decision-making process—can be broken down and understood according to patterns and principles. Just as the sheet music is not the symphony, an insightful analysis of grammar and style is not the same as a great paragraph. My goal is not to break writing down into a series of rules, but rather, to create a set of “lenses” or “filters” through which writers can view their work objectively. Our own style habits are often invisible to us, but words like “that” can be easily searched for and found with your word processor’s “find” function. Find each occurrence of “that” in your manuscript and make a conscious decision about whether to leave or delete it.


Sometimes, you’ll find that an unnecessary “that” sounds better—leave it. Sometimes “that” is used correctly as a pronoun or to make a distinction—leave it. But great design is a process of subtraction. Use “red flag” words and writing patterns to get the objective handle you need to track down and eliminate fat from your writing.


And that is that.



Other Writing is Design Articles include:

Writing is Design: Avoid Bland Pronouns and Boring Verbs

Writing is Design: Avoid Writing Clichés for Better Prose

Writing is Design: Eliminate THAT Fat From Your Writing

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0 comments
Twitter_icon like  • 
Published on October 21, 2013 03:47 • 11 views

October 7, 2013

The World's Greatest Book

clichesSince time immemorial, clichés have sneaked in the door when we least expect them to. They’re low-hanging fruit for writers who abscond with them quickly instead of striving for excellence. But to the trained eye, writing clichés stick out like a sore thumb. Authors of this day and age who struggle under the yoke of undetected style errors are too numerous to mention. The good writer puts his nose to the grindstone and embarks on a quest to find hidden treasure. With the patience of Job, he leaves no stone unturned in his search for words and phrases that give his writing a personal, authentic voice.


Writers from all walks of life are determined to publish by hook or by crook. Champing at the bit to publish his book, the writer gets behind the eight ball and pours himself lock, stock, and barrel into the task of writing. Cool as a cucumber and lost in contemplation, the ambitious author taps away at the keyboard day in and day out until the crack of dawn, happy as a kid in a candy store. As his manuscript grows by leaps and bounds, he envisions a whirlwind bookstore tour and expects his book to sell like hotcakes. Sure of success, he pulls out all the stops and pours everything but the kitchen sink into his writing. And he’s proud to have sufficient skill as a writer to avoid paying through the nose for an expensive editor. Publishing, he is certain, will open the floodgates to a world of opportunity where there’s never a dull moment. He envisions untold wealth, living larger than life in the lap of luxury, and laughing all the way to the bank.


But this flurry of activity is actually the calm before the storm. The pie-in-the-sky dream is too good to be true. Such writers are accidents waiting to happen. In this dog-eat-dog world, such books are usually dead in the water, and at best they’re a flash in the pan. Give the devil his due; the writing is on the wall for this author. His own worst enemy, he fails to realize that his chances are one in a million. Little the wiser, he jumps the gun and publishes before you can say “Jack Robinson.” At the end of the day, how many of his words fall on deaf ears? He falls hook, line, and sinker for the fantasy of becoming a bestselling author. Then, to add insult to injury, he hangs on to the bitter end, enjoying at best only a checkered career before his book is buried beneath the sands of time and forgotten by the long march of history. For all intents and purposes, in the twinkling of an eye, he’s dead as a doornail.


It goes without saying that the winds of change have brought higher standards to the fast-maturing world of self-publishing. Self-publishers are all in the same boat. To tame the wild horse of the publishing world, we must all pay the piper and nip bad writing habits in the bud.


Clichés are only one problem among many that writers should avoid like the plague. Each and every one of us must take the tiger by his tail and think outside the box. New words and phrases are easy to find or create for those willing to take the journey. The challenge to find clever words is hardly a search for a needle in a haystack. Why use clichés over and over when there are plenty of fish in the sea? Why live the writer’s life on borrowed time? After all, you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. Make no bones about it; writers who count their chickens before they’re hatched will soon find them coming home to roost. The ball’s in your court. Take the bull by the horns, bite the bullet, go back to the drawing board, and add some clever new phrases to your bag of writing tricks. Open up that can of worms in your writing before you publish and share them. The acid test for good writing is authenticity. Well-constructed prose is a breath of fresh air, not a rehash of the same old same old. Learn the ropes. Dot your i’s and cross your t’s. Knuckle down and honor the craft of writing.


