Know Your Weaknesses

Those who are following DennisHamster on Twitter will be aware that Shadow King has been moved up the release schedule, and is now coming out in January 2010. This meant that I spent the second half of last week and much of the weekend reading through the proofed files to make a few last tweaks and to address a couple of points raised.

Alongside a couple of instances of name confusion and timing questions, there was one thing that really leapt out at me. Throughout the document, the proofreader had changed ‘toward’ and ‘forward’ to ‘towards’ and ‘forwards’ (the second usage being more common in British English, the former in American English). The change in itself is pretty non-descript, but because I was looking at a marked-up Word file, every instance had a little red underline. Reading through the document it became apparent just how much I use both of these words.

I had a similar comment on my sample chapters for the Crown of the Blood concerning ‘now’, and I’ve also noticed in the past how much I used to employ ‘then’. While none of the usages were technically incorrect, they certainly added additional ‘waffiness’ to sentences. When writers and editors talk about ‘sharp’ or ‘tight’ writing (or some similar adjective) it is these sorts of minor but unnecessary ‘weasel words’ that can make a text feel subtly bloated, like the written version of a speech impediment, lengthening a sentence without adding any extra meaning.

Another that can crop up is superfluous ‘subject reinforcement’ with pronouns (‘he’, ‘she’, ‘his’, ‘her’, etc.). Often article confusion (mixing ‘a’ with ‘the’) can also subtly change the flow of the prose, or may be excess to requirements entirely.

A real example from Shadow King:

Alith took a step forwards, his hand outstretched in a placating gesture, but the stag suddenly looked to the west and then bounded away into the forest.

A little bit sharper after editing:

Alith took a step, hand outstretched in a placating gesture, but the stag suddenly looked to the west and bounded away into the forest.

As a reader and a writer we assume that a step is forwards unless we’re directed otherwise. Similarly, unless the subject of an action might be confusing, we usually know who is performing it and don’t need telling again.

Others I have noticed – lunging forwards, using ‘forwards’ instead of ‘closer’. In all, ‘forwards’ appeared 132 times and ‘towards’ 232 times ina 150K document. That doesn’t seem like much as a bare statistic, but once you have it highlighted it really shows up how often one can fall into a bad habit…

This is where modern word processing can really help. I have a list of ‘Gav’s weasel words and phrases’. Rather than get hung up during the actual writing, I can use the Find function to locate these words during the first edit and assess whether they are really needed at all.

Have a close look at your writing to see if you have any such words and stock phrases that crop up too often. You may well be surprised.

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6 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Yeah, I make a glossary of unusual words I’ve used as I go along, and at the end check they haven’t been used more than they should have, which is a similar thing.

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  2. Great point and cheers for sharing 🙂 Definitely something I normally do 😦
    If it is possible, could you share your list of things to look out for? Or is that a trade secret? 😉

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  3. Gav,
    Any chance you could be an absolute gent and repost the fine example of the ‘Annihilation Squad’synopsis you posted last year? I’ve lost and some of us deranged, manic typists need a little push in the right direction? Ta!

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    • If you’d like to slide your eyes over to the right-hand sidebar and scroll down a bit, you’ll find your treasure…

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      • Actually, make that ‘scroll up a bit’…

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  4. Hey Gav,

    First time poster, short time listener. On the off chance you read this, could you please explain the GW style usage of the word ‘span’ as the past tense of ‘spin’. Numerous times I have cringed as someone ‘span across the room in a whirlwind of death’ or something similar. Please let the editors know the correct modern term is ‘spun’, I don’t think ‘span’ has been used for centuries. Even books I read as a kid many decades back told me Rapunzel had hair of spun gold, not span gold. cheers!

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