Sunday, May 11, 2014

I Hate It When Writers Do [insert literary device]

Pet peeves. We all have them. I gnash my teeth when I hear some scientist on NPR's Science Friday uttering the phrase, "The data says that..."

A slip up like that would have earned me ridicule back when I was in grad school (which wasn't quite during the dark ages). "It's 'say,' damn it. Data is a plural word!" I growl back at the radio.

Except, it isn't. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word can be used to refer to a mass of information in the singular, and in fact 60% of the usage panel accepts the use of "data" as a singular word. So my advisors were fighting a losing battle back in the 90s, but they managed to instill a lifetime hatred of what, to me, sounds like an ignorant and inaccurate usage by people who should know better. Even knowing that it's not incorrect usage, it would be hard for me to be objective about a manuscript where someone educated refers to "data" as a singular word.

When you hang out with writers (in both on and offline environments), you won't go very long without running into similar pet peeves that are similarly overstated. One person hates the Oxford comma and provides an impassioned screed about why it's (usually) not needed before the terminal "and" in a series. Another person rebuts with an equally vehement excoriation of anyone who creates the potential for lumping the last two words in a series together by leaving it off.

This example is a bit silly as a defense of the O.C., IMO
It can be amusing to share rants with our fellow writers, but it can also be demoralizing, especially for those of us who are still developing our writing chops. Just today, for instance, I learned that it's (sic) wrong to ever have someone climb down a ladder (claiming that "climb down" is a pleonasm and that pleonasms are always bad writing). I've also learned that it's bad writing to italicize a word for emphasis, because a good writer knows how to create the needed emphasis via context. I've also recently learned that metaphors or descriptions that aren't literally plausible are ludicrous. One fellow writer, for instance, said that he hates it when someone "rolls their eyes" at something (says it makes him think of eyeballs on the floor).

Occasionally, I find myself sputtering indignantly during exchanges on writing forums, as I sometimes use colloquial language in my writing (characters have even been known to sit down on occasion, which really is a pleonasm), because people say and think it that way in real life, so why can't characters in novels? And sure, I'm clever enough to think of ways to write around italicizing words I want to emphasize, but maybe I don't want to, because I'm trying to create a certain voice or tone (note how I just emphasized want in the manner so derided).
New rule to me--all use of language must be literal.

Another technique that is growing more popular is present-tense narratives. Some people categorically loathe the use of present tense in fiction and will not/can not read (or give a positive crit) to anything written in that tense. I read one such comment in a blog a while ago. Something along the lines of: "I don't see the point of it, and I've never seen a story in present that wouldn't work better in past. It's gimmicky, bad writing."

A few other things some writers/readers hate and denounce as bad writing that are not necessarily wrong, depending on context:

Italicized "direct" thoughts
Sentence fragments
Any use of passive voice to intentionally place the emphasis on the recipient of an action
Flashbacks to deliver backstory
Novels with multiple pov characters
Sex scenes in novels
Swearing in novels
Novels where the pov character's voice infiltrates the narrative
Contractions in narrative
Narrative with a more formal tone than the dialog
Details about characters' appearances
Tags that follow dialog and lead with said instead of the proper name ("Let's go," said Sam)

And so on. Readers and writers are human, of course, and we all have our likes and dislikes. But it's important to differentiate between something that's pushing our critical buttons because it's not being done well or feels out of place in the context of a given story, and something that's pushing our buttons because it's one of our personal pet peeves (or even something we were taught was incorrect when it isn't, like the above-mentioned use of the word "data" as a collective singular). Opinions stated as fact can have a devastating effect on brand new writers. Inexperienced writers lack the perspective to know whether the negative feedback is because it really is categorically wrong to do something, or if they're simply not doing it well enough, or whether it's simply the critiquer's pet peeve bludgeoning perfectly sound writing over the head.

And this got me to thinking. How much of the feedback we give others about their writing is not really intended to improve their writing, but to mold them into writing to our own preferences or conceits? It's a tough call to make sometimes, since our own perceptions of what is good writing is shaped by the things our own mentors have told us and by our own reading experiences. Writers tend to read more widely than most people do, but even so, when pleasure reading, we tend to gravitate towards books written in styles that lie within our comfort zones. This can affix us with literary blinders.

Neil Gaiman famously said, “Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”

I suppose this can be taken too far. If someone tells a novice writer that she's punctuating dialog incorrectly, or that he's got a problem with comma splicing, that critter may very well be right, and he or she may very well be able to tell the writer to fix it. But for issues that are more related to tone, style, and voice in writing, I think Gaiman is probably spot on in a high percentage of cases.

The take-home message for me as someone who critiques the work of other writers is to remember that I'm trying to help them find an approach that works for them in the context of their project. I should want to help them write like their best selves, not to write more like I do, or even to write more like my favorite authors. Criticism should be given with a dollop of humility, and it's a good idea to include the caveat, "This is only my opinion."

Likewise, criticism (unless it's clearly meant to be destructive or demoralizing) should be accepted graciously, even if you disagree with it. It should definitely be considered, at least, if multiple critters are offering the same feedback. But that doesn't mean you should change your approach to writing simply because someone, or even several someones, doesn't/don't like it.


  1. In general, I love Absolute Write. However, quite often when I read some of the criticisms leveled against others, I think that many writers have forgotten how to be readers. Don't get me wrong, there are tremendously helpful and knowledgeable people there, but what writers think is good and what readers like are often two different things.

    And I do recognize that writers are readers, too, but we tend to read a little differently.

    I'll add one more thing: As I critique more, I am working much harder at avoiding rewriting in my own image. I'm getting better at it, though it's not always easy.

  2. An excellent plea for sanity. Of course, another difficult balancing act can be between respecting the author's choices and advising that, right or wrong, they're going to have a tougher time getting published if they write that way. It's important to make it clear what the choice is, rather than fall back on right and wrong.

    The claim that "climb down a ladder" is a pleonasm seems weird in the extreme. If you just say "climb a ladder", most people would assume you mean going up. Strictly speaking you can climb either way, so "up" or "down" are necessary.

    Incidentally, since my position on the Oxford comma is that it should be kept for the few cases where it actually clarifies the meaning, I can't resist pointing out that the correct way of writing the "without" picture would be "I had eggs, and toast and orange juice." The version as written is unambiguous.

  3. Context is important with the O.C. too. Since most people don't dip their toast in their O.J., few readers will imagine what is pictured there--unless they're the kind of person who really imagines eyeballs on the floor when a character in a book rolls their eyes. At the very least, participation in writer's groups has taught me that such people exist. And like any other opinion, it's not wrong or right in of itself, it simply is. But that's another example of picking one's audience. I like figurative language, and I suspect that anyone who loathes it will never like my writing.

    And yes, Jeff, that's what I was getting at. Critting someone else without recasting it in your own words and changing the style of the thing. As for Nyki's comment, I've been wondering about this too, and I agree it can be hard to know where to draw that line when you're pretty darned sure something isn't the kind of story or style that seems to be selling these days.

    But I think sometimes more seasoned critters are like parents who hover too much over their kids and try to steer their interests or creative endeavors because they can't stand to see them hurt by failure. I'm wondering if sometimes a newer writer needs to go through a trial and error process before they cast aside their own literary blinders. And in any case, who am I, really, to tell someone whether their idea is marketable? Trends change faster than it takes to complete, polish and shop a novel, and I've been amazed by some of the stuff I've run across in print that seems to be reasonably popular.