A Word About Mechanics

I’m talking about writing mechanics, not the folks who keep our cars running. (That’s a whole different breed of magic about which I’m not qualified to comment.)

Of all the many things a novice writer can do to improve his or her writing mechanics, the following handful of basics will do more than all the rest combined. I promise!

First: vary the basics–sentence lengths, paragraph lengths, dialects, and word choices. Imagine reading only six word sentences. Before long they just drone on. The words get lost in fog. Over, and over, and over again. They will put you to sleep.

But mix them up and they take on shape and texture. Some short, some long. And some that just seem to mosey on, taking their time to reach a much anticipated goal. Paragraph lengths operate much the same way. Mix ’em up. Long, short, medium, whatever. You’re writing for the eye, too, remember.

Why vary dialects? Because if everyone sounds the same, even if they all come from the same place and time, sameness generates monotony. So give someone a lisp; give someone else a slight brogue, or a cough, or something else to distinguish their voice from all the others.

And then there’s the word choice thing. Look for instances of the same word used more than once in the same paragraph. It often occurs in the same sentence, and the result isn’t pleasant: Joe’s car was pretty cool. The car had four doors and a convertible top, but unlike other cars, it had a secret: this car was jet-powered. Please, someone, gag me with a car. And then, if you have time, re-write this mess without the two instances of “was” and three of the four instances of “car.” (Post it in the comments, and I’ll do something nice, like send you a free copy of my new book, Oh, Bits!)

Second: get rid of  “was” and “-ly” words. I can hear the chorus of squeals already: “What’s wrong with ‘was?'” Nothing, except it’s the crappiest verb known to man. It squats in the middle of sentences taking up space that smart writers fill with “real” verbs, the kind that paint pictures in a reader’s brain. To wit:

  • Was version: Bobbi Sue was fast. I mean, really fast. She was the fastest gal in town.
  • Was version–1: Bobbi Sue had blinding speed; she could outrun everyone in town.
  • Was version-2: When Bobbi Sue raced, the soles of her shoes caught fire.

Close your eyes. See any pictures?

In most cases, recasting a sentence to remove “was” will result in a better sentence. Yes, there will be times when the effort isn’t worth it, especially in dialog. But keep was in mind; it’s sneaky. You’ll do your writing a tremendous service by expelling it.

Something similar can be said for adverbs. In fact, you’d do well just to focus on words ending in “ly.” There’s nothing wrong with them grammatically, and if you prefer to issue stage directions instead of writing action scenes, then keep using ’em. The problem is this: adverbs tell “how” something is accomplished: Joe ran quickly; Debbie danced gracefully; Archibald spoke harshly, etc. [Yawn]  The emphasis is on the modifier, not the verb, and this dilutes the action to the point of banality. Blah.

Why not let Joe tear through the field? Make Debbie pirouette across the stage, and have Archibald scream until his lungs ache? Science has proven that writers deal in words while readers deal in pictures. Logic dictates that the best writers paint the best word pictures. Why don’t they tell us this stuff in school? I suspect it’s because they (whoever in hell “they” are) don’t have a clue. They may be too busy diagramming sentences. [Is anyone still doing that?]

Third: ditch clichés and pet phrases. This may be the toughest one to master. Clichés have become such a part of everyday speech that we don’t realize we’re using them. They’ve become a sort of shorthand, an easy method to get an idea across without bothering to fire up an extra synapse. This failure to be creative in our spoken language causes our written language to deteriorate, too.

If you can’t find these exhausted, empty expressions on your own, find someone else who can. Have them highlight every one so you can go back and purge the damned things. Drive them away like that bloody spot in “MacBeth.” Replace them with something fresh from your own little nest of brain cells. You can do it! It takes practice, but it can be done. (And it sure beats doing push-ups.)

Identifying pet phrases can often be just as hard as finding clichés. But we all know they’re there. We just can’t see ’em. Here’s another situation that can benefit from the sharp-eyed among your friends. If you have to, pay them to find your pets. At the very least, buy them a drink and introduce them to your rich uncle. But not until you’ve gone back through your manuscript and nuked 90% of your pet words and phrases. Trust me on this, you don’t want your work to go out in the world until you’ve cleaned it up.

So, there you have it, the mainline approach to upping your writing mechanics game.

–Josh

PS: Thanks to everyone who took the time to nominate my new book, Oh, Bits! for publication in the Kindle Scout competition. It has been in the top 20 for nine days in a row now and will be available for nomination for 18 more days. If you haven’t already, click the link below if you’d like to read the opening chapter and consider supporting the book. If Kindle Press picks it up, everyone who nominated it will receive a free copy! Here’s the link: https://kindlescout.amazon.com/p/13XS5GFXGR9WH

Thank you!

About joshlangston

Grateful and well-loved husband, happy grandparent, novelist, editor, and teacher. My life plate is full, and I couldn't be happier. Anything else I might add would be anticlimactic. Cheers!
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10 Responses to A Word About Mechanics

  1. L Bowman says:

    Here is my attempt at a rewrite about Joe’s car: Joe knew this would be the type of experience he would talk about for years to come. As he walked around the car, Joe checked each door and tire, front and back. He adjusted the mirrors, and put the top down. All items on his list were perfect. A big smile spread across Joe’s face when he jumped into the front seat, pressed down on the accelerator, and experienced the thrill of his new jet powered engine.

  2. Joe owned a very unusual car: a 4-door ragtop. But more than that, it had a secret. His “baby” could fly down the street as though it were wired with the engine of a 747.

    Is that any better? I’m trying to take your lessons to heart. I’m now terrified to use the word “was.”

  3. joshlangston says:

    Yep, nice revision. I like it. Don’t be overly concerned about “was.” Fix it when you can. That alone will make a big difference.

  4. Krista Wall says:

    Here is a rewrite of Joe’s car.
    Joe looked out the window of his office. He hated his job and the monotony that came with it. He took in a slow deep breath and as he exhaled, he was comforted by the site of his four door convertible. It was the one thing in life that made him happy. Three business men slowed their conversation to take a look at this beauty. A smile spread over Joe’s face, reaching his eyes. His heart burst with excitement and pride, just knowing the best part of this treasure was the jet-powered engine.

    • joshlangston says:

      Nicely done, and I like the introduction of actual story stuff. I can see ol’ Joe taking off, literally. So, congratulations! Look for a copy of the pre-production Oh, Bits! manuscript in your mailbox.

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