The Christoph Writer's Corner

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The Christoph Writer's Corner

Post by Christoph on Tue Jul 26, 2011 10:44 am

Greetings everyone! Welcome to my Writer’s Corner. I am Christoph, and those who know me also know that I am an avid writer who tries constantly to improve and help others improve. I served on the staff of Althanas.com for quite some time, working as both a Judge, reviewing and critiquing threads submitted by the members, and as an official Content Writer. I have also spent healthy stints on Writingforums.org and Critters.org, where I critiqued many, many different stories.

This thread will, in the fullness of time, provide some (hopefully) useful tips and articles on various areas of writing and storytelling. It is geared specifically toward people who both love writing and want to get better at it. FoG strikes me as the perfect place for this, as it’s full of ambitious members who love writing as much as I do, and who may benefit from my past research, studying, and experiences.

This series will primarily consist of original articles and essays, though I may post some excerpts from other sources on occasion (with proper citation). Enjoy!

*

Chapter One: “Word Power, part 1”

I find it easiest to begin with the most basic and fundamental aspect of writing: the writing itself. The first few articles in this series will focus exclusively on elements of prose. Simply put, it is important, as even a good story loses much value if poorly told. A writer uses prose to deliver the story to the readers. Good prose grabs hold of the reader and tells the story in vibrant detail. Great prose does this with the reader rarely even noticing it.

To take first step toward better prose one must eliminate the bad, commonly called ‘the errors of style.’ The first part of Word Power will discuss the oft-related problems of passive voice and weak verbs. I will be getting into technical detail, so bear with me.

Abuse of Passive Voice is an extremely common stylistic error. This article defines passive voice as “a verb form or voice in which the grammatical subject receives the verb’s action.” For example, “A letter was written by Mary” would be the passive form, compared to the Active form of “Mary wrote a letter.” An even worse and more common form is called ‘agentless passives’. This is where the performer of the action is not identified. Thus, the above example would instead sound like, “A letter was written.” Other examples include: “Mistakes were made,” and “The food was eaten.”

While not always bad, passive voice can cause many problems in prose. First and foremost, passive voice hurts clarity, especially in the case of ‘agentless passives’. “Mistakes were made”, but who made them? “The food was eaten”, but who ate it? Secondly, it breaks the natural stream of consciousness, which pulls the reader from the story. In passive voice, unlike active voice, the subject does not do something to the object. The object has something done to it by the subject. It shifts the emphasis from the subject, the one performing the action, to the object (or target) of the action and the action itself, so that the reader doesn’t see the subject first. The first example illustrates this wonderfully.

Active: “Mary wrote a letter.” Passive: “The letter was written by Mary.” In the first example, the readers likely see Mary sitting at a desk, pen in hand. With the second, they might see the letter resting finished on the desk, with Mary as an afterthought. Now, if this emphasis is intended, then passive voice might be preferable. However, a writer should consciously choose to use passive voice instead of active, not the reverse.

The next part of today’s article focuses on weak verbs, an issue that causes a variety of negative effects on prose. They can reduce the clarity and vibrancy of the writing, and often contribute to passive language and a tendency to tell rather than show (more on that in future installments). The connection between weak verbs and passive voice becomes evident in a single word: Was.

More accurately, the word ‘was’ stems from its root form of ‘is’ and shares a room with its brothers ‘were’ and ‘are’ and their cousins ‘has’ and ‘be’. (And I just filled my cheesy joke quota for the article.) These weak verbs find their way into passive voice with alarming frequency. That said, the use of these words does not automatically create passivity, and they’re not always bad. However, within reason, writers should rework their sentences to eliminate these words as much as reasonably possible.

Removing weak verbs builds richer, clearer, and more concise prose. Unfortunately, this task can prove difficult and often requires complete sentence restructuring and the changing of writing habits. Teaching this through an article provides quite a challenge; a writer’s best bet is to go through his/her work line by line, attempting to rewrite each ‘was’ (is, are, etc) sentence without the weak verb. To help the others along, I will list and analyze some real examples that I came across during past reviews and critiques:

“Across the cavern was a pulsing light.” Look at this sentence and ponder the numerous ways to rewrite it without using the word ‘was’; its lack of clarity becomes quickly obvious, doesn’t it? Is the entire cavern filled with a pulsing light? If so, “Light pulsed across [or perhaps ‘throughout’] the cavern.” Does a single light pulse on the cavern’s other end? “A light pulsed at the cavern’s far side.” Etc. Have fun with it.

