I often read books and articles about better writing practices, and I’m usually disappointed. Although they’re fun to read, they rarely get specific enough to teach anything useful. But last week my friend Karen White showed me a magazine article that has some wonderful real-life examples of bad sentences that make important (and practical) points about writing.
The article is “High Crimes“ by Anthony Lane. It appeared in the June 18, 2018 issue of The New Yorker. Lane is reviewing The President Is Missing, a bestselling thriller written by former President Bill Clinton and bestselling novelist James Patterson.
Here are some examples from Clinton and Patterson’s novel (quoted by Lane), along with comments from me:
“She had to bite her tongue and accept her place as second fiddle.”
The first problem is the two overused images – biting your tongue and playing second fiddle. But what’s really wrong here is that you’re not seeing the woman in this scene. Of course she didn’t really bite her tongue. So what did she do? Purse her lips? Scowl? Frown? If you picture what she was doing, you could come up with a decent sentence.
Ann Whitford Paul says you should act out every scene when you’re writing a book. She’s even known writers who took acting classes – and found them helpful. So – act out the scene. What gestures, actions, and words did you use? Now you have something to write down.
“The sorrowful, deer-in-the-headlights look is long gone. The gloves have come off.”
Same problem, same advice.
“I terminate the connection and walk out of the room.”
Why “terminate”? Couldn’t you just say “stopped” or “ended” it? And who or what were you connected to? Again, we’re not really seeing what’s going on. “Walk out of the room” doesn’t convey anything useful. Did you leave abruptly? Suddenly? Quickly? Quietly? Would the sentence convey more information if you said that you marched or stomped out of the room – or fled it?
“Vokov’s eyebrows flare a bit.”
I hate a bit. It minimizes the point you’re making. If you’re “a bit” hungry, why do anything about it? Great writers don’t waste time with small, unimportant feelings.
And how can an eyebrow “flare”? If it flared “a bit,” would anyone even notice it?
“Augie lets out a noise that sounds like laughter.”
Apparently Augie wasn’t really laughing. So what was he doing? Telling your reader what isn’t going on doesn’t help at all.
A character “hiccups a bitter chuckle”
This sounds self-consciously clever to me. I’m trying to imagine how a hiccup could sound like a chuckle – and how a chuckle could sound bitter. Nope – I’m not coming up with anything.
“a focused squint”
“a sweeping nod”
How can you focus a squint? When someone is squinting, you can barely see their eyes. And how can a nod be sweeping? Isn’t a nod a small, subtle movement?
* * * * * * *
Surprisingly, Anthony Lane liked the book. It’s an intriguing story, despite the clumsy writing. Maybe Lane shouldn’t even be criticizing a successful writer. But here’s my philosophy: just about every writer comes up with tons of awful stuff. Why not take pride in your work – and fix everything that doesn’t work?