Writing Advice I Take with a Grain of Salt
It’s the last Friday of the month and you know what that means! It’s Read Around the Rainbow time!
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I love how open this month’s topic is. It can be interpreted as anything from general assertions such as we should quickly throw down a first draft no matter how bad we know it is at the time, because you can’t edit something that isn’t there (I’m a no on this, btw, I can’t function that way) or otherwise how to stay motivated. Or marketing advice about where/how to promote, which days/times to release/promote, etc. Or story structure or writing styles/tenses/POVs or grammar conventions/guides. And how about that Oxford comma? I’m for it, BTW. I’m sure there’s more, but that’s what occurs to me off the top of my head.
Me? I went with a grammar trend that pokes me in the eye, but I’m looking forward to reading everyone else in the WebRing’s take on this topic!
To be, or not to be? That is the question.
Generally speaking, I’m a conformist. I follow grammar rules (well, I try to). I pay attention to what others say and do.
Except…when I think that advice is wrong. In this case, there might be a rule driving it, but I honestly think that rule is being misinterpreted no matter how prevalent the trend, and no matter how popular the writers doing it. I’m convinced it’s wrong, and I just…won’t…do it!
What I’m talking about is ruthless avoidance of forms of the verb to be (am/are/is/was/were/been/being). Don’t get me wrong, I totally agree that unnecessary use of it should be trimmed in favor of more descriptive words. What I object to is writers cutting the word in a way that changes or muddies the meaning of the sentence (generally because they changed the tense).
I often see people downright using the example of changing past continuous tense to simple past as a good thing to do in the pursuit of eliminating the dreaded “was.”
Nope. I won’t do it. I don’t like having to interpret what the author means as opposed to what they are actually saying. I don’t want to have to read on for further context to clarify the words I’ve already read. I would rather rearrange the sentence altogether to avoid the situation, but mostly, I don’t want to simply change the tense. Here’s why I feel that way…
- According to Wikipedia, the verb to be is the second most commonly used word in the English language. In other words, eliminating it too ruthlessly will likely lead to awkwardness.
- Using a form of to be is an integral part of the present/past/future continuous tenses.
- Changing the tense from continuous to simple changes the meaning of the sentence. It disrupts the communication of the sense of time.
Basically, the decision of whether or not to trim out a form of to be boils down to a question of whether the word is being used as a “helping verb” or a “linking verb”, and whether or not that “helping verb” is communicating a sense of time or if it’s being used to create passive voice.
LINKING VERB – Yes, I will try to eliminate the to be verb.
If it’s being used as a linking verb (such as NOUN “to be” ADJECTIVE), you can often improve your sentence by either rewording or by simply replacing the am/are/is/was/were with something more descriptive.
There are, of course, countless numbers of ways to do this. Here are a few examples to illustrate my point:
Harrison was incredibly tall.
Harrison towered over the others.
Tuesday was amazing.
The early morning air was frigid, and Chris shivered.
Chris wrapped his arms around himself and shivered as the early morning cold bit deep into his muscles.
HELPING VERB – PASSIVE VOICE – Yes, I will usually eliminate the to be verb (and therefore the passive voice).
There are times when passive voice is the appropriate choice, but often it’s just…passive.
Paul was kissed by Marc.
~would be better as~
Mark kissed Paul.
Of course the sentence would be even more improved with plenty of details, but killing the passive voice is step one to improving that sentence (unless, as I said, there’s a reason particular to the storyline that it should remain passive).
HELPING VERB – The verb is integral to the communication of the sense of time – This is the bit that pokes me in the eye when I’m reading a story and the writer has used simple past where a continuous action should be represented in the name of eliminating was. Nope, I won’t do it!
The thing is, if a book is being told in past tense, then what’s said in simple past is what’s happening “right now” in the story. It’s the current action, so we can’t think of it in exactly the same way we would use past tense in everyday conversation.
To illustrate my point, here is a passage from Great Expectations by Charles Dickens:
I thanked him and ran home again, and there I found that Joe had already locked the front door and vacated the state parlour, and was seated by the kitchen fire with a hand on each knee, gazing intently at the burning coals. I too sat down before the fire and gazed at the coals, and nothing was said for a long time.
Nice, right? No confusion at all as to what happened when.
But nowadays, many writers would use sat instead of was seated (or was sitting for past-continuous rather than passive voice used as a stative indicator, but either clearly indicates a continuous state), and I can’t emphasize enough how much I dislike that. As written, it’s immediately and abundantly obvious that Joe was already sitting and not in the act of sitting down. If it’s replaced by the simple past version—which in fiction is supposed to represent a current action rather than a continuous action—it’s muddied, if even for only a few more words until context kicks in to definitively clarify the situation.
If and was seated were replaced by and sat, the reader wouldn’t know until they read by the kitchen fire with a hand on each knee that and sat had been meant to be a continuous action. Probably. Even then, it’s not entirely clear he didn’t only just then sit down. The words and sat could just as easily have been followed by something like… heavily onto the hard chair by the fire when he saw me. Point being, the reader would have had no way to know it was meant as a continuous action until reading on.
Later in that same paragraph, I too sat should immediately be assumed to be a current action, and we see by the words following it that we were not misled. Of course, in this case, the context leading up to it also pointed to it being a current action.
Often enough, there’s not enough context for it to become apparent at all, and my point is, as a reader, I don’t want to rely on context to clarify the verb’s meaning when there’s a perfectly good tense in existence meant to make the timing clear in the moment, as the verb is being read, so I don’t want my readers to have to do that, either. The thing is, was seated doesn’t jump out at me as awkward in any way. There’s no truly good reason not to use it. It’s a very clear way of describing the scene.
Honorable Mention Pet Peeves – Stuff that may or may not be writing “advice” (but are certainly trends) that I avoid.
- Avoidance of past-perfect tense in a story being told in simple past – I refuse to avoid past-perfect. As with the continuous tenses, it serves the purpose of making the timing abundantly clear as someone is reading the verb. I don’t want my readers to have to work out when something is happening from context later in the sentence or paragraph, and I dislike having to do that when I’m the reader. It knocks one out of the story. This one parallels my issue with dropping the continuous tense only writers are avoiding had instead of was.
- Overuse of -ing words (I don’t mean when using continuous tense) – I’ll use it in moderation to mix up the style, and am perfectly fine reading it…in moderation. But it jumps out at me when it becomes the primary style used in every other sentence, so I try to avoid overdoing it. I think this probably boils down to personal preference and a (more and more) commonly seen convention rather than a rule?
- Tossing every thought into italics with a different perspective/tense – It’s pretty common. I don’t think it’s a rule, per-se, but there’s a lot of it out there so possibly it’s being recommended in circles I’m not a part of? I often find it irritating, and it’s so easy to avoid, so…I do. As a reader, my feelings depend upon how jarring and/or prevalent its use.
WEBRING ~ Read Around the Rainbow!
Be sure to flip through the webring to read your favorite authors’ takes on this topic! For your convenience, here are direct links to the other WebRing participants’ posts for this month’s topic: