Protect Your Reader’s Trust with Good Mechanics

line drawing of people boarding a sailing ship

Illustration by Henri Meyer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Everyone is always telling you that you need good mechanics, so why am I wasting your time talking about it too? Well, if you already study regularly and frequently in your never-ending and joyful quest to master grammar, punctuation, and word usage, then please skip this article. But if your motivation or practice falls below that level, I hope to inspire and encourage you by letting you experience from the inside one of the reasons you need to continually, on-purpose, improve your skills. And then I’ll give you a few ways that you can improve them without having to take a class.

Be Worthy of Your Reader’s Trust

Mechanics are a big part of your relationship with your reader. Every mechanical error you make reduces your reader’s trust in you. Every error takes the reader out of the flow of your writing and into a state of doubt.

This Is What It Feels Like

Let’s say you’ve sent me a text.

I follow the convention (very common) that “captain” is capitalized when it stands in for a name, but otherwise not. The following text follows this convention:

The captain stood on the deck. “Hello, Captain!” said Joe.
“Are we about to set sail, Captain Smith?” said Laura.
“Yes,” said the captain. Everyone started to get ready. The captain was proud of the crew’s efficiency.

If you were to write this text with “captain” capitalized all the time, it would FEEL like this when I read it:

The Captain stood on the deck. “Hello, Captain!” said Joe.
“Are we about to set sail, Captain Smith?” said Laura.
“Yes,” said the Captain. Everyone started to get ready. The Captain was proud of the crew’s efficiency.

See how distracting that is? See how it reduces trust (“Why is this person hitting me over the head with these crazy huge C’s?”)?

My point is not to teach you this particular convention, but to get you to consider: What if this type of experience is happening to people when they read your work?

So, What Can I Do?

Using good mechanics is a skill, and you can’t become a master in one day. That’s the trouble with most articles that tell you to “watch your mechanics. It bugs editors when you make mistakes.” You can watch your mechanics all you want, but if you’re not regularly and frequently improving them on purpose, then someday your work will do this to someone. It probably will anyway, so don’t worry about that! But you want to have a good enough foundation in place that your reader will trust you enough to keep reading.

I have very good mechanics skills. But there is a ton of stuff I don’t know. Just recently I was proofreading a manuscript, and I spent over half my time looking things up.

What to do, then? Here are some actions you can take and habits you can cultivate that will help you improve your skills, without investing a big chunk of time:

  1. Pick a style guide. If you don’t have one in mind already, take no more than 15 minutes, right now, to look around online and find a style guide seems to be pretty common for the type of writing you most often do. Get a copy of it (or an online subscription).
  2. While editing, rewriting, and proofreading, look things up! (I recommend using your own physical (paper) copy of reference books. It may feel slower, but I’ll bet what you learn in passing will save you time in the end.)
    • If you have any doubt at all about the precise use of a word, use your dictionary.
    • If you have any doubt at all about the precise rule/convention that applies to a sentence, use your chosen style guide.
    • Never, ever grab a synonym off a list without looking it up in a dictionary to make sure that’s what you actually mean. (Avoid the salad bandage!)
  3. Do real work. This will help you more than any “study” ever will. For example:
    • Beta read, and look things up.
    • Proofread the same document as a friend. (It’s best if you do this for the manuscript of another friend. That way everyone gets to learn, and you help someone’s manuscript as a bonus.) Talk about why each of you marked the things you marked. Find outside documentation to support each choice. (What if you thought “captain” was always capitalized, and you marked it, but your friend didn’t? You’d look it up in The Chicago Manual of Style or The Associated Press Stylebook, and you’d learn that a rule you thought you were applying correctly was not real, and you’d get to improve.)

P.S. I’m sure there’s at least one mechanical error in this article. If you saw any and want to point them out to me, I will fix them and be glad for the opportunity to improve my skills. Thanks!

Then

Will you try an experiment with me?

Read this excerpt from a short story I’m working on:

“A pleasure,” I said, and he must have heard me, for he bowed his head. Then he turned and walked down the stairs.

Now compare:

“A pleasure,” I said, and he must have heard me, for he bowed his head. He turned and walked down the stairs.

Which version do you prefer? Do you think something different is happening in each version, or do the characters’ actions and reasons seem to be the same in both?

