Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Sentence Stripping

Last Sunday Stephanie @ Hatshepsut wrote a post called "Truth or Dare". Her question to us? "Now it's your turn, if you dare. What is your biggest weakness as a writer?"



Her question was an easy one for me to answer, but only because of the recent critique I received from Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse, who opened my eyes and changed how I write. My answer to Stephanie? Here is my response, copied from her comments page.
With the help of a wonderful critique I won recently, I've realized that I *hangs head shamefully* am an adverbaholic. Yes, it's true. I tend to overindulge in the tempting cop-out of adverbs, causing me to tell more than I should and show less than I must. So sad. I have checked myself into treatment with my first critique group (thank you, Valerie and Bethany) and am hoping for a full recovery.
I tried to address it with humor, but it's not funny at all. I am not alone, though, which makes me feel a little better. William Zinsser, in On Writing Well, says:

The secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components. Every word that serves no function, every long word that could be a short word, every adverb which carries the same meaning that is already in the verb, every passive construction that leaves the reader unsure of who is doing what - these are the thousand and one adulterants that weaken the strength of a sentence.

His answer? Simplify, simplify. I have returned to Zinsser to improve my chances for a full adverbaholic recovery (and other issues found above), but I have learned that we don't see things in our own writing that we could point out in only a heartbeat in someone else's. My answer, then, is to enlist the eyes of others (like Valerie and bethany!).

I know that most of you have a critique group or partners already, but if not, you are missing a valuable opportunity to become better at your craft. Check out yesterday's post at Chatterbox Chit Chat. Lynnette's post shares info about Writers on Writing, a networking opportunity designed to support writer's on their journey.

How do you tackle your biggest writing issues?

31 comments:

Bethany Mattingly said...

Great Post! I've been trying to simplify my sentences as well. The thing is, even if I read it a couple times I can still find stuff to change. It's like the never ending sentence. AHHH!!! I hope you and Valerie can help me out on this as well, HUGE problem of mine.

Lori W. said...

Yes, Shannon, you are in good company there. That one is an easy fix, hopefully (there's a nice adverb). I personally get stuck on using "pet" words. Yesterday, someone in my critique group highlighted all the times I used a certain word and it was horrifying!

Simon C. Larter said...

I wholeheartedly agree, with the caveat that making every word count in our sentences doesn't mean we should all write like Hemingway (though he's worth reading to learn from). Everyone's prose style is different, and some *cough, Faulkner, cough* use many words per sentence, but somehow manage to make every one necessary.

Use adverbs when you need 'em, but don't try to make your voice something it ain't so as to live up to someone else's standard of good writing.

My 2c for the day. :)

Elle Strauss said...

I tend to be a lazy writer (maybe because I'm not so sure where I'm going), so most of my first drafts are more like elaborate outlines. Basically, my rewrite is an actual re-writing of the script. I wish elegant prose just dripped off my fingers without effort, but it's actually a lot of work for me.

Nisa said...

I'm still learning what they are, but I critiques from others is a huge help! Great post!

Bane of Anubis said...

Reminds me of Strunk and White's rule (my fave), borrowed by Stephen King (which I find ironic given the swell of his books): omit needless words.

Catherine Denton said...

Adverbaholic--that's funny. My biggest weakness is details. I get in such a hurry to tell the tale that I leave out the descriptions. My first draft looks like bones that I have to add flesh to.

Oh, and I'm addicted to the word "that". I cut it out by the hundreds of all my first drafts.

Angela said...

This is such a great topic. :-)

I honestly don't know what my biggest faux pas is. I always feel like I struggle with characterization. As I mentioned in my comments in the other blog, I wonder if what we believe to be our biggest weakness is the same as what our critique partners would say.

I loved your story BTW. Still think about it! Keep working it, because it is so worth it!

Kimberly Franklin said...

Great post! I have the problem of over using my adverbs as well. Simplify, yeah. Much easier said than done...sometimes. : )

Good luck to you and your writing! We all must learn from our mistakes. : )

Shannon O'Donnell said...

Bethany - Don't worry, girl. Val and I have your back!

Lori - pet words is one I've heard a lot of people mention.

Simon - Very good points. Thank you.

Elle - That sounds like a lot of work! Ugh!

Nisa - Yes, they are a huge help. Thanks!

Bane - Strunk & White are great. :-)

Shannon O'Donnell said...

Whoops! A few of you snuck in there while I was writing that last post.

Catherine - Details are tough. I think a lot of us use "that" too often.

