Style Errors That Make Me Say AAARGH!

Some grammar rules, like discouragement about starting sentences with “And”, are so last century. Others, like dangling participles, are invisible to the average person. Even writers aren’t too bothered if they’re used outside of fiction or journalism. I’ve never scoffed at someone’s  Facebook post because they used a dangling participle.

And others, like misuse of homophones, cause such universal revulsion that we jump to assumptions about the error-maker. “What an ignorant buffoon! Who could confuse your and you’re!?”

I’ll admit that homophone butchering, when repeatedly committed by the same person (we all make a few late-night mobile typos), bothers me. But there are some grammar and style conventions that, when ignored, really make my skin crawl. Honestly, if I see them in a published novel, I will wonder if the editor was on a mental vacation.

1. Simultaneous action. Example: “Getting up from her seat, she crossed the yard.” How can she be getting up and crossing the yard at the same time?

  • While dangling participles are grammatically incorrect (the -ing verb doesn’t match the subject), this is a flaw in description.  Almost all authors have to be broken of this habit, which makes me wonder where we learned it from. It’s one of the most recent style rules I can remember learning. I had read many writing books and had considered myself a writer for many years before someone pointed this out to me. Now I can’t unsee it. It’s not fair for me to judge people harshly about it, since I wrote a million words of my own before I modified my behavior. But each time I start a sentence with a participle clause, I ensure that the rest of the sentence is simultaneously possible.
  • On another note, I try to avoid participles phrases in general. They’re kind of lazy/amateur and really easy to screw up. Sometimes you have no choice, but use them sparingly.

2. Redundancy. Example: Using the word “sighed” on every other page.

  • I don’t notice this in other books nearly as much as I notice it in mine. Redundancy does not bother me in most novels unless it’s super obvious. But in my work, I highlight and number almost every “common” word and limit them to ~once every ~30 pages.

3. Bad metaphor/Incorrect metaphor/Metaphor that confuses more than it clarifies. Example: The entire novel Shatter Me. Like, “Warner thinks Adam is a cardboard cutout of vanilla regurgitations.” THAT DOESN’T MEAN ANYTHING. Also, Dan Brown once used the phrase, “Pandora is out of her box.” Er, Pandora was never in it.

  • Metaphors are great. Thought-provoking metaphor proves the chops and creativity of a writer, to me. A great metaphor that sticks with me is in Nabokov’s Ada or Ardor. He refers to a teenage girl’s shirt sleeves as “the vulvas of her shirt.” It’s sexual, visceral, sick, but it’s also original, memorable, and actually comparable. The POV character is a teenage boy who’s sleeping with his younger cousin. That sickly metaphor fits perfectly with the story. Not only is it a great parallelism between two similar things, it succeeds in making the reader uncomfortable.

4. Clunky prose, often caused by passive voice. Example: Any line that has too many filler words, too many propositions, and a general lack of rhythm. Using too many words like “that”, “which”, “had been”, “of”, “even”, “just”….

  • Passive voice isn’t the One Great Evil that some teachers claim, but my prose leapt in quality when I sought to eradicate it from my writing. At the time, I overcompensated and my writing became sharp and clinical. Now, I mainly ditch passive voice when it leads to awkward wording and sentences that are a “mouthful” to read. If I’m squinting as I read, like I’m forcing my way through every line because the writing isn’t smooth, I probably won’t get past a couple of chapters (this is not the same as reading Faulkner or Nabokov, where you have to read slowly and carefully because the information in every line is so dense. I’m fine with novels that make you “pay attention.” But if what’s being described is inane, and the words used are just too weak/clunky, it’s back to the shelf with ya).

5. Adverbs on dialogue tags, especially when redundant. Example: “Oh my god!” she said loudly.

  • There are some great adverbs out there, like ‘abnormally’ or ‘laudably.’ But there’s no need to emphasize that an exclamation is said “loudly.” That’s implied. Plus, loudly is a weak, common adverb.
  • Unlike most authors, I would not be opposed to “Oh my god!” she screamed. I don’t mind the “this is a word other than said” dialogue tags. People scream. They whisper. They cry out, yell, holler, murmur, mutter, choke. Not all dialogue needs a tag, and you don’t want to look like you’re dancing around “said.” I prefer to use action descriptions around dialogue. But saying that “she screamed” is way stronger than relying on an adverb.

What style hang-ups drive you batty? I know some errors must annoy you more than others!

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7 thoughts on “Style Errors That Make Me Say AAARGH!

  1. Great post! I must admit, I’m still guilty of a lot of these at times. I did take an editing workshop, which touched on most of what you’ve laid out. It helped a great deal and made me more conscience throughout my writing. In #4, I find that most of those filler words can be removed and the sentence still read smoothly. And #5 comes in to play with showing vs telling. If you’re using a ton of adverbs, you’re telling the reader what happened instead of showing them. Most editors see this as amateurish writing. I’m terrible with #1 (I call it dangling body parts). I have to consciously look for this in the editing stages. #2 would probably be my biggest pet peeve. I find it totally annoying when you constantly read the same actions or dialogue over and over. Also if a writer overly refers to something like “his broad chest” or “her silky hair” every time the characters are involved. Again, great post and very useful!

    • Adverbs, filler words, and redundancy are very normal to see in first drafts. They’re crutches. They prop you up when you’re forcing the words out, but you can ditch them later. I’m guilty of using them to get through a scene, but they’re totally on my “edit out” list. Which makes me wonder how books get published like that!

      1 is just something you have to train yourself out of. I have such a kneejerk reaction against them that I don’t even consider writing them into first drafts anymore. Because once you write them, they’re harder to spot in the editing stage.

      And oh man, redundant descriptions that are ALSO purple prose are so bad! LOL. Many of them are cliches on top of that.

  2. Excellent post. One thing I’ve noticed creeping into more books is the overuse of sentence fragments. Certainly they serve their purpose, particularly in a thriller when the action’s heating up (I use them plenty myself). But I’ve read a couple authors who use them so liberally it makes me long for a complete sentence. Nouns, verbs, conjunctions, prepositions–give them to me! :)

    • Ooh, I didn’t even think about that! That’s a good one, and it reminds me that Dan Brown’s overuse of ellipses grinds my gears too.

      I’d rather see a lot of fragments than a lot of run-ons, though. I hate reading sentences the size of paragraphs that are just stream-of-conciousness description. By the end I’m like “how did this line begin again?”

      • Oh, yes, the run on. Too much of a good (or not so good thing). The best works will have a variety of sentence lengths. As for the ellipses. I…might…be…guilty…of…that…too. ;)

  3. Thanks for sharing. This is definitely wonderful brain food. I’m going to chew on these while I edit my book. I definitely need to remember these sorts of things as I get going. I even pulled out the old Elements of Style…

    • Don’t let Elements of Style beat you up too badly :P I think some of the “last century” grammar rules, like ending lines with prepositions, are in there. I use a Chicago Manual of Style, which is a bit more modern, but it’s SO BIG. It’s like 800 pages long. Elements of Style is certainly more user-friendly and functional.

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