Top Six Things I Hate Seeing in Amateur Writing

Posted by F1ak3r on March 26, 2012, 2:58 p.m.

It's about time for another blog post. In an attempt to get back to my roots as a verbose git who posts mountains of tl;dr, I present you with this Cracked-style list of the top six things I hate seeing in amateur writing.

What follows may include hyperbole for effect. Rest assured that none of this put-on melodramatic rage was caused by any of your actions, gentledigitians. It's just the rest of the internet.

6. Began to verb

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The barrel began to roll down the hill.
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The men drew their swords and began to fight.
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I fell into a lake and started to get wet.
A possible rival for "causing" in the race to replace emotion and directness with the robotic use of stock phrases, "began to"/"started to" is a dreadful tautology that has far fewer legitimate place in writing than some seem to think.

A lot of beginning writers have the baffling tendency to describe things as "starting to happen" when they'd be better off describing those same things simply as "happening" or using a more appropriate and descriptive verb to begin with.

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The barrel toppled over the hill.
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The men drew their swords and flew at each other.
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I fell into a lake and got wet.

5. Direct thought enclosed by single quotes

Quote:
"Whatever you want to watch is cool," I said. 'Please don't want to see Twilight…'
Who thought this would be a good idea? Having direct thought indicated by single quotes makes it frightfully easy to mistake for dialogue, and single quotes are pretty nasty little things in any case… don't know why anyone would want to touch those glorified apostrophes….

Indicating thoughts with italics is so much nicer, thought the blog author to himself. Hell, you technically don't even need to set thoughts apart from the rest of the narrative at all.

4. Incorrect dialogue punctuation

Nothing gets me down like seeing an otherwise mechanically competent writer mangle his/her dialogue with unholy constructions like

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"I am talking." Said the guy.
which is the dialogue equivalent of

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I killed. A man.

It makes you wonder if people even read books anymore, considering how a glance in any printed book would swiftly teach anyone the nuances of basic dialogue punctuation.

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"I am talking," said the guy. "Words are coming out of my mouth."
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"I am talking," said the guy, "and therefore words are coming out of my mouth."
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"I am talking!" said the guy.
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"Am I talking?" asked the guy.
The above quotes cover most things you'll ever need to worry about.

3. Needless first person

Most stories these days are written in third person limited or third person omniscient. Seeing as third person limited can (and often is) used to follow a single character, there's little need for first person in fiction – unless your story is written in a way that takes advantage of the format.

First person is a very personal and intimate style – every first person story is pretty much the protagonist telling the reader about the things they've done. To make the perspective work, first person stories have to be coloured by the narrator's biases and worldview, full of thoughts, asides and musings from the narrator and just generally personal and intimate. If you can replace every instance of "I" and "me" with a character's name and still have a coherent story, you're doing something wrong.

2. Needless present tense

Present tense is a powerful and unusual narrative style. There's a sense of immediacy and unpredictability in "we wait" that you just don't get with "we waited". Because many people tell anecdotes in the present tense ("So I'm walking down the street and I verb a noun…") you also get this informal, comfortable feeling that's not there with past tense. Present tense creates a specific atmosphere that's only appropriate under specific circumstances.

So you can imagine the wastefulness of a story written in present tense "just because", where the tense serves as nothing but a distraction and a worrying indicator of how few books the author has read in his/her life. Past tense is good and conventional and appropriate in most cases. It's a natural choice for narrative and should be the first option you consider.

1. Musical Names

Quote:
Firestormx sat on 64D's server, taking swigs from his hipflask. The site administrator was drunk.
HE HAS A NAME DAMNIT.

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F1ak3r managed to finished writing his newest blog entry before tiredness overtook the Computer Science student.
I HAVE A NAME DAMNIT.

The number one thing that irritates me in amateur writing is what Orson Scott Card has dubbed "Musical Names". It's the practice of being a hack author and subbing in a flowery and generally irrelevant description whenever you feel like you're overusing a character's name.

Names are invisible and pronouns are even more invisible. Ninety-five percent of the time, you can avoid distracting descriptors by just rearranging your sentences a bit and tossing in a pronoun or two.