All things considered, it’s probably a fool’s errand to try to rid your writing of clichés entirely, but in a nutshell, it stands to reason that in the cold light of day, weak writing habits will all come out in the wash. Publishing without paying your dues is like banging your head against a brick wall. Instead of shooting yourself in the foot, take the high road. The path to excellence is as plain as the nose on your face. Play your cards right, face the music, strike while the iron’s hot, and turn over a new leaf.


You’ll find no hard and fast rules about what’s cliché and what’s not, but by the same token, writers who exercise discerning judgment about their wordcraft are head and shoulders above the rest. Practice makes perfect. Put your best foot forward and work slowly but surely until your writing becomes as steady as a rock. For all intents and purposes, your prose need not meet the lofty standards of the average ivory tower stick in the mud, but when it comes down to the nitty-gritty, polished writing is a rare beast indeed and not anything to be sneezed at.


Without a shadow of a doubt, too many authors make the same mistakes ad infinitum. Gluttons for punishment, they dismiss previous, failed efforts as water under the bridge and part of the learning curve, then forge ahead. Come hell or high water, they’re determined to earn the glowing tributes, thunderous applause, and choruses of approval that only a chosen few are blessed to receive once in a blue moon.


But there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Publishing is a game of survival of the fittest. Ignorance is bliss. Mark my words, the time has come to stop muddying the waters of short, sweet, and to the point writing with the cast-off jetsam and flotsam of language. The unvarnished truth: writers who fail to heed this warning will get their just desserts. Proof of the pudding is that left high and dry, and subject to twenty-twenty hindsight, they cry “sour grapes” at the moment of truth, and tuck their tails between their legs. With ruffled feathers, they throw in the towel and meet the untimely end of their literary lives.


As luck would have it, capable writers are not expected to be able to quote the thesaurus chapter and verse. Becoming a capable writer does not involve reinventing the wheel. As a matter of fact, there’s no need to make a mountain out of a mole hill; becoming cliché-aware requires no painstaking investigation. There’s no need to search your writing high and low—and ultimately, whether a phrase is “officially” cliché or not is anybody’s guess. Cultivating an ability to recognize clichés is nothing to write home about. Not to put too fine a point on it, writers who seek out and expose themselves to one of the many online lists of clichés will, after due consideration, naturally incorporate their new-found awareness into their writing.


First and foremost, those writers who ultimately hit the nail on the head are the ones who recognize that battling style errors is part of the long haul every one of us must make. The completion of a rough draft is a mixed blessing. The savvy author must put his money where his mouth is, stick to the straight and narrow, pay his dues, and turn his diamond in the rough into a polished gem. Writers worth their salt know that the first draft is only the tip of the iceberg.


Great writing requires tender loving care and when the work is done, the polished writer may yet wind up an unsung hero. Excellent writing won’t necessarily make or break a book and regrettably, some authors grow sick and tired enough to give up, get some well-earned rest, and publish, warts and all. But make no mistake, you get what you pay for. Your excellent book may not make you rich but you can bet your bottom dollar it will be a sight for sore eyes in a world where quality and attention to detail are sorely needed. If you don’t care, who will?


Last but not least, just for the record, this essay is hardly short and sweet but there’s a tongue-in-cheek method to my madness. As strange as it may seem, I sincerely hope that readers who take my words with a grain of salt will see them as a blessing in disguise.