“Elizabeth was an amazing artist.” This may seem fine at first glance, but it suffers from a case of ‘telling, instead of showing.’ It tells the reader what she is, but does not show why. Compare with “Elizabeth created amazing art.” Not only does the revision make the sentence shorter and sharper, it also gives the reader more important information: Elizabeth is a great artist because she creates amazing art.

Sometimes, an author will try using weak verbs to simulate ‘real-time narration’, such as “Jon was walking to the store,” or “Chains were holding the captive.” This technique can sometimes work, but not nearly as often as many would believe. In the above instances, the former example could serve well in many situations, such as “Jon was walking to the store when the asteroid struck.” In other cases, such as “Sarah snuck out while Jon was walking to the store”, instead try “Sarah snuck out while Jon walked to the store.” In the second example, “Chains held the captive,” often works better.

Now, sometimes weak verbs serve valid purposes. For instance, I challenge anyone to find a stronger alternative to the simple, powerful statement, “She was dead.” However, as with passive voice, the writer should make it a conscious choice.

And that’s all for today! Thank you for reading. I welcome questions or comments, either posted here (no spamming, please) or sent to me via private message. If I receive a strong positive response, I will definitely continue. Tune in next time for Part Two of Word Power, “Decisiveness and Efficiency.”

~Christoph


Last edited by Christoph on Fri Oct 28, 2011 4:54 pm; edited 2 times in total
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Re: The Christoph Writer's Corner

Post by Kalon Ordona II on Tue Aug 02, 2011 7:48 am

"She was dead" isn't so much an example of an exceptionally strong use of a weak verb, I think, as it is a splendid exhibition of how to use linking verbs.
In other words, it's apples and oranges. "She was dead" is Subject, Linking Verb, Adjective. This is different from something like "She was dying," which uses "was" not as a linking verb but as part of a past-tense progressive of "to die."

Compare "The rose was wilted" with "The rose was wilting." Both use the word "was," but the first uses the verb "to be," and the second, "to wilt."

Similarly, compare "The shape on the floor was a dead woman" with "On the floor a woman was dead." This seems to highlight your ending example and offer a tangent. I think the distinction here is Noun versus Adjective, after a linking verb. A noun tells; an adjective shows.

Perhaps, then, in addition to recognizing Passive vs. Active, it can also be helpful to recognize parts of speech when trying to energize writing or show rather than tell. Fiction tends to be in third-person past tense, generally, so "was" is going to show up a lot. That might be why the Passive Voice mistake is so common. Knowing the different ways the weak verbs can be used can help a writer use them effectively when he decides to use them. Or it can help writers decide to use them in the first place, if otherwise they might not have given it a thought.

Anyway, all that is more or less a tangent to your article, but I thought I'd share that comment. I hope it contributed! Great topic; I'm looking forward to more of it. Very Happy

Adventures in English! cheers
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Re: The Christoph Writer's Corner

Post by Christoph on Tue Aug 02, 2011 12:13 pm

English, ho!

You make some interesting points, though I focus less on sentence structure classification and more on literary strength and clarity. Depending on the context, you could probably rework all of the example sentences you posted, making them clearer, stronger, and more able to 'show' rather than 'tell' the reader what is happening, without using 'was' at all, We certainly can't remove 'was' and its family entirely, but cutting the usage back dramatically will improve your writing (so long as you elegantly restructure the sentences). It's the sort of thing that most readers won't notice consciously (unless they've learned what to look for), but it will influence their reaction of "this is good writing" or "this is bad writing." Knowing these tricks and details gives the writer an advantage. AND KNOWING IS HALF THE BATTLE! (The other half is shooting people.)

