Word Nerd: Pet Peeves
4 years ago
As I’m sure you know, editors are a kind of blessed people. Our knowledge of language is eternally flawless, like a beautiful diamond, and we touch the world but lightly like a butterfly, making everything better by our passing. Meanwhile we owe our preternaturally long lives to the tears of authors, which we drink every day, and our laser-vision power arises naturally as a consequence of inhaling the fumes from a red Biro (but only from a red one).
...is what I’d probably tell you if you asked me while I was drinking, or about to sing Karaoke.* In fact, editors are just as human as you,† and while they should know English lexis, grammar and punctuation pretty well,‡ they won’t all give you the same answers.
Part of the reason, as I’m at pains to point out in this column, is that grammar and meaning and punctuation and all that are all actually pretty arbitrary and subjective, and what you may think of as the “right” usage may not be only, oldest or even best usage; and, frankly, as long as it reads well and pleasingly, it doesn’t matter too much if it is or not. But the other part of the reason is that we don’t have all the same tastes.
I’m talking about pet peeves. Editing is as much a matter of style and aesthetics as anything else, and what “looks wrong” or even “sounds wrong” to me might be fine to another editor, for no other reason than that’s how we feel about it.
All this is preamble to the fact that, while this blog is mostly about not telling you what’s right or wrong, I am – right now – going to share three of my pet peeves as an editor; three writing habits that I hate and which instantly turn me off a manuscript. And I want you to know that, if you are given to any of these habits, it’s not you, it’s me.**
A Series of Things
- They walked past a series of trees.
- A series of soldiers were scattered around the courtyard.
- The country’s been led by a series of incompetent misanthropes.
- He noticed a series of holes in the wall.
Okay, look, I get that usage has shifted and now no-one seems to be too bothered by a series being used to mean a bunch, but I kinda want my serieses to be... serial? There should be some sense that the things described are in some way linear and related, that there is an obvious order and progression (e.g. a series of events is fine; a series of articles is great). Otherwise it’s just some stuff sort of close to each other.
And there are so many other ways of conveying this idea! A cluster of huts; a succession of Prime Ministers; a row of holes; a line of trees; a crowd of journalists; a sequence of events; a string of murders; it goes on and on. There’s no need to drag out a series of every couple pages.
Which is sort of the problem, and you’ll be hearing this again: I probably wouldn’t even notice it if it didn’t appear so damned often. It’s a crutch, and you don’t need no damn crutches.
Telling Me How Many Eyes People Have
- His eyes were two pools of terrible flame
- Her ears were two yawning chasms, hungry for my words
- His eyes, two glittering lights in the gloom, danced as he laughed.
Unless the character has one eye or ear – or three! – I can probably make an informed guess as to how many eyes they have. Just cut the two and lo! His eyes were pools of terrible flame. See how much more elegant that is? Also, less stupid?
And again, I’d probably skip cheerfully past this except that I’ve seen it so often that it now fills me with an ungovernable rage that rivals the heat of the Sun. I know how many eyes people have, cheers.
- She shot her a glance
- He sent her a look
- She cast him an expression
Okay, so she shot him a glance is such a ubiquitous figure of speech that it isn’t even seen as figurative anymore; it’s what’s called a dead metaphor. And that’s fine; I’m perfectly happy with it. But I find some authors use it so often – and become aware that they’re using it too often – that they start to substitute words to avoid repetition. So I get characters shooting, sending and casting looks, glances, glimpses and God-knows-what-else, sometimes several times on a page.
Here’s a general writing tip that works for all situations anywhere, ever: if you’ve encountered a problem, rewrite; don’t fix. If you’re using a phrase too much, don’t replace a word, find a different phrase! There’ll be a blog about this idea sometime. A straight word substitution, an excision, a patch, are not only likely to result in a clunky, ugly sentence, they’re also going to be obvious to anyone with an ounce of experience with this stuff. Go back, think of a different way to say what you’re saying, rewrite the whole sentence. If that means losing a phrase you really want in there, so be it. Murder your darlings.
Same goes here. Try she met her eyes, or he looked at her and grimaced, or she gave him a wink. Change it up; find a different way to say it. Or just move past; do we need to know they looked at each other? Do we lose any information by cutting it?
And the first writer who sends me she broadcast him a regard gets a Mars bar.§
*i.e. Most of the time.
†I’m assuming you’re human; wave a hand – or whatever it is you’re equipped with for waving purposes – if not.
‡Or else something has gone terribly wrong at HR.
**But I’m not going to publish you.
§But I’m still not going to publish you.