Next time you’re editing a piece and you come to a “then,” try taking it out and see what you think. I’ll bet in some cases that it will improve your piece by making it cleaner, and in others it will make your piece worse because it will make it mean the wrong thing. Unfortunately for my story, it seems to do both:

1. Style: This excerpt seems cleaner if I take out the “then.”

2. Meaning: With “then,” I read this passage as narrating two separate events: the characters interact, and one character leaves. Without “then,” the two events seem to be connected: It’s easier to interpret his leaving as caused by their interaction, rather than simply happening after it.

I want it to be clean (no “then”), but I also want the events to be unconnected (yes “then”). Probably the solution is to rewrite the whole section so that this question goes away.

I started writing this essay because some uses of “then” bother me. Jonathan Franzen has a whole essay arguing against the use of what he calls “comma-then.” I find myself marking certain uses of “then” when I beta read, even though I sometimes can’t figure out why they bug me.

I don’t want to make some kind of free floating writing rule about “then.” It’s very likely that the question must be solved anew for each story and each situation. Maybe for one story you’ll need a first-person narrator who frequently says “then” as part of his narrative voice. Maybe another story will be so clean after you take out all the “then”s that Hemingway’s ghost will come to your house and bless you. Maybe there are effects of “then” that I haven’t yet discovered.

Here’s what I say, which is what I always say: Try it. Write more. Keep going.

And I’ll see you Tuesday.

Playing Dress-Up

What Makes for an “AWESOME” Description? 

As a second-grader, I was told: Dress up your writing. In other words, I should be more descriptive. My teachers equated “descriptive” with adjectives and adverbs. They told me not to merely write, “Once upon a time, there was a princess who lived in a castle.” They advised me to embellish my prose…

“Once upon a time, a long time ago, in a far distant land, beyond the undulating cobalt sea, there was a delicately beautiful princess with long flaxen curls, who resided blissfully in a majestic enchanted castle, surrounded by a deep glittering moat, in which ravenous, mossy-colored crocodiles swam.”

I got the picture. And it did wonders for expanding my vocabulary. But, really, do adjectives and adverbs suffice as good descriptors? I think we can all agree that GOOD adjectives and adverbs qualify, but that leads to more perplexing questions:

1)   What are “good” adjectives and adverbs?
2)   And are “good” adjectives and adverbs necessary and sufficient conditions for good descriptions?

Truth be told: I don’t know. That’s why I’m writing this blog article. I thought that maybe you’d like to join me for 2.5 pages of discovery: What makes for an AWESOME description?

When I was 3-years-old, I liked to play dress-up. My diminutive mother had a basketful of dresses that she’d retired, and I made ample use of them.  I’d layer dress over dress and top things off with a few colorful shawls and scarves. My philosophy was – and I vividly remember thinking it – the more the better, the prettier, the lovelier, the more enchanting. Snow White, step aside!

I actually looked more like a bag woman, and I’m sure that my parents had a good laugh while snapping pictures of me. But in those days, I thought I looked like a “delicately enchanting” princess with not-so-flaxen curls.

This brings me – some 42 years later – to the conclusion: Less is more (more or less). Sure, satire, comedy and farce can tolerate gratuitous adjectives and adverbs; but most prose should not be weighed down, bag-woman style.

Keiko told us that an illustrious writer (disputably: Arthur Quiller-Couch) once said: “In writing, you must kill your darlings.”

That means YOU might love words like “essentially” and “ameliorative,” and your elementary school teachers would have applauded your “utilization” of them. But I’m here to say (to myself, mostly): Grow up. Writing is not a jewelry exhibition, where your main goal is to show off your fancy-schmancy linguistic accessories.

That 14-letter nugget of an adverb? Yeah, I’m talking about your personal favorite… Kill it. Pick up your red pen and slash it, gash it, edit it out (or just press the delete button). Some words have personal significance, but they do nothing to impart a vision or emotion to your reader. Kill your darlings. (For more on this, please see Anthony Francis’s blog article here: http://writetotheend.com/author/anthony/)

Speaking of emotion: Description IS emotion.

I learned that recently when Mark Overby read his short story, “Morphine.” (To see Mark’s full story, please scroll all the way down.) I found “Morphine” haunting for two reasons: its subject matter and its descriptions. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was there – yes, there with the prostitute. I saw her scarred wrists and felt a desperate breath against my neck.

“What on earth made Mark’s piece so descriptive?” I asked myself on the way home from iHOP that night. What adjectives and adverbs had he used? I couldn’t remember. I knew there was something about bloodshot eyes…

He emailed me his 326-word story and I read it: 17 adjectives and adverbs. Seventeen total. That’s not a lot, but the piece is drenched in description. Why? How? Emotion. The story’s two characters are crammed into a tiny room that reverberates with their loneliness, loss, and pain.

