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

Quote:
The barrel began to roll down the hill.
Quote:
The men drew their swords and began to fight.
Quote:
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.

Quote:
The barrel toppled over the hill.
Quote:
The men drew their swords and flew at each other.
Quote:
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

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

Quote:
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.

Quote:
"I am talking," said the guy. "Words are coming out of my mouth."
Quote:
"I am talking," said the guy, "and therefore words are coming out of my mouth."
Quote:
"I am talking!" said the guy.
Quote:
"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.

Quote:
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

Astryl 12 years, 3 months ago

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

:D

Quote:

Why the 64Digits HDD crashed last week

Robbie was sitting on the 64Digits server, taking swigs from his hipflask.

Even to the least observant, it was clear that he was drunk; it came as no surprise that both server and administrator crashed.

Mordi 12 years, 3 months ago

I'm a hobbyist grammar-nazi myself, although english is not my native language.

One thing about punctuation:

Quote:
"I am talking," said the guy. "Words are coming out of my mouth."
I've always seen this method as the most logical –> "I am talking", said the guy. "Words are coming out of my mouth".

Although, in this case, it makes much more sense to use the other method:

Quote:
"I am talking," said the guy, "and therefore words are coming out of my mouth."

Edit: Haha, Ferret.

F1ak3r 12 years, 3 months ago

^

Quote:
I've always seen this method as the most logical –> "I am talking", said the guy. "Words are coming out of my mouth".
This has always looked really ugly to me. Some dubious sources say that it's the proper way to punctuate dialogue outside of America, but I've never seen it in print. In any case, it looks rather inconsistent next to the second thing, so I certainly wouldn't do both.

Acid 12 years, 3 months ago

People who do those things make me want to strangle them. Whenever someone asks me to read their story, if I see just ONE of these errors, its usually a sign that the work is going to be sub par. Good writers are usually good at writing.

Cesque 12 years, 3 months ago

This was a fun read.

But how do you indicate thoughts which are phrased as questions without weird puncuation-mixing?, thought Cesque.

P.S. Ever read anything by Cormac McCarthy? (No Country for Old Men, The Road, etc.). I wonder what you'd think about his way of (not) distinguishing dialogue from the narration…

F1ak3r 12 years, 3 months ago

@Acid: Indeedy.

@Cesque:

Quote:
But how do you indicate thoughts which are phrased as questions without weird puncuation-mixing?, thought Cesque.
I'm definitely against "?,". Avoid the issue by leaving question-thoughts untagged, or make sure you're using italics if you're going to do that… or maybe just leave off the comma and have a question mark in the middle of the sentence.

Quote:
P.S. Ever read anything by Cormac McCarthy? (No Country for Old Men, The Road, etc.). I wonder what you'd think about his way of (not) distinguishing dialogue from the narration…
I can't say I have. I'll look for that. I'm disinclined to dismiss it as a bad thing or praise it without seeing how he pulls it off.

Part of why I'm beginning to rather dislike the term "Grammar Nazi" is that it insinuates that grammar/spelling/punctuation should be rigorously corrected everywhere for its own sake when, in actuality, proper grammar is just something that generally makes stuff more readable and pleasant. I think it can take a backseat in purposefully-written creative expression.

Castypher 12 years, 3 months ago

If you're doing third person limited, you really shouldn't have to throw in the "…thought x character". And if you're doing omniscient, you should probably learn how to do it in the first place.

Incorporating thoughts into first person narrative is easy. In third person it should be done in a way that makes it obvious it's the character's thought, or else it's like throwing "he said" into a monologue. Italics are one way, using it in narrative is another.

You know, I'm kind of a whore for grammar and all, but the same goes for the opposite. If someone is too grammatical in storywriting, and doesn't break the rules, I can't take it seriously. Leave that to the essays, because it makes everything sound like an endless drawl when the author has the voice of a computer.

Seleney 12 years, 3 months ago

Quote:
(dirty single-quotes-in-direct-thought-person).
In my defense my original copy on word is actually italicized. Unfortunately, whe I transferred it to note pad the ilalics no longer worked/existed :( So I did the only thing I could think of and became (dirty single-quotes-in-direct-thought-person).

edit: scratch that, they seem to be working O_O at least there are italics even if there are also single quotes ^_^

pounce4evur 12 years, 3 months ago

These suggestions are actually pretty good, I might just use this blog at some point…

F1ak3r 12 years, 3 months ago

Quote:
If someone is too grammatical in storywriting, and doesn't break the rules, I can't take it seriously.
Regardless of grammatical correctness, I will never do that "may instead of can" thing and can seldom bring myself to say "whom". They both just sound too pretentious.

What's more, I'd rather comma splice dialogue than put a semicolon in, unless the character is supposed to be… well, the kind of person who would speak with semicolons.

@pounce4evur: Glad to be of use!