Does your writing taxi to the end of the literary runway but fail to take off? Is your prose stuck at the gate like an overbooked commuter flight to Utica? Do you write well yet continue to pull from your mailbox limp, flaccid envelopes holding scraps of pastel paper from publications whose “needs” you have not met? It’s time to transform your prose from a broken-down turbo-prop to a sleek-bellied SST. Try these simple fixes for common writing mistakes––mistakes my university English students make every day––and soon your writing will fly high.
Let’s begin with…
Cliché is the monkey wrench mediocre writers throw into the gears of their prose. Here is a paragraph with clichés shown in italics:
Truth be told, Yosemite was his idea. Yosemite was his dream come true. His wife and daughter wanted more than anything to go to Orlando, but everything about Orlando rubbed him the wrong way. The three of them fought like cats and dogs. He won, but he learned a valuable lesson: be careful what you wish for.
Now let’s rewrite that passage using detail and vivid language to eliminate cliché:
His wife and daughter wanted to go to Orlando and be entertained by sanitized Disney experiences. He wanted to go to Yosemite National Park and read Thoreau and sit by Bridalveil Fall and become submersed in observance of nature. He did not want to go on an endless Disney jungle ride with vinyl boa constrictors dropping out of imitation jacaranda trees and recorded macaque cries echoing through the temperature-controlled air and plastic parrots screeching their high-pitched repetitive shrieks and an improbable boat pilot shooting his pretend pistol into a polypropylene hippopotamus rising out of the temperature-controlled water to yawn his jaws open and display his polypropylene epiglottis. He won the argument, but he did not foresee the potential pitfalls of Yosemite park rangers.
Now the reader understands the wishes of the writer, because the true horrors of Orlando are elaborated and enumerated, not simply alluded to with clichés.
SHOW. DON’T TELL.
Here is a paragraph taken from one of my student’s short stories:
The professor was lonely. He acted smart. He would show off by using big words. He carried around a gigantic ugly maroon briefcase that supposedly held his novel-in-progress.
Just about everything is wrong with this paragraph. Don’t tell me “The professor was lonely.” Show me. Use details, such as:
After the professor’s wife left him for a Yosemite park ranger he was forced to live alone in a shabby apartment with Bangladeshi neighbors who cooked curry at midnight because his alimony and child support for an ungrateful daughter named Phoebe with a silver skull in her navel were too high and the judge was herself a divorced woman who hated men.
Dig deep, imagine, and show your characters fully.
“He acted smart.” This writer is telling but not showing how the professor acted. Try:
He had a certain indefinable sophistication.
He was clearly far too talented to be teaching freshman English.
He had so much knowledge he wanted to impart, but we were Philistines.
Any of these would be better.
Notice the reference to “big words.” Here is a perfect opportunity to show. Are they words like hyperbole? Epiphany? Onomatopoeia? Or words like Machiavellianism? Unlikelihood? Tenure?
METAPHOR AND SIMILE
One of the best ways to show without telling is to use metaphorical language. Metaphors and similes will lift your sagging 747 of a story up to cruising altitude. For example, you might write a sentence such as:
He wondered if he had wasted his life teaching.
That’s boring. What about something like:
He had been eaten alive by the jaws of academe.
When you use “eaten alive” and “jaws of academe” as metaphors, you imply the entire painful scenario of a voracious beast of a pointless job at a soulless institution that can swallow a person up so that twelve years pass in the blink of an eye and now all his clothes smell like chicken tandoori.
“Jaws of academe” is an example of an abstract metaphor, which illuminates a concept. Another type of metaphor––the descriptive metaphor––helps to show more vividly a place or a thing or a person. Instead of saying, for example,
The house fell into disrepair.
create an image by saying:
The house was an aging, beat-up alley cat crouching in dandelions because his ex-wife refused to pay for repairs.
Notice how this metaphor not only creates an image of a poorly maintained house, but the alley cat idea, with its implications about the ex-wife, does double duty.
