Weak style in writing has the power to make a new reader close your book and pick up another instead. Improve style in your fiction with these 9 tasks:
1. Cut out pleonasms
What is a ‘pleonasm’? Derived from the Ancient Greek word for ‘excess’, a pleonasm refers to using more words than necessary to convey meaning.
- ‘She saw the tragedy unfold with her eyes’
- ‘The burning fire sent dense smoke up from the clearing’
- ‘The tiny, little, minute mouse ran over the kitchen counter’
Here, it would be better style to have:
- ‘She saw the tragedy unfold’
- ‘The fire sent dense smoke up from the clearing’
- ‘The tiny mouse ran over the kitchen counter’
Each of the examples in the first list above overstates description. What else would you see with other than your eyes? What would a lit fire do other than burn?
In each case the sentence already contains or implies meanings unneeded words double.
2. Eliminate dangling modifiers
A modifier is a word or phrase that modifies (i.e. further describes) another word or phrase, to describe, clarify or give more detail.
For example, here, the clause in italics modifies the subject of the sentence:
Max, having finished all the homework, watched cartoons.
A dangling modifier occurs when the person or thing doing an action is not clarified in the sentence. For example, if you were to just write:
Having finished all the homework, watched cartoons.
Here the reader would naturally ask, ‘Who finished their homework and watched cartoons?’
Dangling modifiers sometimes add unintentional comedy, for example:
Having finished all his homework, the dog needed walking.
Unless Max has a dog that also does homework, we would need to correct the sentence to make the subject clear.
By inserting a clear subject and finite verb, for example:
Max, having finished all his homework, remembered the dog needed walking.
3. Catch misplaced modifiers
Another common issue with weak style in writing is ambiguity that arises from misplacing modifiers. For example, if we wrote:
Max tightened the harness on the whining dog putting on his sunglasses before they left.
Here, it could read as the dog accessorizing himself. Solving this style error (for better clarity) would require placing the participle phrase closer to the subject doing the action;
Max, putting on his sunglasses, tightened the dog’s harness before they left.
As an exercise, try to write your own sentences using misplaced modifiers, then correct them.
4. Avoid faulty agreement
Faulty agreement is a type of grammar error of which there are three kinds:
- Faulty subject and verb agreement. Subjects and verbs must ‘agree’ in number (plural nouns get plural verbs). Incorrect: ‘Max and his parents agrees to get a new puppy’ (the plural subject ‘Max and his parents’ requires the plural verb form ‘agree’)
- Faulty noun and pronoun agreement. Incorrect: The children take out his homework [if referring to the children’s own homework]. Correct: The children take out their homework.
- Faulty pronoun-pronoun agreement. Incorrect: If you don’t do your homework, he better not say the dog ate it. Correct: If you don’t do your homework, you better not say the dog ate it.
Some elements of grammar simply have to be learned to ensure your style is consistently clear and does not give readers unnecessary stumbling blocks.
5. Limit passive voice
Passive voice in writing isn’t always bad style. Elements of style in writing may be used deliberately for effect. For example: ‘He’d been pranked, but by whom? By his best friend, Greg? Or by that new neighbour with the shifty eyes?’
Here, the use of passive voice could suggest the bewildered passivity of a character trying to work out who had played a trick on them.
Too much passive voice, however, makes writing unnecessarily wordy. For example:
Max was given a letter of warning by the principal and was given detention the rest of the week too.
You could change this to something more active, such as:
Max brought home a letter of warning, announcing with a glum face he’d have to stay for detention every day that week.
Find creative ways to vary sentences so that you don’t overuse passive voice.
6. Fix faulty parallelisms
Parallelism in sentence structure refers to when you use similarly structured phrases for clarity and emphasis. For example:
Running was her forte, flying along the track her bliss, winning, her focus.
The key to parallelisms is to ensure each element of grammar in each parallel unit is the same. For example, this would be the same example in weaker writing style:
Running was her forte, to fly down the track her happy place, and winning her focus.
7. Avoid mixed metaphors
In writing style, ‘mixed metaphors’ refers to combining multiple metaphors in a single image, producing a confusing muddle. For example:
Like a bat out of hell the principal flew down the school corridor determined to resolve the storm in a teacup.
Here, the muddle of bats and teacups conjures a strange image. To avoid mixed metaphors, think about the literal images behind your metaphors – the images they evoke. Try to extend the same image or metaphor, rather than jumble different ones together.
Take, for example, the beautiful way Toni Morrison extends the metaphor of a father’s mean temper being like an active volcano:
Solid, rumbling, likely to erupt without prior notice, Macon kept each member of his family awkward with fear. His hatred of his wife glittered and sparked in every word he spoke to her. The disappointment he felt in his daughters sifted down on them like ash, dulling their buttery complexions and choking the lilt out of what should have been girlish voices.Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon (1978), p. 10.
8. Check for faulty diction
‘Faulty diction’ in writing style describes using the wrong word for the intended meaning or context. For example, if you wrote:
The platitude of the lake was just the calm he needed this Friday afternoon.
A ‘platitude’ is a saying that’s lost its meaning or relevance through overuse. What the writer means to say here is ‘placidity’, meaning stillness or tranquility.
Whenever you use a more complex, larger word, double-check you’ve got its meaning right in a respected dictionary.
9. Ditch wordiness
Verbosity or wordiness quickly turns reading into a chore. For example, compare:
A thought that she caught herself thinking often was ‘Max loves that darn dog way more than me.
She often thought, ‘Max loves that darn dog way more than me.
Working on the flaws in your writing will reduce distractions so that readers can focus on the pleasures of your unique writing voice.
Do you need to catch style issues in your manuscript? Get help from a professional editor or work with a writing coach and develop your story in easy, practical increments.