Writers tend to treat the fine points of writing like chemicals in a science lab. Some jumble style and grammar in an intellectual test tube, uncertain which combination will produce the desired effect. Others avoid the subject because they’re worried it might encumber their creativity and make their writing monotonous. Everyone else either doesn’t care or assumes that grammar/style is too complicated to understand.
But grammar/style isn’t science. You can’t experiment with it and try to break the laws of literature. Nor is grammar/style an unintelligible mass of atoms and nuclear power. Anyone can learn it with a little study. You don’t even need to buy goggles and become a mad scientist—being a mad writer (which I’m sure you are, or else you’re a fraud) will suffice.
Today I hope to be the professor who will help you identify five common errors that may be preventing your book from bubbling.
1. Character Filters
Character filter is a fancy term for words that tell rather than show. Some of the most frequent offenders are felt, saw, heard, and noticed. They filter the life out of a scene and distance readers from the story.
Telling: The editor touched the mug the author had left on the counter. It felt warm in her hands.
Showing: The editor touched the mug the author had left on the counter. Steam floated up and warmed her fingertips.
Telling: She sniffed the cup; it smelled like chocolate.
Showing: She sniffed the cup, breathing in the aroma of cocoa.
Sometimes, as in the above examples, character filters need significant rewording to correct the issue. Fortunately, they can often be easily removed.
Telling: The editor heard the author tap on the door and hurriedly set the cup down.
Showing: The author tapped on the door, and the editor hurriedly set the cup down.
Telling: The editor stashed the mug in a cupboard and saw the author raise an eyebrow.
Showing: The editor stashed the mug in a cupboard. The author raised an eyebrow.
You see how much more vivid those sentences became? Ironically, the best way to make readers feel as if they are actually hearing, smelling, and tasting is to eliminate the words hear, smell, and taste. Those words force readers to feel through a character instead of feeling the sensation themselves. It’s like listening to a friend describe a delicious chocolate cake versus witnessing him eating the cake. You wouldn’t be eating the cake either way, but isn’t it easier to imagine how the dessert tastes by seeing, smelling, and touching it yourself rather than hearing about the experience secondhand?
2. Drama Commas & Periods. For. Emphasis.
You’re probably wondering what a drama comma is. If you’re thinking it’s a term for grammar Nazi screenwriters, you’re wrong. It’s a comma an author arbitrarily adds to create a dramatic pause:
The editor saw the typo, and fainted.
That comma didn’t need to go in the sentence. The Christian Writer’s Manual of Style advises writers to employ drama commas sparingly. Writers frequently overuse them, so I recommend allowing no more than three per book. Otherwise your dramatic pauses will become annoying. Instead, insert an ellipsis or em dash for a dramatic pause.
Another mistake closely related to the drama comma is using periods for emphasis. Bloggers are notorious for this quirk, and the habit has inadvertently infiltrated novels, particularly in dialogue. For instance:
“Don’t. Use. That. Comma,” the editor ordered.
“I will. ALWAYS. Use that. Comma,” the author retorted, crossing her arms.
Not only does this create a choppy reading experience, it’s entirely unrealistic. Because. Who. Ever. Even. Talks. Like. That?
3. Misplaced Motivation-Reaction Units
Suppose you saw a woman at the edge of a cliff screaming for no apparent reason. Then, a few seconds later, the cliff crumbled and she fell off. Wouldn’t you be confused? Why was she screaming before she fell? That’s an example of putting the motivation and the reaction in the wrong order. Like this:
The editor gasped and dropped the book, spotting a misspelling on the first page.
The reaction (the editor gasping and dropping the book) shouldn’t come before the motivation (noticing the misspelled word). I may know why she’s gasping, and she may know why she’s gasping, but readers can only read the words I typed and not my mind.
I need to revise the sentence like this: The editor spotted a misspelling on the first page and gasped, dropping the book.
Now readers understand why the editor is gasping. You can occasionally reverse the motivation and the reaction to build suspense, but be conservative with this technique for the sake of clarity and readers’ sanity.