There was nothing in Mark’s writing about “bloodshot eyes.” That was my contribution, and I didn’t even realize it until I read the piece on paper. Good descriptions work that way. They go beyond the physical to evoke readers’ emotions. When our emotions are flipped on, our associative faculties go into overdrive, and we enhance the writing with our own sensory experiences.

Good descriptions bring that out in us.

Clearly some words carry more emotion than others. Anyone who has studied another language knows that quite well. Vladimir Nobokov, the esteemed and arguably twisted author of “Lolita” refers to the Russian noun, “Toska.”

“No single word in English renders all the shades of toska. At its deepest and most painful, it is a sensation of great spiritual anguish, often without any specific cause. At less morbid levels it is a dull ache of the soul, a longing with nothing to long for, a sick pining, a vague restlessness, mental throes, yearning. In particular cases it may be the desire for somebody of something specific, nostalgia, love-sickness. At the lowest level it grades into ennui, boredom.”

In English, it often seems there is no “perfect” word to describe a person, situation, emotion, or thing. That’s when an elusive drumbeat of disguised repetition comes in handy. I refer again to Mark’s story, Morphine: His conservative sprinkling of adjectives and adverbs emit various hues of darkness: broken, bruised, withered, matted, bitter. The words aren’t strung together. They’re scattered, and you barely know they’re there… but you feel them.

Finally, let’s talk about metaphor and simile. What makes these two literary tools AWESOME descriptors versus only so-so? Again, I don’t know. But let me speculate…

“Eyes are (like) windows to the soul.”

Why is that cliché nevertheless such a descriptive and memorable metaphor/simile? Clearly, it contains a kernel of truth. Eyes indeed reveal a lot about how we feel inside. If they flicker, if they flinch or flutter, they become dead giveaways to the secrets of our psyches.

I stumbled upon another type of metaphor/simile with possibly more impact. I’m referring to those with built-in irony. A paradox. They make you think. They make you linger. Here are two examples:

“She took one last hard drag off her cigarette and exhaled a cloud of filth, the smoke encircling her head like a halo.” – Morphine

This description stuck with me because it contains a simile that is topped with a paradox. It’s like ice cream – with a rotten cherry on top! The filthy smoke from the broken prostitute nevertheless forms a halo above her head. To me, the description evokes feelings of sympathy, distress, disgust – and confused transcendence.

This metaphor from Barbara Kingsolver does the same:

“…a choir of seedlings arching their necks out of rotted tree stumps, sucking life out of death. I am the forest’s conscience, but remember, the forest eats itself and lives forever.” ― The Poisonwood Bible

Good descriptions embed themselves in our flesh with uncomfortable irony or newness, sometimes benevolent but often depraved. Good descriptions aren’t about words so much as emotion. They make us see, they make us smell, they make us hear, taste, and feel. But even more, they make us emote.

So, go on: Emote. Emote until Keiko calls “time.”

You can always go back and kill your darlings.

————————————————————————————————-

Morphine – by Mark Overby

She was my morphine, just someone to kill the pain, someone to keep me from killing myself. The smell of Marlboros filled the tiny room, my sleazy little sanctuary that I payed for by the hour, a place for me to confess my sins while creating new ones as quickly as I could. She took one last hard drag off her cigarette and exhaled a cloud of filth, the smoke encircling her head like a halo. She was beautiful and broken and she was all mine, mine to fall in love with, to hate, to cry with, to kiss and bite and caress. She was my goddess and my savior, my excuse to live another day. She was my morphine.

I watched her undress with a hunger that only loneliness brings. Her dark eyes stared into mine, looking for the soul that I had lost years ago. Her small mouth glistened with the residue of the previous shadow before me, one that needed to feel human again, if only for that brief moment. Now it was my turn. I was now the sin that needed confession, the scourge that wanted love, the shadow that no one saw, no one but her. My morphine.

Her outstretched hand beckoned for my touch, the scars of past lovers adorning her wrists as I placed my hand in hers. “Lie to me, please.” The desperation in her voice mirrored her situation. I love you, let me take away your pain. My words dripped into her like morphine.

I traced the tattoos along her bruised neck as she gasped in rehearsed ecstasy, my fingertips writing an oath of submission against her withered skin. The warmth of her body was bleeding away as she clung to me for comfort. I lied to her again and again as I ran my hands through her hair, matted with smoke and bitter memories. Together we are alone. Together we are none, together we are morphine.