A simile is a type of metaphor that compares two things using “like” or “as.” Examples:
Thanks to her overly permissive mother, Phoebe dressed like a prostitute on a pirate ship, with her black jeans low on her hips and a silver skull glinting from her pierced navel.
Some single-ply toilet paper is as scratchy as sandpaper.
Notice how comparisons using “like” or “as” give more of a picture––more of a feel––for what the writer is writing about.
Avoid mixed metaphors or similes. Let’s say you begin with a simile such as:
His ex-wife’s acrylic fingernails were like the talons of a raptor.
That is a perfectly serviceable simile. But in the next sentence you would not want to say:
Her new eye makeup made her look like a raccoon.
Now the reader is confused, because you have used two very different animals metaphorically. One solution might be:
His ex-wife’s acrylic fingernails and heavy black eyeliner made her look like a raccoon, a grasping, greedy animal that scavenges with its pointy fingers for everything it can get, consequences be damned.
Or, if you prefer the image of the raptor:
Because his ex-wife’s acrylic fingernails were like the talons of a raptor and her disgusting black eye makeup made her eyes even beadier, she looked like a crazed eagle, constantly seeking prey, constantly circling for a limp, flaccid animal she could swoop down upon and devour.
The two metaphors above are powerful because the writer has extended them to intensify the image. Extended metaphor is a useful device. Let’s go back to the sentence, “He had been eaten alive by the jaws of academe.” That is such a good metaphor, it is worth extending:
He had been eaten alive by the jaws of academe. In the Roman Coliseum that was the English Department, he felt like a naked gladiator with only a gigantic maroon shield and a small sword to defend himself against the lions. Even a simple question such as “Why have we gone to single-ply toilet paper in the faculty restrooms?” or “When will the tenure committee be meeting?” would receive a thumbs-down from the Emperor-Nero-like departmental chairman.
Notice how “lions” resonates with “jaws of academe.” Notice how “Emperor Nero” extends the image. You would not say “Machiavellian departmental chairman,” even if it were true, because that would mix the metaphor.
PARAGRAPHS – THE TOPIC SENTENCE
Writers hate hearing about “the topic sentence.” It reminds them of junior-high teachers who may have worn stiletto heels or may have shown too much cleavage while yammering away about theme papers. Sorry, but those gals in those inappropriate outfits were right! The first sentence of any good paragraph signals what that paragraph will be about.
Let’s say my topic sentence is:
Yosemite National Park employs 978 park rangers in the summertime.
What does that signal? It signals that I am going to write about Yosemite park rangers, perhaps their responsibilities, their job descriptions, their ugly olive-drab uniforms, their stupid hats, their code of ethics or lack thereof. I am not going to go off on a tangent about any one park ranger, about how he might meet this or that park visitor and show off his unnaturally white teeth, about the gadgets such as bear spray and stun guns and GPS devices hanging off his big leather belt, about all the spare time he has to stay in shape, about how his uniform and his gadgets and his white teeth seem to signal protection to women and girls. Not unless I start a new paragraph with a topic sentence such as:
Some of these park rangers have hidden agendas.
That sentence signals that the paragraph will be about the actions of a specific ranger or rangers. So, for example:
Some of these park rangers have hidden agendas. They are not preventing forest fires nor giving informational lectures about flora and fauna, they are hunting for a mate, like a sex-crazed grizzly crashing through the woods. They are abusing a position of responsibility by pretending to help women down off boulders, grabbing them around the waist, and letting their hands linger there. They are ostensibly educating youth by demonstrating GPS devices to young girls while secretly looking at the skulls in their navels. They are humiliating husbands by sniffing the air and saying, “I’m afraid Old Spice is an ursine attractant.”
The paragraph’s topic sentence not only conveys the subject matter, it makes you want to read on.
PASSIVE VOICE / ACTIVE VOICE
Wherever possible, writing should be done in the active voice. Do you know the difference between passive and active voice? Here’s a quiz. Which paragraph is active and which is passive?
- After the Yosemite vacation, lawyers were engaged. A shabby apartment was rented and his meager belongings were transported to it. Plans were made by the park ranger to move to New Jersey. Eyebrows were pierced. Tenure was denied. His house and his life were encroached upon by a state of disrepair.