Steven Bauer: I know it would spoil the whole point of your essay, but writers do need to have it pointed out that clichés were once vibrant metaphors, exuberant inventions, that have lost their meaning through overuse; now they no longer surprise, or give us any mental picture at all. They’re to language what Muzak is to music. In most of the clichés you use, the metaphor’s vehicle has become obscure or no longer understood. We no longer see the axehead in “fly off the handle” or the nautical rope in “to the bitter end.” And people are able, without batting an eye, to write things like “It’s a doggy dog world” and “I better toe the line.”

See Part 1 of Writing is Design: Avoid Bland Pronouns and Boring Verbs


Writing is Design: Avoid Writing Clichés for Better Prose

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0 comments
Twitter_icon like  • 
Published on October 07, 2013 02:57 • 5 views

The World's Greatest Book

clichesSince time immemorial, clichés have sneaked in the door when we least expect them to. They’re low-hanging fruit for writers who abscond with them quickly instead of striving for excellence. But to the trained eye, writing clichés stick out like a sore thumb. Authors of this day and age who struggle under the yoke of undetected style errors are too numerous to mention. The good writer puts his nose to the grindstone and embarks on a quest to find hidden treasure. With the patience of Job, he leaves no stone unturned in his search for words and phrases that give his writing a personal, authentic voice.


Writers from all walks of life are determined to publish by hook or by crook. Chomping at the bit to publish his book, the writer gets behind the eight ball and pours himself lock, stock, and barrel into the task of writing. Cool as a cucumber and lost in contemplation, the ambitious author taps away at the keyboard day in and day out until the crack of dawn, happy as a kid in a candy store. As his manuscript grows by leaps and bounds, he envisions a whirlwind bookstore tour and expects his book to sell like hotcakes. Sure of success, he pulls out all the stops and pours everything but the kitchen sink into his writing. And he’s proud to have sufficient skill as a writer to avoid paying through the nose for an expensive editor. Publishing, he is certain, will open the floodgates to a world of opportunity where there’s never a dull moment. He envisions untold wealth, living larger than life in the lap of luxury, and laughing all the way to the bank.


But this flurry of activity is actually the calm before the storm. The pie-in-the-sky dream is too good to be true. Such writers are accidents waiting to happen. In this dog-eat-dog world, such books are usually dead in the water, and at best they’re a flash in the pan. Give the devil his due; the writing is on the wall for this author. His own worst enemy, he fails to realize that his chances are one in a million. Little the wiser, he jumps the gun and publishes before you can say “Jack Robinson.” At the end of the day, how many of his words fall on deaf ears? He falls hook, line, and sinker for the fantasy of becoming a bestselling author. Then, to add insult to injury, he hangs on to the bitter end, enjoying at best only a checkered career before his book is buried beneath the sands of time and forgotten by the long march of history. For all intents and purposes, in the twinkling of an eye, he’s dead as a doornail.


It goes without saying that the winds of change have brought higher standards to the fast-maturing world of self-publishing. Self-publishers are all in the same boat. To tame the wild horse of the publishing world, we must all pay the piper and nip bad writing habits in the bud.


Clichés are only one problem among many that writers should avoid like the plague. Each and every one of us must take the tiger by his tail and think outside the box. New words and phrases are easy to find or create for those willing to take the journey. The challenge to find clever words is hardly a search for a needle in a haystack. Why use clichés over and over when there are plenty of fish in the sea? Why live the writer’s life on borrowed time? After all, you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. Make no bones about it; writers who count their chickens before they’re hatched will soon find them coming home to roost. The ball’s in your court. Take the bull by the horns, bite the bullet, go back to the drawing board, and add some clever new phrases to your bag of writing tricks. Open up that can of worms in your writing before you publish and share them. The acid test for good writing is authenticity. Well-constructed prose is a breath of fresh air, not a rehash of the same old same old. Learn the ropes. Dot your i’s and cross your t’s. Knuckle down and honor the craft of writing.


