About Hammer & Tongs
People often ask me for MY rules of good writing. As it happens, I gleaned a number of principles through the years that improve writing very quickly in the areas of meaning, clarity, and style. Below are principles that address the most common problems I see in order of importance. Follow these principles as best you can, and your writing will become leaner, crisper, and more lively.
Note that these principles do not really apply to dialogue. People talk how they talk, and it's typically messy and cluttered. However, if you want a character to sound highly intelligent, then use these rules to edit his/her speech. They raise IQ nicely.
1. Use simple present tense (he sits, they write) or past tense (he sat, they wrote). Don't use 13-jointed tenses (he would have had to have been sitting, they would have had to have been sitting), if you can avoid it. The simpler, the better.
2. Use active voice, not passive voice, unless you want to emphasize either the passivity of the subject or the unintentionality of the act. In active voice, the subject of the sentence performs the action. In passive voice, the action is performed on the subject of the sentence. Most of the time, this is the structure of passive voice: <subject> <any tense of the verb “to be”> <any past tense verb>. So, to show passivity of the subject:
Active Voice: John ate, showered, and went to bed. John is an able-bodied person who does these things for himself.
Passive Voice: John was fed, washed, and tucked into bed. John is a baby, an invalid, or some kind of privileged snot who has someone else do these things for him.
To show the unintentionality of the act:
Active Voice: The car hit John. The car intentionally steered toward John and mowed him down.
Passive Voice: John was hit by the car. John happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time when an accident occurred, and the car unintentionally skidded and hit him.
There are other verbs that can form passive voice, like “get”:
I don't want to get destroyed in the competition.
The banana peel got stuck on the windshield.
but the verb “to be” is far and away the most common construction.
The times where passive voice is actually needed are comparatively few, so if you see a passive voice construction in your writing, treat it as suspect.
3. Verbs are the life blood of writing. Below is a list of “empty” verbs – verbs used so often in writing that they lose virtually all impact and become nothing but clutter that deadens writing. I don't say NEVER use these verbs, but replace them with better verbs as much as possible to add considerable “punch” to your writing. Writers may utilize some of these verbs to good effect as nouns or adjectives, or as verbs with a meaning different than ordinary. Ex: The boy suffers deep want; He is a man on the take (or make or go, but careful with idioms); His use of her shows glaringly on her face.
to be - be, been, being, am, are, is, was, were
to have - have, having, has, had
to do - do, doing, done, did
to take - take, taking, taken, took
to make - make, making, made
to go - go, goes, going, gone, went
to see - see, seeing, seen, saw
to look - look, looking, looked
to use - use, used, using
to get - get, got, getting, gotten
to keep - keep, keeping, kept
to seem - seem, seeming, seemed
to want - want, wanted, wanting
Dishonorable mention to the following verbs that do not consistently reach the level of “empty” verbs, but are pervasive enough to annoy the heck outta me:
to feel – feel, feeling, felt
to give – give, giving, gave, given
to watch – watch, watching, watched
“Give” particularly irks me when used to “noun” a verb as in “She gave a smile” or “He gave a shout”. People can just smile or shout. Why drain the life out of a verb and freeze it into a noun?
I typically try to limit my use of empty verbs to shorter sentences. In a shorter sentence, the verb gains strength and importance, which makes an empty verb appear less empty.
Just those first three principles alone will make a night and day difference to your writing, but here's a few others to tighten your writing even further.
4. When possible, try to avoid “ing” verbs, also known as participles. I call them “ing” verbs because most people don't know what the heck a participle is. The best use of an “ing” verb is to show something happening at the same time as somethng else, but they're not absolutely necessary as long as conjunctions like “when”, “as”, “while”, and “during” exist that permit the same thing with simple past or present tense. In dialogue, “ing” verbs are great to water down intelligence or portray fear, weakness, insecurity, or uncertainty, but those are not typically characteristics you want to portray in narration, essays, or reports. Look at these sentences:
I was walking to the store and a man started following me. I was thinking I knew him, but in glancing back quickly, I was seeing a stranger.
As I walked to the store, a man started to follow me. I thought I knew him, but a quick glance back revealed a stranger.
Which one sounds more confident and certain? Which do you think would more aptly fit a weak, fearful person or a strong, confident person?
“ing” verbs are notorious for screwing up meaning by way of the hated, but often funny, “dangling participle”. Look at this:
Prancing among the daisies, the malevolent hunter spied the deer.
“Prancing” could conceivably apply to either the hunter or the deer. If you're a beginning writer, save yourself some trouble and avoid “ing” verbs as much as possible.
5. A preposition is a word that indicates things like position, direction, or possession such as “from”, “to”, “by”, “of”, “for”, “in”, “out”, “over”, “beside”, “up”, “down”, etc. You can google more, if you like. Careful with prepositions; they can multiply like rabbits. Plus, they often tend to cling to verbs like a booger in an otherwise attractive woman's nose. People don't need to “glance over” at something. They can just glance at it. They don't need to have something “locked up” inside. It can just be locked inside. Read this sentence:
I took a stroll by that bakery of Todd's to look over his over-priced wares and to give to him some of my money for the rent.
Six prepositions and three empty verbs. How about something like this:
I strolled to Todd's bakery to pay my rent and maybe let him swindle me into a high-priced bear claw.
Two prepositions, zero empty verbs. Oh yeah.
6. Careful with the articles “a”, “an”, and “the” - they can reproduce just as readily as prepositions. Often, you can simply delete them to no detriment.
7. Any noun, adjective, adverb, or variant of the same word used more than twice on one page (articles, pronouns, and prepositions excepted) is a red flag. If you do it, best to have a strong reason for it, otherwise, avoid it.
8. Caution with “can”, “will”, “should”, “could”, and “would”. These helping verbs tend to encourage the use of empty verbs, and believe it or not, people often become confused as to when “should”, “could”, or “would” is appropriate.
9. Try to avoid the following words and phrases:
the fact that
in my opinion
in order to
10. Caution with superlative adverbs and adjectives like totally, completely, absolutely, always, never, best, most, highest, lowest, etc. Young people in particular often exhibit a penchant for overuse.
Of course, there are many other “rules”, but in my experience, these are the ones that affect writing quality most radically. Search Hammer & Tongs for other individual questions on writing. If you can't find the answer to your question, ask it, and I'll post my answer. Odds are, a lot of other people are asking the same question. When you think you've molded your writing the best you can, see how it fares in The Crucible.
If you have a question about writing for Hammer & Tongs or a writing sample for The Crucible, send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.