Anyway, thanks for the comments and discussion points. My next installment should arrive shortly.
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Re: The Christoph Writer's Corner

Post by Artorius on Tue Aug 02, 2011 4:09 pm

Looking forward to it Chris, good work! Do continue on
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Re: The Christoph Writer's Corner

Post by Blade Barrier on Tue Aug 02, 2011 6:27 pm

I have to agree with the passive/active part of your "tutorial", but I find myself at slight odds with the "weak verb" part.

Removing "was" and like words seems to work when the characters are involved. If someone burst into mary's office, they would see that "there was a letter on the table." And yes, it should be "he/she noticed a letter on the table.", avoiding the was entirely. However, I find it very hard to avoid the word "was" when the character isn't involved, or you want to immerse the reader in the situation. The reason why "she was dead." works so well is because it's something that's suppose to affect the reader as well as the character. That's why "He noticed she died." isn't as powerful as "she was dead." Also, going back to the desk with Mary's letter on it, "He didn't notice there was a letter on the table." sounds much less choppy than "He didn't see the letter that rested on the table." Once again, that sentence was for the reader, and describes a lack of action, something that you HAVE to tell them in order for them to notice. Just my 2 cents.

Also, just because I'm a bit anal retentive with my writing as well, I just happen to spot this in your last post in here:

Depending on the context, you could probably rework all of the example sentences you posted, making them clearer, stronger, and more able to 'show' rather than 'tell' the reader what is happening, without using 'was' at all, We certainly can't remove 'was' and its family entirely, but cutting the usage back dramatically will improve your writing (so long as you elegantly restructure the sentences).

There's only one period in that monster! Now, maybe you just hit comma instead of the period accidentally , but I'd just like to say that chopping up a sentence with too many commas is really unappealing in every kind of writing. The exception being if you're listing things. I notice a lot of newbie writers tend to want to fit too many actions inside a sentence, and end up making a very big run on sentence because they felt the need to use five commas instead of a period.

Hope I didn't steal your thunder Chrisoph, but you did say you loved to improve in the intro! *wink*
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Re: The Christoph Writer's Corner

Post by Kalon Ordona II on Tue Aug 02, 2011 7:00 pm

Complex sentences are awesome! cheers
A gentler tone tends to go further, because people don't go on the defensive. That was definitely supposed to be a period, I'd say. Nod

But yes, if sentences run on too long, one might have to read them twice. I recall a few times in the Sword of Truth books by Terry Goodkind where he puts long descriptions in the middle of an active sentence. Even though all the grammar is correct, it's just too long.

That's a good point you made, I think, that another aspect of it is Action vs. Exposition. "She was dead" is exposition, so to put it in Active voice would change the effect.
On the other hand, one can use personification to ascribe action to elements of exposition. For example, changing "There was a castle on a hill" to "A castle rested on a hill."
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Re: The Christoph Writer's Corner

Post by Blade Barrier on Tue Aug 02, 2011 9:13 pm

On the contrary Kalon, if one wants people to take him seriously when he offers advise on writing, he needs to be absolutely positive thou own writing is near flawless! But yes, I suppose I may have come across as a bit aggressive. I never mean to offend, I too am very exited about writing, and I suppose I more used Christoph's keystroke error to impart my own little nugget of wisdom rather than take a stab at him.

Just wait, he may turn it around on me and use an error I made in one of my posts as part of his next lesson. It's happened before!
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Re: The Christoph Writer's Corner

Post by Christoph on Wed Aug 03, 2011 1:16 pm

Blade Barrier wrote:I have to agree with the passive/active part of your "tutorial", but I find myself at slight odds with the "weak verb" part.

Removing "was" and like words seems to work when the characters are involved. If someone burst into mary's office, they would see that "there was a letter on the table." And yes, it should be "he/she noticed a letter on the table.", avoiding the was entirely. However, I find it very hard to avoid the word "was" when the character isn't involved, or you want to immerse the reader in the situation. The reason why "she was dead." works so well is because it's something that's suppose to affect the reader as well as the character. That's why "He noticed she died." isn't as powerful as "she was dead." Also, going back to the desk with Mary's letter on it, "He didn't notice there was a letter on the table." sounds much less choppy than "He didn't see the letter that rested on the table." Once again, that sentence was for the reader, and describes a lack of action, something that you HAVE to tell them in order for them to notice. Just my 2 cents.