All things considered, it’s probably a fool’s errand to try to rid your writing of clichés entirely, but in a nutshell, it stands to reason that in the cold light of day, weak writing habits will all come out in the wash. Publishing without paying your dues is like banging your head against a brick wall. Instead of shooting yourself in the foot, take the high road. The path to excellence is as plain as the nose on your face. Play your cards right, face the music, strike while the iron’s hot, and turn over a new leaf.


You’ll find no hard and fast rules about what’s cliché and what’s not, but by the same token, writers who exercise discerning judgment about their wordcraft are head and shoulders above the rest. Practice makes perfect. Put your best foot forward and work slowly but surely until your writing becomes as steady as a rock. For all intents and purposes, your prose need not meet the lofty standards of the average ivory tower stick in the mud, but when it comes down to the nitty-gritty, polished writing is a rare beast indeed and not anything to be sneezed at.


Without a shadow of a doubt, too many authors make the same mistakes ad infinitum. Gluttons for punishment, they dismiss previous, failed efforts as water under the bridge and part of the learning curve, then forge ahead. Come hell or high water, they’re determined to earn the glowing tributes, thunderous applause, and choruses of approval that only a chosen few are blessed to receive once in a blue moon.


But there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Publishing is a game of survival of the fittest. Ignorance is bliss. Mark my words, the time has come to stop muddying the waters of short, sweet, and to the point writing with the cast-off jetsam and flotsam of language. The unvarnished truth: writers who fail to heed this warning will get their just deserts. Proof of the pudding is that left high and dry, and subject to twenty-twenty hindsight, they cry “sour grapes” at the moment of truth, and tuck their tails between their legs. With ruffled feathers, they throw in the towel and meet the untimely end of their literary lives.


As luck would have it, capable writers are not expected to be able to quote the thesaurus chapter and verse. Becoming a capable writer does not involve reinventing the wheel. As a matter of fact, there’s no need to make a mountain out of a mole hill; becoming cliché-aware requires no painstaking investigation. There’s no need to search your writing high and low—and ultimately, whether a phrase is “officially” cliché or not is anybody’s guess. Cultivating an ability to recognize clichés is nothing to write home about. Not to put too fine a point on it, writers who seek out and expose themselves to one of the many online lists of clichés will, after due consideration, naturally incorporate their new-found awareness into their writing.


First and foremost, those writers who ultimately hit the nail on the head are the ones who recognize that battling style errors is part of the long haul every one of us must make. The completion of a rough draft is a mixed blessing. The savvy author must put his money where his mouth is, stick to the straight and narrow, pay his dues, and turn his diamond in the rough into a polished gem. Writers worth their salt know that the first draft is only the tip of the iceberg.


Great writing requires tender loving care and when the work is done, the polished writer may yet wind up an unsung hero. Excellent writing won’t necessarily make or break a book and regrettably, some authors grow sick and tired enough to give up, get some well-earned rest, and publish, warts and all. But make no mistake, you get what you pay for. Your excellent book may not make you rich but you can bet your bottom dollar it will be a sight for sore eyes in a world where quality and attention to detail are sorely needed. If you don’t care, who will?


Last but not least, just for the record, this essay is hardly short and sweet but there’s a tongue-in-cheek method to my madness. As strange as it may seem, I sincerely hope that readers who take my words with a grain of salt will see them as a blessing in disguise.



Steven Bauer: I know it would spoil the whole point of your essay, but writers do need to have it pointed out that clichés were once vibrant metaphors, exuberant inventions, that have lost their meaning through overuse; now they no longer surprise, or give us any mental picture at all. They’re to language what Muzak is to music. In most of the clichés you use, the metaphor’s vehicle has become obscure or no longer understood. We no longer see the axehead in “fly off the handle” or the nautical rope in “to the bitter end.” And people are able, without batting an eye, to write things like “It’s a doggy dog world” and “I better toe the line.”