Learning from Publication

Recently I wrote a short story called “Steampunk Fairy Chick” for the UnCONventional anthology. Even though the story went through many revisions, lots of beta readers, two editors and a copyeditor, when I read through my author’s copy I found there were still things I wanted to change. Nothing major—just line edit stuff, a selection of different choices of sentence structure that I think would have made the story more readable.

I can’t react to this the way I would with a draft; the story’s in print. And I don’t want to just throw these insights on the floor. Instead, I want to analyze the story and find general ideas I could have applied that would have improved the story before it hit the stands—ideas I could use in the future on new stories.

Don’t Overload Your Sentences

I am verbose by nature, and my stories are ornate by design. Because I was trying to pack a lot into 10,000 words, I tried to pack a lot into each sentence of “Steampunk Fairy Chick.” Sometimes, the sentences simply couldn’t carry the load. For example, on the first page of the story this sentence appears:

Jeremiah prepared to dart out into the food court before one of them could cry “Foreigner”—or was the word on this world “alien”—and bring the whole restaurant down upon her.

Here I’m trying to do a whole raft of things all at the same time:

  • Set the scene: Jeremiah is in a packed restaurant near a “food court,” which helps set the story in the present day.
  • Show character: Jeremiah is active, quick thinking, prepared to bolt at a moment’s notice—and she’s hiding something.
  • Provide backstory: Jeremiah is hiding the fact that she’s part alien, and she’s concerned that admitting it can get her in trouble.

That’s a lot for one sentence to do, but I didn’t choke on any of that: I choked on the phrase “or was the word on this world ‘alien?’” which made me lose my place. Why is that aside even in there? It’s because in this sentence I’m also trying to:

  • Raise a question: Jeremiah is not clear that the rules or language are the same in “this world”—implying she’s from another.

That’s great, but it’s a separate idea. So perhaps, even though it costs more words, it would have been better to separate these ideas into two sentences:

Jeremiah prepared to dart out into the food court before one of them could cry “Foreigner” and bring the whole restaurant down upon her. Or wait—wasn’t the word for “Foreigner” on this world “alien?”

This rewrite is clearer … and by removing the interjection, it serves another hidden purpose of this sentence:

  • Clarifying ambiguity: “Jeremiah” is a male name for a female character … so “Jeremiah” needs to appear with a female pronoun.

Even though that creates yet another job for this sentence, it’s important. This is a very early sentence, so it’s critical real estate for establishing her gender clearly. Removing the aside brings “Jeremiah” and “her” eight words closer together.

As a side remark, Jeremiah’s male name illustrates the gender-neutral world of Victoriana from which she came, but otherwise isn’t material to this story—and some authors question whether a story should contain anything in it that doesn’t serve that specific story. For standalone stories, this might be the case, but for series fiction I respectfully disagree. In series fiction you must respect the rules of your series even if they aren’t convenient for a specific story. A series creates its own reality, and one could no more change Jeremiah’s name to Jeri for convenience than one could change Sherlock to Sherman—or move Atlanta to Albania.

“Spoilers!” she said with a smirk.

WARNING: the next two sections contain very mild spoilers for the story. If you’re a savvy scifi reader you probably can read the following section without being spoiled because what IS being spoiled is only a minor surprise. However, if you are one of the people who HATE spoilers, skip to “Make Learning Explicit” … or run out and buy a copy of the UnCONventional anthology and read the last story in it. (Yes, that was a subtle—but entirely shameless—plug).

Pay Attention to Rhythm

Back with us? OK. Another sentence that leapt out at me was:

“You really think,” the sharply dressed man said, “a handful of steampunks armed with coffee and vodka are going to stop the zombie apocalypse?”

There’s nothing too bad with this sentence, but it still jarred me—because “the sharply dressed man” is a complex noun. I’m referring to this character with this mouthful of a name for several reasons:

  • Limited third person point of view: Jeremiah, our point-of-view character, doesn’t know his name—and therefore, the narrator, who doesn’t know any more than the POV character in limited 3rd person POV, doesn’t either.
  • Limited oxygen for limited screen time: The sharply dressed steampunk is a key but minor character, appearing in two and a half brief scenes with only a few lines. Naming him in this already complex story could distract the reader.

Major surgery could fix the problem: make the character more prominent and introduce him formally; cut the character out; give the line to someone else; come up with a shorter epithet. But there’s an easier trick to solve the problem:

“You really think,” said the sharply dressed man, “a handful of steampunks armed with coffee and vodka are going to stop the zombie apocalypse?”