- His wife hired a barracuda in tasseled loafers to wring every last dollar out of him. Without rancor, he leased a small but dignified apartment alongside hardworking, valiant immigrants, with whom he felt a strange kinship. The park ranger relocated and moved into the falling-down house with the ex-wife and daughter. In an obvious acting-out gesture, Phoebe pierced her eyebrow and inserted a Hello Kitty bobblehead there. The professor met with the tenure committee to no avail, but secretly thought, “Just wait until my novel is published.” As if in sympathy with his travails, the gutters of his former house clogged, leaked, and fell off.
With a side-by-side comparison like this, you can see that paragraph a. is in passive voice and paragraph b. is in active voice. In passive voice, things are acted upon. In active voice, people (or gutters) perform actions. The verbs––wring, balked, pierced, clogged––are interesting verbs. We’ll discuss interesting verbs in a moment, but first let’s explain…
Adverbs are perennially misused. One of the most common mistakes is putting adverbs in dialogue attribution:
“I’ve got less pierces than most kids,” Phoebe said snottily.
“Dad, haven’t you heard of match-dot-com?” Phoebe asked impertinently.
You see what I mean? When the speaker is a twelve-year-old girl who lives with her too-permissive mother and has a pink cell phone that cost more than a month of her father’s rent, we can guess that every word out of her mouth is snotty and impertinent and simply leave off the adverbs.
Let’s look at adverbs in other contexts.
He met Monica online. On their first date she willfully hid her true nature.
You might be tempted to use “willfully” (or “deliberately” or “demonically” or “fiendishly”) to modify “hid.” Remember: most such modifiers are unnecessary. Most readers understand how wickedly duplicitous it is for someone to hide their true nature on a first date, and your sentence will be stronger for not over-explaining something that is fairly well known in today’s world where online thieves make millions pretending to match you with your perfect counterpart and their way-out-of-date photos, so just eliminate that adverb.
On their second date, he went unwillingly to a Japanese restaurant.
When you find yourself using a phrase such as “went unwillingly,” eliminate the adverb and find a better action verb:
On their second date, Monica dragged him to an upscale Japanese restaurant.
The verb “dragged” says so much more. Which brings us to…
INTERESTING, ACTION VERBS
Action verbs will catapult your sentences into the wild blue yonder.
Because he once vomited all night after eating awabi, he spurned the entire sashimi side of the menu.
This sentence uses strong, action verbs. They are not limp, flaccid verbs, like “got sick” or “ignored,” but vivid words like “vomit” and “spurn.”
Monica hurled epithets at him –– Wimp! Coward! –– but they bounced off him like rubbery wasabi squid balls.
“Hurled” has so much more force than, say, “yelled” or “shouted.” “Bounced” creates an image and is much stronger than phrases like “rolled off” or “missed their mark.” Note also the apt squid-ball simile.
By now you can see the difference between a sentence such as:
He tried to kiss her, but Monica slipped into her apartment.
He lunged for her, but Monica slammed the door in his face.
Use the stronger verb wherever possible.
Who among us has not picked up a menu that screams:
Special of the Day: Panko-Fried Halibut Cheek’s!
Or received an email that screams:
Please do not send me any more message’s!
As these examples show, plurals are not made with apostrophes. Plurals, of course, are made with a simple s as in cheeks or messages, or with es as in witches or tigresses. Of course there are many exceptions, such as she-wolves, harpies or hippopotami. When in doubt, consult your dictionary.
The possessive is the form that takes an apostrophe, as in:
He had worked for years on his novel’s sensitive web of sexual intrigue.
His agent’s queries went unanswered.
Confusion arises when the possessive applies to a word that is already plural. For example:
He refused to cater to publishers’ whims.
shows how to indicate a plural possessive.
Other problems arise around it’s and its. Remember: it’s is a contraction of “it is” and its is a possessive. The passage:
“It’s a novel that is ahead of its time,” his agent insisted. “It’s too bad the publishing world won’t come to its senses.”
demonstrates the correct usages.