See Part 1 of Writing is Design: Avoid Bland Pronouns and Boring Verbs


Writing is Design: Avoid Writing Clichés for Better Prose

 •  flag
0 comments
Twitter_icon like  • 
Published on October 07, 2013 02:57 • 15 views

October 3, 2013

The World's Greatest Book

pronounsAs a graphic designer, I see numerous parallels between the values that create engaging imagery and the values that create engaging prose. So many designs fail because the designer arranged elements on a page without questioning their purpose, hierarchy, or relationship to the intended message. Good writing is characterized by the same conscious application of order, balance, tension, tone, spirit, relevance, and clarity as good design. As a designer might scrutinize a page to evaluate margins, kerning, and font choice, a writer can search for style patterns that illuminate weak, lazy, or formulaic writing and missed opportunities to create stronger prose.


This article is the first in a series of “Writing is Design” tips. The advice offered concerns writing patterns that can be easily searched electronically within a manuscript. And such style problems are unlikely to be revealed by spelling and grammar checkers. You’ll need to ferret them out yourself or use a style checker like AutoCrit.



Pronouns

You can find the 25 most common pronouns here, but rather than create yet another rant about the subject, this post focuses on “we,” they,” “there,” and “it.”


Pronouns at the start of a sentence run the risk of being vague:


It felt cold and heavy in his hand.

But in context, the same initial pronoun can avoid repetition and smooth out the prose. In this second example, the reader has no doubt about what “it” is.


Tom withdrew the revolver from his coat pocket. It felt cold and heavy in his hand.

And yet, we might look for an opportunity to substitute a detail or a synonym or a pinch of pepper for the pronoun. Can we insert a phrase that builds tension or supports a thread of the plot?


Tom withdrew the revolver from his coat pocket. The weapon felt cold and heavy in his hand.
Tom withdrew the revolver from his coat pocket. His father's gun felt cold and heavy in his hand.
Tom withdrew the revolver from his coat pocket. The deadly instrument felt cold and heavy in his hand.

Certainly, use of the simple pronoun “it” is not wrong, and electing to use [it] is a perfectly valid writing choice. But when designing prose, search out each instance of “we,” they,” “there,” and “it.” Make a conscious decision about whether you want to use a pronoun or substitute some spice.


Pronouns have an unfortunate affinity for “generic” verbs:


We were on top of the mountain.
He was a sailor with a sparkling blue uniform.
They are delicious
There are two flavors of ice cream in the freezer.

Verbs like “was,” “are,” and “is” represent the most generic statements a writer can make about the status of a subject. If verbs like these were single, they’d advertise that they “like candle-lit dinners and walks on the beach.” They perform a functional role in a sentence by fulfilling the (loose) requirement that it contain a verb, but that’s about all they do apart from asserting existence and tense. When combined with a pronoun, generic verbs complete a perfect recipe for boring writing.


“There are” and “There is” are particularly troublesome combinations. “There”—in some nonspecific state or condition; “is/are”—exists in some nonspecific way. For an easy fix, look for opportunities to put the subject up front:


Two flavors of ice cream are available in the freezer.

or in back:


The freezer contains two flavors of ice-cream.

And now, we can use some playful verbs to characterize the freezer:


The freezer produced two flavors of ice cream.
The freezer conceals two flavors of ice cream.

Let’s upgrade the rest of our verbs. Add an action, some conviction , some sensory input. Make the sentence more experiential.


We planted our flag on top of the mountain.
He stood proudly at the rail, a sailor with a sparkling blue uniform.
They taste delicious.

Replacing the pronouns works as in the first example. Identify who or what is being represented and add details that enhance description or experience.


My trio of exhausted climbers planted our flag on top of the mountain.
Midshipman Thomas stood proudly at the rail, a sailor with a sparkling blue uniform.
Sarah's homemade chocolates taste delicious.

Certainly, good writing does not require every instance of a pronoun combined with a generic verb to be “fixed.” Sometimes, the pronoun and generic verb combination fulfill the simple role of converting a potent phrase into a sentence.


It was a dark and stormy night.

In Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s classic example, the only reason the pronoun and generic verb exist at all is because “dark and stormy night” wouldn’t be a proper sentence without them. Nevertheless, I would be tempted to open with, “A dark and stormy night.” and let the stalwart grammarians hang.


Steven Bauer says, “I wouldn’t call the verbs “generic”; they’re all forms of “to be” (or what we used to call “verbs of being”) and they are more or less like equal signs in math.  When they simply indicate descriptive conditions, they’re invaluable, but they quickly get boring simply because they denote stasis. In writing (in general, but particularly in narrative writing) doing trumps being. But part of the “design process” is having the taste to know when it’s inadvisable to translate the “is” construction into something “better,” which can also quickly become overwrought or fancy.  As the great Elmore Leonard said, ‘If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.’”


Use your word processor’s “Find” function to track down common pronouns and “generic” verbs in your manuscript. If the process of inspecting every “it” or looking at every sentence in your manuscript that begins with “There” is laborious, you’ve probably overused these pronouns and will find the effort to be worthwhile. Evaluate whether the pronoun or the generic verb is simple and elegant, or a wasted opportunity to write something better. Whether creating images or prose, that conscious, aesthetic decision-making process is called “design.”


Read Part 2 of Writing is Design: Avoid Writing Clichés for Better Prose


Writing is Design: Avoid Bland Pronouns and Boring Verbs

 •  flag
0 comments
Twitter_icon like  • 
Published on October 03, 2013 03:43 • 10 views

The World's Greatest Book

pronounsAs a graphic designer, I see numerous parallels between the values that create engaging imagery and the values that create engaging prose. So many designs fail because the designer arranged elements on a page without questioning their purpose, hierarchy, or relationship to the intended message. Good writing is characterized by the same conscious application of order, balance, tension, tone, spirit, relevance, and clarity as good design. As a designer might scrutinize a page to evaluate margins, kerning, and font choice, a writer can search for style patterns that illuminate weak, lazy, or formulaic writing and missed opportunities to create stronger prose.


This article is the first in a series of “Writing is Design” tips. The advice offered concerns writing patterns that can be easily searched electronically within a manuscript. And such style problems are unlikely to be revealed by spelling and grammar checkers. You’ll need to ferret them out yourself or use a style checker like AutoCrit.



Pronouns

You can find the 25 most common pronouns here, but rather than create yet another rant about the subject, this post focuses on “we,” they,” “there,” and “it.”


Pronouns at the start of a sentence run the risk of being vague:


It felt cold and heavy in his hand.

But in context, the same initial pronoun can avoid repetition and smooth out the prose. In this second example, the reader has no doubt about what “it” is.


Tom withdrew the revolver from his coat pocket. It felt cold and heavy in his hand.

And yet, we might look for an opportunity to substitute a detail or a synonym or a pinch of pepper for the pronoun. Can we insert a phrase that builds tension or supports a thread of the plot?


Tom withdrew the revolver from his coat pocket. The weapon felt cold and heavy in his hand.
Tom withdrew the revolver from his coat pocket. His father's gun felt cold and heavy in his hand.
Tom withdrew the revolver from his coat pocket. The deadly instrument felt cold and heavy in his hand.

Certainly, use of the simple pronoun “it” is not wrong, and electing to use [it] is a perfectly valid writing choice. But when designing prose, search out each instance of “we,” they,” “there,” and “it.” Make a conscious decision about whether you want to use a pronoun or substitute some spice.


Pronouns have an unfortunate affinity for “generic” verbs:


We were on top of the mountain.
He was a sailor with a sparkling blue uniform.
They are delicious
There are two flavors of ice cream in the freezer.

Verbs like “was,” “are,” and “is” represent the most generic statements a writer can make about the status of a subject. If verbs like these were single, they’d advertise that they “like candle-lit dinners and walks on the beach.” They perform a functional role in a sentence by fulfilling the (loose) requirement that it contain a verb, but that’s about all they do apart from asserting existence and tense. When combined with a pronoun, generic verbs complete a perfect recipe for boring writing.


“There are” and “There is” are particularly troublesome combinations. “There”—in some nonspecific state or condition; “is/are”—exists in some nonspecific way. For an easy fix, look for opportunities to put the subject up front:


Two flavors of ice cream are available in the freezer.

or in back:


The freezer contains two flavors of ice-cream.

And now, we can use some playful verbs to characterize the freezer:


The freezer produced two flavors of ice cream.
The freezer conceals two flavors of ice cream.

Let’s upgrade the rest of our verbs. Add an action, some conviction , some sensory input. Make the sentence more experiential.


We planted our flag on top of the mountain.
He stood proudly at the rail, a sailor with a sparkling blue uniform.
They taste delicious.

Replacing the pronouns works as in the first example. Identify who or what is being represented and add details that enhance description or experience.


My trio of exhausted climbers planted our flag on top of the mountain.
Midshipman Thomas stood proudly at the rail, a sailor with a sparkling blue uniform.
Sarah's homemade chocolates taste delicious.

Certainly, good writing does not require every instance of a pronoun combined with a generic verb to be “fixed.” Sometimes, the pronoun and generic verb combination fulfill the simple role of converting a potent phrase into a sentence.


It was a dark and stormy night.

In Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s classic example, the only reason the pronoun and generic verb exist at all is because “dark and stormy night” wouldn’t be a proper sentence without them. Nevertheless, I would be tempted to open with, “A dark and stormy night.” and let the stalwart grammarians hang.


Steven Bauer says, “I wouldn’t call the verbs “generic”; they’re all forms of “to be” (or what we used to call “verbs of being”) and they are more or less like equal signs in math.  When they simply indicate descriptive conditions, they’re invaluable, but they quickly get boring simply because they denote stasis. In writing (in general, but particularly in narrative writing) doing trumps being. But part of the “design process” is having the taste to know when it’s inadvisable to translate the “is” construction into something “better,” which can also quickly become overwrought or fancy.  As the great Elmore Leonard said, ‘If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.’”


Use your word processor’s “Find” function to track down common pronouns and “generic” verbs in your manuscript. If the process of inspecting every “it” or looking at every sentence in your manuscript that begins with “There” is laborious, you’ve probably overused these pronouns and will find the effort to be worthwhile. Evaluate whether the pronoun or the generic verb is simple and elegant, or a wasted opportunity to write something better. Whether creating images or prose, that conscious, aesthetic decision-making process is called “design.”


Read Part 2 of Writing is Design: Avoid Writing Clichés for Better Prose


Writing is Design: Avoid Bland Pronouns and Boring Verbs

 •  flag
0 comments
Twitter_icon like  • 
Published on October 03, 2013 03:43 • 14 views

The World's Greatest Book

pronounsAs a graphic designer, I see numerous parallels between the values that create engaging imagery and the values that create engaging prose. So many designs fail because the designer arranged elements on a page without questioning their purpose, hierarchy, or relationship to the intended message. Good writing is characterized by the same conscious application of order, balance, tension, tone, spirit, relevance, and clarity as good design. As a designer might scrutinize a page to evaluate margins, kerning, and font choice, a writer can search for style patterns that illuminate weak, lazy, or formulaic writing and missed opportunities to create stronger prose.


This article is the first in a series of “Writing is Design” tips. The advice offered concerns writing patterns that can be easily searched electronically within a manuscript. And such style problems are unlikely to be revealed by spelling and grammar checkers. You’ll need to ferret them out yourself or use a style checker like AutoCrit.



Pronouns

You can find the 25 most common pronouns here, but rather than create yet another rant about the subject, this post focuses on “we,” they,” “there,” and “it.”


Pronouns at the start of a sentence run the risk of being vague:


It felt cold and heavy in his hand.

But in context, the same initial pronoun can avoid repetition and smooth out the prose. In this second example, the reader has no doubt about what “it” is.