First off, thanks for the reply. Don't worry about offending me, because it's quite literally impossible. ^^ Anyway, as I said in my initial article, you cannot remove all instances of the Was family from your writing, nor should you try. Some sentences cannot be improved by removing Was.

Kalon hit the nail on the head with his "A castle rested on a hill" example. In fact, that technique allows for more influence over the tone and mood of your writing. Does the castle rest on a hill, stand on a hill, or loom from atop a hill? Each variation helps add color to your writing that 'was' never could.

Now, the matter of immersing your reader into the situation without interrupting with the character "noticing" things is called "Viewpoint Intrusion", which will feature in a later article. I'm not going to bother further dissecting "She was dead", because as we have established, we cannot improve upon it in most circumstances. As for the letter-on-table example, why not simply write it as "He didn't notice the letter on the table."?

Also, just because I'm a bit anal retentive with my writing as well, I just happen to spot this in your last post in here:

Depending on the context, you could probably rework all of the example sentences you posted, making them clearer, stronger, and more able to 'show' rather than 'tell' the reader what is happening, without using 'was' at all, We certainly can't remove 'was' and its family entirely, but cutting the usage back dramatically will improve your writing (so long as you elegantly restructure the sentences).

There's only one period in that monster! Now, maybe you just hit comma instead of the period accidentally , but I'd just like to say that chopping up a sentence with too many commas is really unappealing in every kind of writing. The exception being if you're listing things. I notice a lot of newbie writers tend to want to fit too many actions inside a sentence, and end up making a very big run on sentence because they felt the need to use five commas instead of a period.

Yeah, the comma between "at all" and "We" should obviously be a period, given that I capitalized We. Aside from that, I probably wouldn't change that passage except to remove the comma between "happening" and "without" in the first sentence. That, or change "you posted, making them" to "you posted to make them". A trivial adjustment, yes? Naturally, casual replies don't possess the same polish as carefully-written prose (or the actual articles). For such purposes, clarity and promptness trumps aesthetics. (And for the record, my first sentence did contain a short list. Cool)

This leads to an interesting point, though. Long, complex sentences can work perfectly fine. In my case, I try varying the length of the sentences based on their purposes. For more 'long-winded' descriptions, instructions, or the like, I will use longer, more flowing sentences. Short sentences heighten decisiveness. You get the idea.

Hope I didn't steal your thunder Chrisoph, but you did say you loved to improve in the intro! *wink*

Not worries there, my friend. I have more than enough thunder to go around. Razz
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Re: The Christoph Writer's Corner

Post by Kalon Ordona II on Wed Aug 03, 2011 6:10 pm

Ah yes, that is another thing. Varying the length of your sentences. As opposed to what I'm doing now. We can insert a more complex sentence, after those first three, and then perhaps give a short one to close. Pretty cool, eh? ^_^

I'd elaborate, just because I think it's a great trick for the writer's bag--or, depending on your level, even a basic element of style--but I bet you already have a chapter or part of a chapter on this. Very Happy
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Re: The Christoph Writer's Corner

Post by Blade Barrier on Wed Aug 03, 2011 9:51 pm

Good to see you have lots of thunder, because I might need more!

Haha...

I would like to see a "table of contents" though, it might be a nice addition to your first post. I mean if people keep commenting, it's going to be harder for people to skim through everything for your nuggets of information.
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Re: The Christoph Writer's Corner

Post by Christoph on Sun Sep 09, 2012 1:06 am

Hey, it's me! I'd like to apologize for abandoning this project so soon after starting. But now I'm back and ready to continue! I now present you with the long-overdue sequel.


Word Power Part 2: Efficiency

I could state with a fair amount of certainty that most people could assume that a large percentage of writers include an unacceptable abundance of verbosity in their literary endeavors.  ...See what happened there? Let's fix this. Many writers "overwrite" sentences and passages. For this article, we'll define "overwriting" as using unnecessary words and phrases. There are many reasons for this, but stem from the (1) dangerous belief that quantity equals quality and/or (2) a desire to create "fancy" prose (IOW: trying too hard). In regards to the latter (2), I will address the issue of literary flair in detail in future articles. For now, simply know that writing more words will not give a writer that desired stylistic spark.