The point of the dialogue tag in this sentence isn’t just to identify who’s speaking. It’s to break up the rhythm of the sentence so it reads the way it ought to be heard. The sentence is a secret in-joke, a riff off this line in Mortal Kombat:

“A handful of people on a leaky boat are going to save the world?”

Interjecting the dialogue tag into the sentence breaks up the reading, makes the reader pause in hearing at the right moment to make the quotable quote stand out. But the action that’s happening is speaking, and throwing a four word noun into the sentence completely derails the rhythm.  Why? A clue can be found from an earlier sentence with a very similar structure which did NOT disrupt my reading:

“This is a trick,” the sharply dressed man said. “Some kind of neon—”

The initial scrap of dialogue here—“This is a trick”—is a complete sentence. A reader knows it is speech from the quote marks, and expects to find a noun describing a speaker. But in the offending sentence, the initial scrap of dialogue—“You really think”—is NOT complete, forcing the reader to keep what the character said AND the character’s name in their mental buffer until the dialogue tag appears.

A better solution is to make the ‘said’ come first, easing the reader down off “You really think” by confirming that the reader has just read speech. Putting the verb first in this case reinforces the already existing expectation that the reader will encounter the name of a character, followed by a resumption of the dialogue which will complete the spoken sentence started with “You really think.”

Grammatically, switching the verb and the noun in a dialogue tag is almost always allowed, but it is not always recommended aesthetically. Consider:

“Give me a break,” he said.

versus

“Give me a break,” said he.

Ouch! If you don’t have a rhythmic (or other) reason to change the order of the dialogue tags … just stick to “he said.”

Stick to your guns

In several places in the story, the editors suggested I could get rid of dialogue tags to make the text shorter, smoother, and punchier. Here’s an example:

She brought this down on us.” Jeremiah stared into the wires feeding in to Jackson. “That big vacuum-tube enhanced brain of hers holds secrets of time travel not even the Scarab managed to discover in over a billion years.”

That paragraph works well, delivers its punch … but doesn’t sound like me. I want sentences to draw pictures with words. And for a sequence of actions, a sequence of short sentences without connectors can do that well:

Jeremiah darted forward. The nearest zombies stirred. Jeremiah shoved them aside. The remainder started to turn. Wayfarer sprayed them. Zombie eyes began to glow. Jeremiah reached Jackson and fumbled at her corset. The zombies raised their hands, crackling with power.

But when someone is speaking, action and speech are happening at the same time. The montage effect above works less well, perhaps because the dialogue lives in quotation space and the action lives in normal narrative space. That’s why I’d strongly consider changing the first paragraph above back to:

She brought this down on us,” Jeremiah said, staring into the wires feeding in to Jackson. “That big vacuum-tube enhanced brain of hers holds secrets of time travel not even the Scarab managed to discover in over a billion years.”

This weaves the action and the speech together so it’s clear they’re taking place at the same time. Your mileage may vary; there is nothing wrong with the version the editors recommended, and you could delete dialogue tags more extensively through the entire story without a fault. (Anthony waves to his editors, who did a great job!) But when I reread my own story, these dropped dialogue tags didn’t sound like ‘me.’

I find the very best edits are the ones that seem perfectly natural: the editor suggests it, and it goes so well with the story the words feel like your own. Sometimes this happens because the editor has nailed your voice; sometimes it happens because you have internalized the editor’s lesson. BUT, if a change doesn’t work for you, I think the right thing to do is say “stet” (Latin for “let it stand” and writer-editor jargon for “revert to original”). Trust me, editors are big boys and girls. They WANT authors to push back as much as they push authors, because the end result is a story that benefits from both the editor and the author’s best ideas.

Make Learning Explicit

You may agree or disagree with the recommendations I’ve made above. “Switching ‘said’ and ‘he’ for effect?” you might say. “Adding extra dialogue tags where none are needed? Adding extraneous material to a story at all? Heresy!” In fact, a few years from now, when I’ve grown more as a writer, I might say the same thing. But there’s a more general principle here which you can take advantage of even if our aesthetics don’t agree: use publication as an opportunity to make learning explicit.

People learn when they get feedback on their actions and try to improve based on it. If the feedback is timely and you don’t actively try to reject it, learning can be almost automatic. But you can’t always guarantee getting timely feedback—so sometimes you need to deliberately create a strategy that helps you improve.

So what I recommend is: when your work hits print, get a copy of it. Read it, marking anything you want to change. And then try to generalize what you’ve learned, so you can apply it to new stories in the future.

-the Centaur