*breathes deeply* That was fun. I'll post another blog soon… probably a happier one with less of an "everyone is an idiot except me" vibe to it.

F1ak3r

Comments

Castypher 12 years, 2 months ago

Let's see….

Overall I agree with everything here, although I can't say I've seen a lot of the first three examples. Some of it (the last in particular) is an attempt to be poetic and/or give description in fewer words than, you know, an entire goddamn paragraph.

But the one thing I don't agree with is your take on first person, seeing as I just finished my first book with that POV, and let me tell you why:

I am a third person writer. Eight of my stories are written in third, and one in first. I hated first person up until this month, actually. But after actually writing it, I found that it's not only more difficult than I thought, but it allows you to form a very close relationship with the main character, one that you couldn't form with a third person POV.

With this story and a Stephen King novel I'm finishing, Duma Key, I can only see first person working, and nothing else.

Here's my take on when they work well. And this is from personal experience so it differs between us. First person is great if the story is centered around a single character, and their emotions are vital to the plot of the story. Third person is good if the main character isn't the only character you want to push forward. I'm also trying another story in first person where the protagonist isn't the narrator. It can be done.

I do agree with you though, about first person stories needing to be filled with an unreliable view of the world. The character's thoughts have to play out into the narrative, and that's why I find it a difficult POV to do well.

I do get annoyed that it's the first POV writers try, mostly for that reason, and partly because a lot of the ones I know try to imagine themselves as the hero, which I think is just a bit childish. Just a pet peeve.

If you ever want me to post a ranting comment, you know what to talk about.

F1ak3r 12 years, 2 months ago

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Overall I agree with everything here, although I can't say I've seen a lot of the first three examples.
If only we could all be so blessed.

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Some of it (the last in particular) is an attempt to be poetic and/or give description in fewer words than, you know, an entire goddamn paragraph.
Keyword: attempt. Musical names stands out as abnormally poetic and quite out of place (and thus distracting) in most writing styles.

Quote:
I am a third person writer. Eight of my stories are written in third, and one in first. I hated first person up until this month, actually. But after actually writing it, I found that it's not only more difficult than I thought, but it allows you to form a very close relationship with the main character, one that you couldn't form with a third person POV.

With this story and a Stephen King novel I'm finishing, Duma Key, I can only see first person working, and nothing else.
Well yeah. Maybe I didn't really convey myself perfectly in the blog, but the thing about first person is that it's best used when you can't use any other perspective without ruining your story. A story written in first person where I don't get a feeling for who the protagonist is (or who they're trying to be) is one that weirds me out a bit.

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Here's my take on when they work well. And this is from personal experience so it differs between us. First person is great if the story is centered around a single character, and their emotions are vital to the plot of the story.
I agree with this. My main peeve is with first person narrators who are interchangeable with third person ones. Basically I just think it's important to put thought into your choice of narration and what works best for the story you're trying to tell.

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Third person is good if the main character isn't the only character you want to push forward. I'm also trying another story in first person where the protagonist isn't the narrator. It can be done.
Oh, but of course! Just call me Ishmael (or John Watson).

Castypher 12 years, 2 months ago

So are you a writer yourself? Or do you just do a lot of reading? Forgive me if you've brought it up before.

I guess the other thing amateur writers do (and something I'm still working on myself) falls into the whole "show, don't tell" idea. Too many times I've seen sentences end with "he said", "she said", "he exclaimed". It helps a lot more to end the sentence right there and accompany it with some action. It's useful when we don't know who's talking, and it's not an entirely bad thing, but if it's a two-way dialogue, it's obvious who's doing the talking.

And last, a practice I thoroughly enjoy is playing with sentence composition. And by that I mean deliberately eliminating subjects, or placing a conjunction or preposition at the beginning (like I just did here). Those are some things that newer writers screw up a lot, but I'm one who likes to play against the rules a bit. I guess the whole "You can only break the rules if you know them" plays here.

Also, ellipses that end a sentence can have four, including the period. I don't know why I just thought of that.