As for the former notion (1): we should eradicate it from our minds. The Elements of Style by Strunk and White says the following: "Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell." To go even further, not only must every word matter, but so must every syllable.

What makes this so important? Prose serves the purposes of the story. Words that don't serve a strong purpose stick out like smeared ink on the page, forcing the reader to spend more time and energy to receive the same information. It effectively draws him or her out of the story. Put simply, they dilute the sentence's impact. Furthermore, the length of a sentence should hinge on its actual content and purpose, not our authorial whims. For instance, more 'long-winded' descriptive or instructional passages might benefit from longer, more flowing sentences. Short sentences heighten decisiveness. In both cases, efficiency still reigns supreme. Even when spiced up with literary flair, our style must serve the substance.

How can writers avoid overwriting? It requires practice and good habits. Writers must critically analyze their own work and let go of needless words and phrases. To help get everyone on the right path, here are some easy steps to consider and follow while writing:


  • Try to choose concise alternatives to wordy phrases.
  • Make sentences concise and effective at serving their purposes by eliminating unnecessary 'fluff'.
  • When confronted with the urge to use flowery phrases, instead choose simpler, less pretentious ones.
  • Avoid pointless redundancy.
  • Instead of seeking a 'fancy' or more 'advanced' word, simply choose the most effective, accurate, and appropriate word.
  • Always remember that Less Is More.


Some of these tips came from When Good People Write Bad Sentences (12 Steps to Better Writing Habits) by Robert W. Harris. His book, humorously written to mimic a 12-step alcoholism recovery program, attributes the overwriting habit to a lack of authorial confidence. He explains it as follows: “Using a lot of words provides a safety margin. In the minds of malescribes, more words create more protection from error or judgment. If some words don't work, maybe the others will...”

To provide immediate practical help to those struggling with this, I compiled a list of common examples of this “error of style”. Some of these came from the previously mentioned source; others I have noticed over the years as I worked on my own writing and critiquing skills. Please note that the list below is not comprehensive or absolute. Feel free to discuss any of them, and please don't hesitate to suggest additional examples.


after the conclusion of - after
at this point in time - at this time; now
be in possession of - possess; have
by means of - by
despite the fact that - despite
during the course of - during
filled with anger - angry
for the simple reason that - because
in an effective manner - effectively
in a state of confusion - confused
in a timely manner - promptly
in order to - to
in spite of the fact that - although
in the event that - if
is indicative of - indicates
it is often the case that - frequently
on a weekly basis - weekly
on the order of - about
owing to the fact that - because
take into consideration - consider
until such time - until
with the exception of - except for
the question as to whether - whether [the question whether]
there is no doubt but that - no doubt [doubtless]
used for the purposes of fuel - used for [as] fuel
he is a man who - he
in a hasty manner - hastily
this is a subject that requires - this subject requires
his story is a strange one. - His story is strange.
owing to the fact that - since [because]
in spite of the fact that - though [although]
call your attention to the fact that - remind you [notify you]
I was unaware of the fact that - I was unaware that [did not know]
the fact that he had not succeeded - his failure
the fact that I had arrived - my arrival
His brother, who is a member of the same firm  – His brother, a member of the same firm
Common violations include 'expressions of the fact', which we should almost always remove; our writing already expresses the 'facts' of the narrative by default, so we need not constantly remind the reader. We should also remain watchful of superfluous uses of 'who is' and 'which is'. For the next, more complex example, I return to The Elements of Style by Strunk and White.

A common violation of conciseness is the presentation of a single complex idea, step by step, in a series of sentences which might to advantage be combined into one.

Macbeth was very ambitious. This led him to wish to become king of Scotland. The witches told him that this wish of his would come true. The king of Scotland at this time was Duncan. Encouraged by his wife, Macbeth murdered Duncan. He was thus enabled to succeed Duncan as king. (55 words.)
--
Encouraged by his wife, Macbeth achieved his ambition and realized the prediction of the witches by murdering Duncan and becoming king of Scotland in his place. (26 words.)
And that is all for today. Stay tuned for part three of Word Power, "Decisiveness".
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