Perhaps you recall a high-school teacher who used a cruel red pencil to cross out a word you repeated over and over in an essay. Perhaps she wrote cruel notes, such as “There are plenty of words besides ‘Machiavellian.’” True. But don’t be afraid to use repetition consciously to good effect in certain situations:
As a child, he was gravely affected by his fear of roosters. Roosters crowed him awake. Roosters crouched in the henhouse. Roosters planned ambushes. Roosters rarely roosted; they stalked, they mocked, they cock-a-doodle-dooed. Roosters pecked him, heckled him, haunted him. His nights were filled with rooster nightmares. His days were filled with rooster avoidance routes. One rooster in particular, named Banzai, would fly at his head like a barnyard kamikaze, talons first, feathers flapping, beak bloodying his sunburned scalp. His mother pitied this rooster neurosis, but his father could not abide his chickenheartedness. His father pooh-poohed his rooster fear, forced him to feed the fowl, gather the eggs, and face his rooster phobia.
Note how incessant use of the word rooster depicts the pervasive nature of the boy’s fear.
Some of my students sprinkle commas over the page like a waiter grinding a two-foot pepper mill over a Caesar salad. Commas are not a condiment. They have specific uses. Remember three simple rules:
1. Commas between independent clauses:
His agent was as tenacious as Torquemada in a torture chamber, and his novel eventually sold.
He was granted tenure, but the toilet paper problem persisted.
The comma is correct before and or but when separating independent clauses.
2. Commas after a long introductory phrase or clause:
Because there were no nail salons in Yosemite and no grizzlies in New Jersey, his ex-wife and the park ranger called it quits.
Having won tenure and repaired gutters and secured a book contract, he was received back into the bosom of his family.
When long phrases like these precede the subject, they are set off with a comma.
3. Commas setting off parenthetical information:
The Bangladeshi neighbors, whose food he had come to love, threw him a going-away party.
His daughter Phoebe, dressed modestly for a change, came to the party and met a boy named Ravi.
The clause or phrase that is set off by commas, while not necessary to the logic of the sentence, adds information.
I will close with a brief word about symbolism. If you are new to writing, you may think symbolism is a profound concept you dare not tackle. But the simplest things can be symbols.
When they married, his new bride gave him a very ugly, very large briefcase in maroon leather, perhaps not knowing he did not care for maroon. “This will hold all your novels,” she said. “All your works-in-progress.”
“It’s so big,” he replied.
At first glance, this may seem like a simple, touching scene, but think about the briefcase. It symbolizes the couple’s hopes and dreams, their future. It is empty, but one day it will be full.
Let’s look at one more example of symbolism:
At last he took his wife and daughter to Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida. While his daughter texted Ravi and his wife had a Magic Kingdom Manicure, he strolled a main-street fantasyscape that could have been designed by Engels on Ecstasy. The buildings looked like five-tier wedding cakes. The grass was lime-Jell-O green, every blade matching every other blade, every edge trimmed to Tinkerbelle tidiness. The symmetrical parks held symmetrical gazebos that held brass bands that played Sousa marches that implied protection and security imparted by an unseen, benign, semi-military presence. It was all as fake as the inflatable dolphins in the gift shops, yet it soothed him. He hopped onto a streetcar that glided silently down a track, powered by invisible Disney technology. He rode around and around and around the town. Around and around.
The utopia described in this passage symbolizes something about the character’s state of mind. The writing flies high, and the character soars. The setting symbolizes his euphoria and empowerment, which may or may not be based in “reality,” but are nevertheless satisfying and complete.
About the author: K. Hart Undertwis has written three novels: The Briefcase (a New York Times 2006 Notable Book), Rooster Days and, most recently, Yosemite, which is due out this spring from Hippopotamus Press. He teaches writing at Princeton University and lives in New Jersey with his wife and daughter.
“Flying High” was the winner of Thin Air’s 2010 Genre Blur Contest. It appeared in Thin Air Magazine, No. 17, Winter 2011