Posts Tagged ‘bad phrases’
Today, let’s talk about a particular crime against English: the reflexive pronoun. If you aren’t sure what that means:
The characters find themselves trapped.
Each ally within 10 meters (including yourself) gain a bonus to Ninjaification.
He was besides himself with anguish.
Most of the time, this is just shitty faux-Tolkien writing. Happens often in fantasy prose, and doubly so in adventure writing. It’s clunky and, in most cases, unnecessary.
Let’s look at “The characters find themselves trapped.” You can change it to “The characters are trapped.” The meaning doesn’t change, and just as I said with adverbs, if the meaning doesn’t change kill the construction.
Some would say that “are” is boring compared to “find themselves,” but that’s the thing about editing — the audience sees “are” and not know that it used to have “find themselves.” And if you kill that wording, you leave space for emphasis elsewhere where needed.
That’s important, so let me repeat: When you kill these unnecessary constructions, you leave space in your manuscript for the emphasis that you really want.
With “Each ally within 10 meters (including yourself)” can easily become “You and each ally within 10 meters”. “He was besides himself with anguish.” can become “He was filled with anguish.”
There are times when they’re useful. It can be an emphasis tool, though there are better tools for it that don’t look like awkward writing. And sometimes you cannot remove it without changing the meaning, such as “If you cast a spell on yourself…” But if you can kill the construction and neither the meaning nor the intent changes, do so.
You will thank yourself for it.
 This is the opening of its own topic.
To follow from last time I did this, let’s talk about words to strike from writing. Many writing books worth their salt will tell you to kill adverbs, and with good reason: they make it easy to suck as a writer, as they open the door to laziness.
Let’s go with a few to illustrate:
- obviously — if you have to say “this is obvious,” either that’s unnecessary or it’s really not
- impossibly — this is not a synonym for very. Saying, for instance, “impossibly dark” is a wince-worthy phrase that you don’t see (for good reason) outside of crappy fantasy.
- uniquely — also not a synonym for very. (This is similar to saying “somewhat unique” — the word “unique” has a binary meaning, and isn’t a synonym for “rare.”)
- usually — this is an oft-overused word, one that can be easily cut.
- very — this is, more often than not, dull. It’s “telling, not showing” as the old adage says. Similar: all synonyms and faux-synonyms of very.
- (same as verb) — anything like “runs quickly” or “brags haughtily”. The rule: if you remove the adverb and the sentence doesn’t change meaning, then you don’t need it.
The trick with adverbs is understanding when to use them, and that comes first with killing those you’re overusing. Take the last document you wrote — short story, game text, whatever. Look for all the adverbs you’re using. List all the ones you’re using once and the ones you’re using more than once.
For those you’re using more than once, try to go the next three pieces without using them, and watch how that impacts your writing. For those you used just once, go the next piece without using those either.
My fellow editors: what other adverbs go on your chopping block? Are there situations where you keep them?
When I’m working with writers, I find a number of phrases that I immediately strike because, to be frank, they’re bad phrases. Some just take up unnecessary space on the page and time if read aloud. Others are subtly insulting. And in all cases, they don’t actually add to what’s being said. The following is an incomplete list:
As you can see,
Put “as you can see” in the list of phrases to rarely use. Either the reader already sees them, in which case it’s irrelevant, or the reader doesn’t, in which case you’re unintentionally demeaning.
As in “Perhaps the most important…” Don’t use “perhaps”. The reader isn’t musing with you. She’s trying to learn from you.
Keep in mind… and Remember…
These are not assertive statements. On rare occasions, “Keep in mind” is the right thing to do, but normally it should be struck. And “Remember” is a more condescending version of “Keep in mind.”
In other words,
If you have to do this in order to make your point come across, you didn’t explain it right the first time. Strike this and rewrite that passage.
Too academic. Granted, that’s more situational, but I look at that word very carefully.
…rule of thumb…
Ever since I saw the (possibly untrue) explanation in Boondock Saints of “rule of thumb” meaning you could beat your wife with something as long as it wasn’t wider than your thumb, I have an association with this phrase. Additionally, it’s a lazy writing tool (and sometimes a lazy design tool).
…in your game/campaign/story…
This is implied. Kill it wherever it crops up.
When something “often varies,” that’s not really a variance on anything. That leads me to thinking you don’t know what you’re talking about.
It is possible to…
Passive voice! Kill this.
It’s worth noting that… (similarly, Note that…)
I assume so, since you’re noting it. As with some of the others, here’s a case where you can just strike the clause, capitalize the next letter, and the edit’s done.
There’s more, oh so much more. And you editors out there might have some to share in the comments. And to be absolutely clear, we all do stuff like this. Writing this doesn’t make you a bad writer; taking them out makes you a better writer.