Angela - It would be interesting to see what a study would say about that. :)

Thanks for more nice comments. You gave me so many great ideas! I've made it as far as the big climax at the Hands and Feet Department. That's what is getting major attention right now.

Kimberly - "Much easier said than done" - Definitely!! :-)

Stephanie Thornton said...

I am working to strip my sentences down. It definitely helps having a critique group- it's my betas who pointed out the problem in the first place.

Now as I beta for others I'm on the lookout for extra words. It's amazing where they hide!

Kasie West said...

My biggest weakness is description. I hate it. When I read and when I write. I like to skip it when I read and I have to force myself to write it when writing. But like with everything, practice makes for improvement and it comes more naturally now without having to force it.

Kristen Torres-Toro said...

Eish... I pray a lot. And work really hard trying to figure it out. But I have a secret love for adverbs. And the word, "that". :0) I do my best to remove them from my novels, but they will always have a special place in my heart.

Candice said...

I too often use too many adverbs. When I reread a manuscript for the first time I try and take out as many as possible. I can't tell you how many suddenlys and quicklys I've removed from my writing.

Janna Qualman said...

My weakness is routine. Or rather, that I can't seem to stick with one. I think I have a handle on it, but then I mess things up and get my output all out of whack. I know that I just have to sit and do, but sometimes it's hard. And I know I'm not alone, so that helps trick me into trying less hard.

Geez, I've just rambled something horrible. ;)

dirtywhitecandy said...

My problem is making the story far too complicated. I need to simplify what is going on in the story, why people did things and what the consequences are. It seems that every story starts like unravelled knitting.

Wendy Morrell (aka Quillfeather). said...

Excellent writing advice.

Simplify, simplify. Harder said than done, but nevertheless, practice makes perfect. So I've heard :)

Natalie said...

My critique group is absolutely wonderful when I need to make my writing stronger. I fall short in just about every area on my first drafts. Thank goodness I get a lot of chances fix things. :)

Tamika: said...

I was never too great at show and tell. I'm still working on it!

Blogging has given me a great opportunity to get feedback and guidance.

Shannon O'Donnell said...

Stephanie - They do seem do hide everywhere, don't they?!

Kasie - I always want to paint the exact picture I see in my head, and it is not easy!

Kristen - Yay! You are in the majority. :)

Candice - Woo-hoo! I've missed you. Suddenly and quickly are two biggies in my writing, too. :)

JaNNa - Routine?? What's that?

Candy - "unravelled knitting" Ooo, I like that. :)

Wendy - MUCH easier said than done!!

Natalie - I'm really beginning to appreciate the whole "critique group" benefits package. :-)

Jemi Fraser said...

Crit partners are irreplaceable and invaluable. Don't know how many times they've seen things I've blown right by

Jennifer Shirk said...

I've come a long way where I can fix more thngs before my crit partners see them. :) But I still struggle with setting and just discipline in writing.

Lisa and Laura said...

Beta readers, beta readers, beta readers. We've found some excellent ones and they've really helped us learn how to polish a manuscript. I think one of the most important aspects of being a writer is learning how to apply feedback. We always take every piece into consideration, whether we make the suggested changes or not.

I LOVE your comment to Stephanie--tell more than I should and show less than I must--very well put. I'm going to remember this!

Katie Ganshert said...

Yikes, good question. i think my biggest weakness the first go-around is passive verbs. I tend to write very passively.

I'm not a big adverb gal. But I still try to go through and nix as many as possible as I write.

I like that quote. About stripping each sentence down to its most basic compnonents. In writing, less = more.

Karen said...

I have the bad habit of going back and nitpicking a WIP as I write. The result? I get stalled out.

ElanaJ said...

Very true, that quote. I tend to hook too many things together with the word "and". And (ha ha!) they're usually the same thing. Like, "Her wide and round eyes stared back at me."

Ugh. So bad. Must go fix. I have the red pen I need...

giddymomof6 said...

Ooh! What an awesome post! And you're so right, I feel that I'm constantly learning how to write.

Jenni

Roxane B. Salonen said...

Shannon, isn't Zinsser great? I have that same book on my shelf of favs. Perhaps I need to read it again. If you've noticed even from my comments, I tend to be quite wordy. Hmmm...should probably work on that. However...for now, I am not going to limit myself when responding to friends, because that's how I am in person, too, and I certainly and not trying to reinvent my personality. But...economy of words, in writing, always a worthy goal.

Shelli said...

my writing issue is that I tend to make things too complicated and need to simplify

Nishant said...

I personally get stuck on using "pet" words. Yesterday, someone in my critique group highlighted all the times I used a certain word and it was horrifying!

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