4. Qualifiers & Hedging Words
Words such as really, super, and very are qualifiers, but the only thing they qualify for is poor writing. They weigh down your text and overemphasize what you’re describing. Compare the following statements:
That editor absolutely hates the sight of qualifiers.
That editor detests the sight of qualifiers.
He pounded the backspace key, deleting the qualifiers very rapidly.
He pounded the backspace key, deleting the qualifiers rapidly.
Qualifiers are really annoying.
Qualifiers are annoying.
Generally, qualifiers should only appear in dialogue and thoughts, because they fill people’s everyday speech, and abolishing them can make a conversation feel stilted. However, even in dialogue they should be used in moderation.
The opposite of qualifiers are hedging words. Instead of overemphasizing, they underemphasize. Some warning signs include almost, seem, and started to. They tiptoe around everything definite and leave readers wondering if the character is doing the action or not. Started and began are only relevant when the character doesn’t finish what she set out to accomplish. So don’t write “The author began to scowl at the editor” unless her scowl gets interrupted.
However, almost and seem are usually unnecessary. When you’re writing, ask yourself whether the subject can truly seem to be or almost be doing a certain action. No one can “almost laugh” or “seem to smile.” Either they smile or they do not; there is no seem. Sometimes seem is essential, though—especially when a detail can’t be verified: “the ruckus seemed to be coming from the library” or “the book seemed to be made of gold.”
5. Expletive Construction
Expletive construction is when there or it serves as the subject of a sentence. These words have no meaning, depth, or flavor—they’re just there. Merriam Webster defines expletive as “a syllable, word, or phrase inserted to fill a vacancy (as in a sentence or a metrical line) without adding to the sense; especially: a word (such as it in ‘make it clear which you prefer’) that occupies the position of the subject or object of a verb in normal English word order and anticipates a subsequent word or phrase that supplies the needed meaningful content.” For example:
Weak: There was once a nameless editor who appeared in an article about writing mistakes.
Strong: A nameless editor appeared in an article about writing mistakes.
Weak: He fanned his face, glancing at the lava below. It was getting harder to climb with the goop rising so quickly.
Strong: He fanned his face, glancing at the lava below. The goop bubbled and rose faster than he could climb.
Weak: “Expletive construction,” he stuttered; there were too many syllables for him to speak clearly.
Strong: “Expletive construction,” he stuttered, all the syllables tangling his tongue.
There was and it was color sentences gray. Clever rewording and rearranging will eliminate expletive construction and revive your story. One way to reduce this problem is by specifically naming the item and noting an action, like when I replaced “it was” in sentence two with “the goop bubbled.”
Mixing the Chemicals Together
You remember when the Rebel Alliance blew up the Death Star? Well, that’s nothing compared to the explosions that happen daily on Amazon whenever a typo-ridden self-published book is uploaded. Disregarding the conventions of style and grammar is dangerous. Trust me, style/grammar won’t clutter up your laboratory or hinder your literary experiments. Rather, if you dissect it properly, it’ll turn your bookish invention into a success and show the world that you’re taking your profession seriously.
Originally published on July 18, 2018. Updated November 21, 2022.
Mariposa Aristeo is a writer of quirky characters and fantastical adventures filled with heart, humor, hope, and, very often, dinosaurs. If you can’t find her in one of her own imaginary worlds, try combing the pages of a great middle-grade fantasy novel.
At Story Embers, igniting (and sometimes imploding) ideas is her favorite pastime, so she often uses her creativity to make graphics for articles and writing quotes, as well as implement new strategies for SE’s social media channels. Explosions aside, she loves getting to know each and every writer here at SE by running the popular #embersgram hashtag on Instagram and responding to your questions and emails.
Besides being a co-owner of Story Embers, Mariposa is an ACFW First Impressions contest finalist, a children’s book illustrator, and the host of the IGTV series #middlegrademagicwithmari. You can check out her book recommendations (and shenanigans) on her Instagram page or her character sketches on her art account.