Tom withdrew the revolver from his coat pocket. It felt cold and heavy in his hand.

And yet, we might look for an opportunity to substitute a detail or a synonym or a pinch of pepper for the pronoun. Can we insert a phrase that builds tension or supports a thread of the plot?


Tom withdrew the revolver from his coat pocket. The weapon felt cold and heavy in his hand.
Tom withdrew the revolver from his coat pocket. His father's gun felt cold and heavy in his hand.
Tom withdrew the revolver from his coat pocket. The deadly instrument felt cold and heavy in his hand.

Certainly, use of the simple pronoun “it” is not wrong, and electing to use [it] is a perfectly valid writing choice. But when designing prose, search out each instance of “we,” they,” “there,” and “it.” Make a conscious decision about whether you want to use a pronoun or substitute some spice.


Pronouns have an unfortunate affinity for “generic” verbs:


We were on top of the mountain.
He was a sailor with a sparkling blue uniform.
They are delicious
There are two flavors of ice cream in the freezer.

Verbs like “was,” “are,” and “is” represent the most generic statements a writer can make about the status of a subject. If verbs like these were single, they’d advertise that they “like candle-lit dinners and walks on the beach.” They perform a functional role in a sentence by fulfilling the (loose) requirement that it contain a verb, but that’s about all they do apart from asserting existence and tense. When combined with a pronoun, generic verbs complete a perfect recipe for boring writing.


“There are” and “There is” are particularly troublesome combinations. “There”—in some nonspecific state or condition; “is/are”—exists in some nonspecific way. For an easy fix, look for opportunities to put the subject up front:


Two flavors of ice cream are available in the freezer.

or in back:


The freezer contains two flavors of ice-cream.

And now, we can use some playful verbs to characterize the freezer:


The freezer produced two flavors of ice cream.
The freezer conceals two flavors of ice cream.

Let’s upgrade the rest of our verbs. Add an action, some conviction , some sensory input. Make the sentence more experiential.


We planted our flag on top of the mountain.
He stood proudly at the rail, a sailor with a sparkling blue uniform.
They taste delicious.

Replacing the pronouns works as in the first example. Identify who or what is being represented and add details that enhance description or experience.


My trio of exhausted climbers planted our flag on top of the mountain.
Midshipman Thomas stood proudly at the rail, a sailor with a sparkling blue uniform.
Sarah's homemade chocolates taste delicious.

Certainly, good writing does not require every instance of a pronoun combined with a generic verb to be “fixed.” Sometimes, the pronoun and generic verb combination fulfill the simple role of converting a potent phrase into a sentence.


It was a dark and stormy night.

In Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s classic example, the only reason the pronoun and generic verb exist at all is because “dark and stormy night” wouldn’t be a proper sentence without them. Nevertheless, I would be tempted to open with, “A dark and stormy night.” and let the stalwart grammarians hang.


Steven Bauer says, “I wouldn’t call the verbs “generic”; they’re all forms of “to be” (or what we used to call “verbs of being”) and they are more or less like equal signs in math.  When they simply indicate descriptive conditions, they’re invaluable, but they quickly get boring simply because they denote stasis. In writing (in general, but particularly in narrative writing) doing trumps being. But part of the “design process” is having the taste to know when it’s inadvisable to translate the “is” construction into something “better,” which can also quickly become overwrought or fancy.  As the great Elmore Leonard said, ‘If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.’”


Use your word processor’s “Find” function to track down common pronouns and “generic” verbs in your manuscript. If the process of inspecting every “it” or looking at every sentence in your manuscript that begins with “There” is laborious, you’ve probably overused these pronouns and will find the effort to be worthwhile. Evaluate whether the pronoun or the generic verb is simple and elegant, or a wasted opportunity to write something better. Whether creating images or prose, that conscious, aesthetic decision-making process is called “design.”


Writing is Design: Avoiding Bland Pronouns and Boring Verbs

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Published on October 03, 2013 03:43 • 11 views