5 Common Mistakes Authors Make that Cause Readers and Pesky Editors to Barf Out Loud

We have been discussing use of passive voice and one of the indicators of passive voice, the verb was, and I thought the topic warranted an expansive discussion. (As a side note: I initially wanted to write that sentence as “I thought an expansive discussion was warranted.” Do as I say, not as I do! I struggle daily with passive voice.)  You see, a few decades passed since I last attended a grammar class, and what you see here is the result of reading for forty-two years rather than careful correction by a small horde of English teachers. You’d think I’d be better at it. Reading and writing, that is.

English classes are dull.  The discussion of parts of grammar is dull. This kills it for me, right up to the point where I’m violating that grammar rule and need an answer. For that, we have the internets.

Here’s my list of mistakes authors make that cause readers to barf out loud:

1. Passive Voice.  Sure, it’s evil, all the time, and should be killed wherever it appears.

Or… not.  “By heavens, what, Pontius, are you saying?” you exclaim. I’ll elaborate.

Over here at Now Novel, there’s a post about passive voice. They say:

  • Passive voice error I – Many people make common grammar mistakes by assuming that a passive sentence is any sentence that uses a form of the verb “to be.” In fact, passive voice is simply a sentence in which the object appears as the subject of the sentence. The house was built in 1825.
  • Passive voice error II – Many people believe passive voice is always bad. In fact, passive voice can be used effectively to convey a certain rhythm or mood. It is also unavoidable when the person or thing that performed an action is unknown as in the previous example with the house.

There you go. Permission to use the passive. When your editor screams, tell her that Now Novel said it was okay to “be used effectively to convey a certain rhythm or mood.” And my mood is that I like writing in the passive.

The object appears as the subject of the sentence. That’s simple enough to eliminate, right? When they put it that way, it’s dead simple. I spend much of my time reversing these.

2. As If, so as to, in order to. No, Cher, not your retort in Clueless. Explaining too much. “What’s too much?” asks the head shrinker. “One person’s too much could be your just enough.” Fah, therapy! The Editor’s Blog explains.

Explaining too much or too often. Unless readers can’t possibly catch on without help, writers shouldn’t be explaining dialogue or actions. Tip-offs for explanations are phrases such as “so as to” and “in order to” and “as if.” If you find yourself writing sentences such as He peeked through the blinds to see who was inside the room or He said it with a little-boy voice so she wouldn’t take it too hard, you’ll want to make changes. Readers are smart—let them read intent and meaning into actions and dialogue.

Fix: Don’t explain. Make the action and dialogue convey the message. Search for words that introduce explanation and then rewrite.

This isn’t one I do.  Maybe. I think I need to go check it, now.

3. Commas make us barf. If you forget to put one in, it bugs us so much we’re sick. Really.

Sometimes you do a sentence, you do another.

That,  right there, is an evil comma splice! Kill it! Shoot it! You can either put a period in there, or stick in a connective conjunction. Connective conjunctions are for, as, by, or, and, nor, yet, and but. Go ahead, put one after the comma, and eliminate your lousy run-on sentence. Feel better now?

4. Adverbs. If it ends in ly, as Mark Twain says, just burn it with fire. I’m not sure where this hatred of adverbs stems from, but it’s real and you’d better be prepared to defend every one to the death. Your editor has a steak knife named “deathly.” And another named “Hallows.” Your editor likes Harry Potter a little too much.

5. Commas. Again. Use commas to separate more than two subjects, but don’t use them to keep the two subjects apart. It’s not

The author, and his editor were intensely sick.

Instead, it’s

The author and his editor were intensely sick.

If you want to use commas, add someone to the scene.

The author, his editor, and his wife’s therapist were intensely sick.

Don’t separate two actions of a subject with a comma.

No comma between the subject and its predicate. You’ll make it sad.

The world of commas needs a lot more than two lousy points, but I get fired up on this. I’m passionate about comma usage. I want to see you all employ those suckers with love, control, and joy.

What are the words and phrases you can’t wipe out of your own writing? What are the rules behind them?

Clint Agrees.
Clint Agrees.
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4 thoughts on “5 Common Mistakes Authors Make that Cause Readers and Pesky Editors to Barf Out Loud

  1. I’ll tell you, I’ve got a was problem. But there are times it’s just easier and more direct to use was, and, frankly, these are the times you probably SHOULD use it. If the alternative to saying the castle was green is saying it bloomed with verdant color, yeah, you should probably stick with was. The anti-was stuff (and the anti-passive voice, which you rout out elegantly here) sometimes gets in the way of my no purple prose rule.

    Other times I’m just lazy and there’s no excuse for me, but so it goes. 😛

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  2. The deal with commas is that there’s a bunch of rules. But they’re not impossible. Just dull to read. Curl up with the grammar of commas one day and it’ll be time well-spent. You’ll never misplace a comma again.

    I like semicolons, but I saw a few editors say in similar scolding posts that it’s a bad idea to use them. Use commas instead, they say. I’m a legalist at heart, so I want to please and I want to avoid semicolons as a result. Don’t hate me for the lack of a rebellious streak; I leave that for E.F.Russel. 😀

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  3. Just thought I’d tell you that I never did any of these, Matt. I had an editor who claimed I did once. But he’s all right now. If you know what I mean. *nefarious laughter…. and sirens*

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