Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Lost And Found And Other Missteps

Being somewhat quarantined at home allows for a lot more reading time, especially since writing time seems to have slowed to a snail's pace.

Through most of my life, books and stories have been the great escape from difficult times. I could get lost in a story and forget for a time that my life was not always as perfect as a fictional story.

When I read as a child and young adult, I wasn't a discriminating reader. I don’t mean in the sense of avoiding books written by or about other cultures or people. But when I read for pure entertainment and pleasure, I wasn’t aware of how the careful use of craft can lift good writing above ordinary writing.

Then, when I started taking writing classes and being more serious about my work, I developed that reader discrimination and could see things that I call craft-stumbles. By that I mean word usage, or inconsistencies, or plot holes that suddenly pull me out of a story.

Lately, the craft-stumbles that have become increasingly irritating to me are poor word choices. Maybe it's the pandemic that's made me more than a discriminating reader. I'm a cranky reader and I really have issues with the way some authors use the word “found.”
For instance, it's become quite common to have characters find themselves while moving from place to place. "He found himself in a large room with bookshelves along one wall and a large dark teak desk." 

"She found herself in the most ornate dining room she had ever seen."

I don't understand why those characters can't simply walk into a room and then see what the author wants the reader to see.

Sarah walked into the most ornate dining room she'd ever seen.

This use of found has also been used awkwardly, in my estimation, to describe the way a person is feeling. For instance, "She found herself unable to wipe the enormous smile away that had appeared on her face." Watching him approach, she was unable to resist an enormous smile.

"And so she found herself telling him of her past." And so, she opened her heart and told him of her past."

"As the service began she found her mind drifting." As the service began, her mind drifted from what was being said at the pulpit to thoughts of her mother.

"She found her eyes drifting across the room." As her mind drifted, so did her gaze, shifting from pew to pew to see who was there.

Another overused phrase I see used too often is "in spite of herself."

"In spite of herself she was unable to shake her anger at her mother for deserting her." How much stronger that would be if the reader knew what this character was doing to try to overcome the anger. No matter how many counseling sessions and Yoga classes, she was unable to shake her anger at her mother for deserting her.

Relying on these generalities that we all probably use in our first drafts, weakens what is otherwise a really strong narrative. The real "crafting" comes in the rewrites when we find better ways to say what we mean.

A couple of pointers I picked up from the grammar check newsletter that listed a number of clutter words that we use all the time to that particularly struck me was the use of up and down. Too often we have characters stand up, but think about it. If characters are going to stand, they can only do that "up" so we don't need that word. Likewise when a character sits, it is "down."

Truth be told, I've made plenty of the same mistakes, but hopefully not as often as I used to. I also used to be guilty of overusing is the word pretty. I seem to have a tendency to want to qualify when it is much better to state something directly and concisely. Some of those qualifiers I've been weeding out of my writing besides "pretty" are: very, almost, somewhat, sort of, and really.  

I'm sure there are more.

As a reader, what are some craft-bumps that will pull you out of a story? If you're also a writer, do you find it harder to ignore those bumps the more you write? What are some of the words you are taking a hoe to in your own writing? Please do share. Discriminating readers want to know. 

Posted by Maryann Miller  Still maintaining social distancing, you can find out more about Maryann, her books, and her editing services on her Website and her Amazon Author Page, read her Blogand follow her on Facebook and TwitterHer online workshop on self-editing, part of a series of online writing workshops from Short And Helpful, can be found HERE


  1. I remember getting very annoyed with a series where the heroine was constantly being "suddenly struck" by her thoughts - sometimes two or three times on a folio of pages.

    1. That's one that I haven't seen in a while, Elle. Glad that I haven't.I'd be even crankier. LOL

  2. Thanks to my former editor at Five Star, I now get a jolt every time I read a scene that includes flying or darting body parts. Eyes that dart about the room. Arms thrown into the air. We say these things in conversation and they seem okay, but when I read them on a page, it pulls me right out of the novel.

    1. Maybe we had the same editor, Pat. :-) But my first introduction to why we should avoid moving body parts was in a workshop with a screenwriter. When someone had a character roll their eyes, the instructor mimed taking his eyes out of his head and rolling them across the floor. That was a powerful visual lesson.

  3. Interesting comments, Elle and Pat. I agree with both of you. I think the one thing that annoys me most is the unbridled use of profanity when another way of expressing the emotion would give the reader greater insight into the mental state and/or feelings of the speaker. Granted, there are situations where profanity seems the most logical way to react to an issue, but many issues can be addressed in more effective ways that are less likely to shock or offend a sensitive reader. And no, I'm not a Pollyanna. :-)

    1. Thanks for giving me something to think about, Linda. I agree that there are times and places and characters where profanity is a good response. But taking your comment even deeper and applying it to myself, I had an "aha" moment. As you know, I'm dealing with a lot of chronic pain and sometimes my response to a flare is to repeat a mantra of cusswords. But what I really want to do is scream about how awful this is. How unfair. How miserable I am. Putting a character in a similar situation and giving him or her the opening to do more than cuss, certainly would tell the reader a whole lot more about this person, and the issue. Thanks!

  4. I am struck by how everyone introduces a blog, vlog or podcast with "I am excited..." Why is everyone so excited? Why aren't they pleased, or happy, or delighted, or any one of a hundred other ways of expressing that something is good?

    1. Interesting observation. Here, too, I think it's a matter of writing, or saying, the first thing that comes to mind.

  5. Thanks for this post, Maryann. I just found 70 founds in my WiP. Some are actually finds, but some are used incorrectly, or better, as a helper. Now to see which ones I can eliminate. I'll never finish this damn book.

  6. I enjoyed this post, Maryann. I am very, somewhat, sort of guilty of the overuse of qualifiers in my writing. My first task upon reading a finished chapter is to go through with my editorial vacuum to suck up and discard all those useless words. They remove a great deal of power and authority from writing.


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