Anyway, a lot of my peeves are coming from this friend of mine, whose story I read very recently and found myself thoroughly disgusted with for many reasons. Sentence structure, grammar, spelling, terrible cliches, poor characters, you name it.

Ferret 12 years, 2 months ago

I began to read this blog, 'Fuck.' I thought. The confused reader is now commenting.

Castypher 12 years, 2 months ago

Oh, and regarding thoughts in narrative, I do it all the time. I rarely ever even set them apart with italics. It just helps me push the character a little more.

I always write third-person limited, by the way. My first was omniscient, the type that switches points of view every chapter (but not within them). That was written forever ago and has since been rewritten several times. One of the dangerous flaws with it though is that there should be some sort of pattern that the reader can easily pick up, or he might be confused during the first few pages of a new character's chapter (because you shouldn't have to say their name all the time).

Though I would like to do another omniscient POV again. It's very fun if done well.

Seleney 12 years, 2 months ago

This was quite interesting and informative you guys :) I'll have to watch for these things.

F1ak3r 12 years, 2 months ago

@Kilin: Mostly a reader, but I have written a few things on and off. I wrote a fair number of flash fiction pieces on Robosquid back in the day and did NaNoWriMo one year. I've been slowly getting back into it lately, but not with anything ready for consumption or worth discussing right now.

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I guess the other thing amateur writers do (and something I'm still working on myself) falls into the whole "show, don't tell" idea. Too many times I've seen sentences end with "he said", "she said", "he exclaimed". It helps a lot more to end the sentence right there and accompany it with some action. It's useful when we don't know who's talking, and it's not an entirely bad thing, but if it's a two-way dialogue, it's obvious who's doing the talking.
Heh, I used to that with all of my dialogue religiously. These days I try to mix it up with more action and even one or two "He said, 'Wordy word word words!'"s (but only one or two… those things are weird).

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And last, a practice I thoroughly enjoy is playing with sentence composition. And by that I mean deliberately eliminating subjects, or placing a conjunction or preposition at the beginning (like I just did here). Those are some things that newer writers screw up a lot, but I'm one who likes to play against the rules a bit. I guess the whole "You can only break the rules if you know them" plays here.
As long as you know what the rules are for and why you're breaking them when you break them, I think it's okay to rebel every once in a while. Grammar is the servant of readability and expression and should not be upheld merely for its own sake.

What's more, "rules" like "don't begin sentence with conjunctions" or "don't end sentences with prepositions" aren't so much rules as they are handy little tips about stuff that's okay but likely shouldn't be overused.

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Also, ellipsis that end a sentence can have four, including the period. I don't know why I just thought of that.
I learnt that rule recently. It weirds me out and I keep forgetting it.

@Ferret: You even shifted tenses halfway through, you magnificent bastard!

@Kilin (again):

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I always write third-person limited, by the way. My first was omniscient, the type that switches points of view every chapter (but not within them). That was written forever ago and has since been rewritten several times. One of the dangerous flaws with it though is that there should be some sort of pattern that the reader can easily pick up, or he might be confused during the first few pages of a new character's chapter (because you shouldn't have to say their name all the time).
I try to strike a balance between writing first and third person, leaning more towards first person in my earlier writing and more towards third in my later writing. Pretty much always limited.

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Though I would like to do another omniscient POV again. It's very fun if done well.
The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy is third person omniscient. =)

@Seleney: Happy to be of service!

MMOnologueguy 12 years, 2 months ago

Quote:
"I am talking." Said the guy.
Hey, wow, this kind of has a cool effect to it. I'm totally gonna try this if I ever have the chance.

Seleney 12 years, 2 months ago

Hopefully it wasn't finding my blog that spurned this O_O If it was though, I'm all for constructive criticism. Feel free to point out what does and does not work. ^_^

F1ak3r 12 years, 2 months ago

@MMORPGguy: -_- Better intentional than out of ignorance, I guess.

@Seleney: It wasn't - this is just the result of seeing a lot of irritating practices in writing for a number of years now. But now that I have found your blog, scrolled to the bottom and downloaded that file, I see why you might think that (dirty single-quotes-in-direct-thought-person).

Seriously, though, I'll take a look at that and give any useful input I can come up with.