Sunday, April 25, 2010

Critiquing Common Writing Errors*

(This series begins with Critique Group Guidelines*.)

Fun Words to Critique With

Adverbial ending -- As a rule, writers use the adjective and the adverb too much. It's too easy (and lacks power) to write, "The girl was really pretty, with blonde hair and red, rosy lips, and big, lustrous eyes. I wanted to kiss her very much." It's much better to write, "Her eyes shown through the mass of blonde ringlets like a winter moon at its highest. Her lips, red and full, seemed to beckon me to pull her close and press them with mine." (All right, it's not much better, but you get the point.)

Now, the killer about many modifiers, especially adverbs, is that they are simply nouns, verbs, and adjectives with "ly" added. If you want to weaken your prose, use lots of modifiers. If you want to ruin your mind, use lots of "ly" words -- adverbial endings.

Geography -- The actual "where-ares" within a scene. When you describe Ralph crossing to Jenny as she lay on the sofa, you are describing the geography of the scene. If you have Ralph standing, then have his arms suddenly around Jenny, you are failing to describe the geography of the scene. This may lose your reader, who usually doesn't make the trip with the same alacrity as Ralph.

Gerund -- An "-ing" suffix, creating a verb from another part of speech or creating a noun or adjective from a verb, as in "It was a going concern." It may also change a noun into a verb or adjective, or even another noun, as in "The housing in that housing project is housing the builder." The problem with gerunds is that gerundal endings can weaken a sentence. Also, they tend to be relied upon by novices (and sometimes by "experts"), when a more appropriate word would be stronger; i.e., "The structure within that building project currently serves as home to the builder." You get the drift.

Imagery -- Beginning with the fall of the Roman Empire and continuing to around the middle of the seventeenth century, a method of religious thinking dominated the few cultural centers (monasteries) that existed in western and northern Europe. Imagery was the belief that all that existed in this world represented, not what it seemed to represent, but something in God's heavenly kingdom. The red rose, for instance, might symbolize the blood of Christ, the thorns his crown of thorns and the testing of faith, the green of the stem the message of God's wrath and mercy reaching to this world.

This theological method served a largely illiterate populace as a memory guide and scripture-teaching tool and, generally, managed to keep everyone in his place, which was very helpful if your place was on top of the heap, as with the leaders of Holy Mother Church.

Along about the time of Galileo, this method of non-thinking started to be pushed aside in favor of a more rationalistic view of the world. However, remnants of imagery reside and flourish in works of literature.

Despite what many writers think, there is always imagery in a work of fiction. If nothing else, the characters are images of people in the real world, as are the situations they get into. In some fiction, imagery may be carried to an nth degree through the use of symbol, allegory, pathos, simile, metaphor, euphemism, etc. The art of discerning imagery within a work of fiction is called Sophomore English, and the art of isolating it and disseminating it to death is called Graduate English.

However, as critics on a day-to-day basis, it's often enough to let the imagery sink in without our being fully aware of it. Therefore, if you say, "I really like the imagery in your story," that may simply mean that you are pleased with the overall effect. If, however, you say, "Your imagery is inconsistent internally or within the frame, guidelines, or context of your story," then be prepared to back it up. If you're not aware of any imagery, best not to say anything. You're not impressing anybody.

"Show" and "Tell" -- No, this is not referring to your adventures in the first grade. This is referring to the dreadful habit some writers have of telling us what went on in a scene instead of describing the action as it happens. This is often a difficult concept for writers, so here's an example:

John told Martha she was pretty. She said that was nice, and she put her arms around him and kissed him right on the lips.

Try this:

John approached Martha diffidently. "You know" -- he cleared his throat -- "You're about the prettiest woman ever."

Martha smiled. "That's very nice of you."

John blushed. Martha, stifling a laugh, whispered, "John, you're a real ditz." Throwing her arms around him, she kissed him full on the lips.

Tags -- The speech modifiers, such as "John said," and "Martha asked." Here's where people really get carried away. Not only do they tend to overdo the modifiers -- "Have a martini?" he asked drily -- but many writers seem to think that the reader gets tired of seeing "said" and "asked" and wants something more spiffy; i.e., "Have a drink," he hissed (trying hissing a sentence with no esses); "I'm soused," he hiccoughed; "You're it," he chortled. These are only openers. A really creative taggist can knock you out. "You're lovely," he caressed. "Grave occurrences," he intoned. "You're a fool," she attacked. Enough.

So, what do we do to get around all the "saids" and "asks" and "shouteds" and other mundane tags? We don't. The reader does it for us. The words fade into the background for the reader, allowing him to understand who said it without striking him in the face with the writer's cleverness.

*Taken from "The guidelines for critique," author/source unknown. I found this handout while sorting through some old notes from writers' conferences. These are excellent guidelines, well worth sharing. If anyone knows where this material came from originally, please tell me so I can give credit where it's due. -- Deborah


  1. The tips on 'tags' are liberating. (ha ha) I always worry about that, too; but now, knowing that the reader tends to ignore them anyway... Well, I guess I can relax. (grin)

  2. I was quite the taggist in my earlier days. The copyeditor of my first book (of nonfiction) said she was quite impressed by the number of terms I'd come up with to avoid the simple "he said, she said." The editor changed 98 percent of them to "said." But I insisted that we keep one quote that ended with "she enumerated." I'd worked long and hard to come up with "enumerated" and I thought it fit perfectly, since the source I was quoting really had presented the information as a list.

    Now, of course, I cringe. I've learned the wisdom of that old advice to writers: "Be willing to murder your darlings." Just because you've searched high and low for a particular word, or sweat blood to string together a phrase, doesn't mean that word or that phrase must be kept. If it doesn't work, if it doesn't belong, cut it!