Grammatically Correct, But Oh So Wrong

While editing my WIP I came to the realization the my characters often begin to. They begin to cry. They begin to run. They begin...well you get the point. At first I laughed because it was funny. Do these guys ever get around to doing anything? Then I realized it wasn't so funny because I was the one who did it and I had to fix it. Thank heaven for the search function. That got me thinking. So I searched for started to, able to, and seems to. (I blush at how long this took.) So now my characters run, cry, jump, eat, etc. It reads better but I'm wondering...what other problems are lurking in my WIP that I skim over because I've read it so many times? (And my wonderful readers have missed too?)

So here's my question. What problems do you often see in manuscripts that are grammatically correct - yet awkward? Do you have a list of common errors that writers should search for while editing?

All of your examples fall under the category of "passive voice"—something that should rarely be used. Pretty much any verb followed by to is passive. Other indicators are verb phrases that use a form of be—such as am, are, been, is, was, were. Also look for the phrase by the or just by after the verb. CLICK HERE for a great list of passive tense verbs.

One note on passive voice: Sometimes it may be appropriate. For example, in first person dialogue. The key is to use it consciously and for a specific reason.

Other common things that I see and regularly delete or change:
  • author's favorite words (varies by author)
  • too many adverbs and adjectives
  • of (as in "He jumped out of the window.")
  • overused words—just, that, however, so, because, although, etc. (CLICK HERE for a great list of examples.)
  • names that end in s—this is a personal thing. It's just so visually awkward to make possessive or plural
  • another personal peeve—irregular verbs that have been forced to be regular, for example, lighted. I change it back to lit.

(P.S. Everything went as expected. All is well.)


Annette Lyon said...

Great list. I agree. It's almost scary how many things like that creep into mss.

As the resident grammar nerd, though, I have to point out that verbs with "to" after them aren't passive. Neither are "was -ing" verbs--both common misunderstandings.

They're definitely weak constructions, but they aren't passive:


Anonymous said...

Great post. And wonderful list. Nice reference material. This line of discussion is possibly the most important in development of writing because it leads to a discussion on voice.

Passive usage destroys the voice of your character. As does repetitive use of words (or other repetition problems). And so does a string of declarative sentences:

She ran to the porch. She looked across the meadow. She could see Harvey running a zig zag to avoid the gunshots. She called to him, to avoid the sniper on the bluff. She was too frightened to say more.

In spite of other problems in this example, like telling an emtion rather than showing her fright, these declarative sentences can weaken your writing if they're strung together back to back in much the same was as does repetitive use of passive constructions like she began to run to the porch. She started looking across the meadow. She tried to see Harvey running a zig zag to avoid the gunshots.

The voice of your character requires, among about six or seven other important qualities, less use of declaratives, rare if any use of passives, and a whole lot of perspiration to make it all happen. That's why really good writing is like a stew. You gotta let it simmer, work out all these nasties until you have a winner worthy of chowing down (or in more civilized exchange, worthy of consuming).

And since this example has bullets and gunshots in it, longer sentences with lots of description isn't an option. The voice of your writing has got to match the quick, fast paced action in this particular scene. Gotta keep the descriptions down in favor of emphasizing the action of running, gunshots and fear, with just enough description to frame the entire scene in its setting.

Mary Elizabeth ran to the porch. Not through open meadow Harvey. Bullets pelted the dust next to his ziggin and zagging.

"Harvey, the sniper." Mary pointed to the bluff, before ducking behind the veranda. Dear Lord, what else could do?

Anonymous said...

ops. I should have written this example. Sorry:

Mary Elizabeth ran to the porch. Not through the open meadow Harvey. Bullets pelted the dust next to his zigging and zagging.

"Harvey, the sniper." Mary pointed to the bluff, before ducking behind the veranda. Dear Lord, what else could do?

Jennifer Ricks said...

Oh, gosh. I've been reading a lot of L.M. Montgomery lately, whom I love, but I cringe every time a character says something "dreamily." It's an adverb and an author's favorite word! :)

Traci Hunter Abramson said...

This post brings back so many memories of using the search function when I'm editing. My problem is that once I identify a favorite word and stop overusing it, a new one creeps in. Makes me extremely grateful for good editors!