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Checking for flaws

In The Practice of Writing, a series created especially for readers of MONTAGE, award-winning novelist, poet and critic Yasmine Gooneratne considers aspects of literary composition from a writer's point of view.

Prof. Yasmine Gooneratne

I have listed for you some of the flaws that I look out for while I am reading and editing my own or someone else's completed manuscript:

(1) Vague abstractions. Avoid them. Avoid words such as actually, nature, factor, undoubtedly, substantial, absolutely, definitely, terrific, great, fabulous, fantastic, pretty, massive, graphic, exotic, mighty, nice.

Here is a stylist of past times, Jane Austen, letting one of her characters deliver a homily on the subject of the word 'nice':

`But now really, do not you think Udolpho the nicest book in the world?'

`The nicest; by which I suppose you mean the neatest. That must depend upon the binding.'

‘Henry,' said Miss Tilney, `you are very impertinent. Miss Morland, he is treating you exactly as he does his sister. He is for ever finding fault with me, for some incorrectness of language, and now he is taking the same liberty with you. The word "nicest", as you used it, did not suit him; and you had better change it as soon as you can, or we shall be overpowered with Johnson and Blair all the rest of the way'.

`I am sure,' cried Catherine, `I did not mean to say anything wrong; but it is a nice book, and why should not I call it so?'

`Very true,' said Henry, `and this is a very nice day, and we are taking a very nice walk, and you are two very nice young ladies. Oh! it is a very nice word indeed! it does for every thing. Originally, perhaps, it was applied only to express neatness, propriety, delicacy, or refinement; people were nice in their dress, in their sentiments, or their choice. But now every commendation on every subject is comprised in that one word'.

(From Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey, 1817)

You will find among Jane Austen's letters, some written to her nephews and nieces, aspiring novelists who asked `Aunt Jane' (known within the family circle to be a published author) for her advice on their manuscripts. In one she advises a nephew to delete a passage in which his character, romantically named `Devereux Forester', plunges into `a vortex of dissipation'. It is not, she wrote, that she disliked the thing itself, but she simply abhorred the expression, it was so old a clichè (she said), that Adam must have come across it in the very first novel he read.

Jane Austen knew that words and phrases quickly fall out of fashion, having been overused, and rapidly become meaningless. Look out in your own writing for phrases such as undoubtedly a factor, definitely the case, conditions of this particular nature, strictly speaking, at this point/moment in time. Cut them out, and substitute for them something specific, something pointed.

(2) Look out for jargon. If you are writing something technical, one of your characters being a librarian involved with preserving old manuscripts, for instance, then you will actually need some technical language relating to methods of drying, inking, temperature control, and so on. That's fine. In fact, I've met readers who say they love finding in a novel information about some technicality they knew nothing about previously. (Michelle de Kretser's first novel, The Rose Grower, tells you everything you'd ever want to know about growing roses. Alexandre Dumas's novel The Black Tulip, does the same for tulip culture in the Netherlands.) Don't overdo it, though! Part of knowing the world of your story involves knowing more about it than you actually write into the story. Kipling's novel Kim surprised me, when I re-read it recently, with unexpected but entirely accurate references to Buddhist practice and belief. They were also relevant: Kim's companion on his long journey is an elderly Buddhist mendicant monk from Tibet. Ernest Hemingway's superb story, The Old Man and the Sea, reveals an intimate knowledge of the life led by fishermen of the Gulf of Mexico. But his knowledge of that life, of the tides and seasons, is not presented as knowledge though it underlies every word he writes. He explains:

`If it's any use to know it, I always try to write on the principle of the ice-berg. There is seven-eighths of it underwater for every part that shows. Anything you know you can eliminate and it only strengthens your iceberg. It is the part that doesn't show. If a writer omits something because he doesn't know it, then there's a hole in the story.'

The kind of jargon to avoid is a pretentious imitation of technical language, words such as parameter, etiolated, traumatic, interpersonal, in respect of, relate, concept, paradigm, motivation, liquid position, in terms of, conflict situation, viable, context. I'm sorry to say that several prizewinning books that have come under my eye use this kind of jargon.

(3) Look out for tautology. Tautology repeats ideas. Quite obvious, completely empty, adequate enough, in between, link together, follow after, early beginnings, descend downwards are examples.

(4) Look out for echoes. The unintentional use of the same word/phrase within a few lines, so that it clangs unattractively on the reader's ear: this can very easily go undetected, unless you concentrate and read aloud.

(5) Look out for unintentionally comic effects you have achieved because you have placed words in the wrong sequence. (Don't worry about this - we all do this in the excitement or flow of writing, and you've got to edit ruthlessly.) Examples are: `The wind blew across the desert where the corpse lay and whistled', `In 37 wrecks only 5 lives were fortunately lost'. A different type of mistake, but equally comic, would be `He threw his eyes at a tree', or `Her breath came and went in short pants'. For this part of editing, you have to be alert to the multiple meanings of words.

(6) Paragraphing. Watch for unreasonably long paragraphs, or unreasonably short paragraphs. Journalists write paragraphs that are one sentence long (because they have to fit into columns). Fiction is not journalism.

(7) Beyond these, you should ask yourself the following questions.

* Is each sentence clear? Is it to the point?

* Is my use of pronouns clear, i.e., where two characters are involved, both of the same sex, is it clear that `his' refers in a particular sentence to Mervyn and not to Milinda?

* Have I relied too much on adverbs? (If `yes', DELETE!)

* Have I used a long/jargon word for which there is a short equivalent? (If so, SUBSTITUTE. Write in `use' for `utilize', `see' for `envisage'.)

* Does each paragraph contain a number of sentences concerning one idea and its modifications?

* Has each of my chapters a central theme, or is it merely a series of loosely connected passages?

* What is the tone of a particular passage? Have I captured the tone and idiom of my character? Read the passage aloud to yourself, remembering that age, background and education affect the kind of language a character uses in speaking. Would So-and-so, an elderly Sri Lankan from a provincial background, on tour in Europe or America, actually speak like this? Does the dialogue move things along, emotionally? Does it discreetly advance the plot? Are the sentences too long for natural speech?

* Are there any passages I especially admire? If so, are they imitative of some other writer? (If `yes', DELETE!) Are the words used for their own sake rather than for the sense they create, do they in fact create `purple prose'? (If `yes', DELETE or MODIFY.)

* Have I checked my quotations? Have I acknowledged their source? Don't `leave it for later', and don't leave it as a job for your agent or publisher to do. Do it now, and do it yourself. The computer search engine makes this very easy. And it's quickly done.

* Have I double-checked punctuation? Have I used single/double quotation marks consistently? Alternatively, have I consistently used the system that allows me to begin each speaker's contribution to a dialogue with a simple dash, e.g.

* What about a walk? It looks like a good day for it.

* Yes, I suppose we could do that. It would be a way of killing time, wouldn't it?

* Look, you can't spend every hour of every day waiting around for the postman to ring.

* No, you're right. I'm being silly, aren't I? Besides, you never know, Emma, we might meet the postman on our way.

Things to look out for in the way of punctuation flaws include sentences that aren't sentences (lacking a verb, or trailing off without a conclusion); use of a comma where a full stop is necessary, because a sentence is complete and/or you have started off on a new thought; over-use of a particular punctuation mark (comma, colon, semi-colon, dash, and EXCLAMATION MARKS!!!); use of `and' to join thoughts that aren't closely or causally connected, each of which should be accorded a separate sentence). If you know your sense of punctuation to be weak, ask someone whose punctuation is good to read your ms before you finalize it.

* Have I mixed my metaphors, with unintentional comic effect?

* Have I used images or metaphors that betray an authorial, rather than a character's, attitude to a topic? e.g., a young and uneducated man or woman would be unlikely to use the images/metaphors used by a well-educated and older individual simply because such images/metaphors would not naturally have found a place in their reading and therefore in their memory.

* Have I kept to the rule that I should in all situations try to `show', not merely `tell'? Always reveal, don't explain. Be specific, use telling detail, and describe for your reader, but not to the point of clogging up the story's momentum. Avoid generalizations, they are opaque, the reader gets nothing from them.

* Have I been accurate? You have to know the `world' of your story, as well as the worlds of your individual characters. For example, you wouldn't have characters sitting down to breakfast in Paris and being served steak. If your characters are Sri Lankans on tour for the first time, you might get some mileage out of their expecting to be served roti or indi-appa, and being surprised or irritated at getting croissants and hot chocolate instead. Continuity is an important part of accuracy. You may have noticed that in a serial such as `Yes, Minister', Sir Humphrey Appleby wears an elegant dark blue tie in one scene, and a few seconds later, in the course of the same scene, the camera shows him wearing a crimson one. The continuity man/girl has slipped up there, it was his/her job to make quite sure the tiniest details remained unchanged.

When an editor was reading my first novel, A Change of Skies, she drew my attention to the fact that a married couple in an early chapter, having just disembarked at Kingsford Smith airport, was driving into the city in the same taxi, BUT he was registering the loops and curves of the road as it goes from Pyrmont to Iron Cove to Gladesville, while she was describing the Harbour Bridge. They are travelling in the same taxi at the same moment, Fiona pointed out, but they seem to be taking different routes. Of course I adjusted the text immediately.

A really good job of editing your own work can determine whether your work is taken up by an agent or a publisher. Everyone receives rejection slips, you should not see these as outright rejection. You might not have done your homework accurately:

(a) your writing has not been edited according to the guidelines suggested by your publisher, or

(b) you have not bothered to complete the final stage of the writing process, the editing before submission which should really be regarded as essential, not optional, since it becomes a part of the creative process.

 

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