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Thursday, April 20, 2017

Wandering Body Parts and Other Pet Peeves

By Sandra Nachlinger

I’ve been critiquing a few manuscripts recently and have enjoyed reading the opening pages of a variety of stories. It’s amazing and delightful to discover the many clever, original ideas that emerge from the minds of writers. The diversity is always surprising. However, in putting together my comments for each story, I’ve noticed several issues that occur again and again. For example:

Long, Intrusive Narrative:
Depending on the genre and situation, there’s nothing wrong with narrative. Even lengthy descriptions can be acceptable in some stories. However, when a character clings to a cliff over a chasm, he probably won’t be thinking about the Latin name for the plant he’s holding onto or contemplating the back story of the man who pushed him. Many readers will scan those sections of beautifully written description to find out if the character survived or fell to the rocks below.

Passive Verbs:
No one is suggesting that was, were, is, or are be stricken from the English language, but their usage (over and over and over, especially combined with “ing” words) can slow down a story’s action.
Example:  When the gunman was running into the room, Ann was standing at the blackboard, writing out the day’s assignments.
Simple past tense: When the gunman ran into the room, Ann stood at the blackboard, writing out the day’s assignments.
With more dramatic verbs: When the gunman charged into the room, Ann froze at the blackboard, her hand poised over the list of assignments.

It’s and Its:
It’s is a contraction, formed by a combination of the words it and is. The apostrophe indicates the missing letter. Example:  Give me that pencil. It’s [it is] mine.
Its is a possessive. Example: The house needs a makeover. Its style could be described as early ghetto.

Wandering Body Parts:
In a book labeled as women’s fiction, this sci-fi action stopped me: “He twirled his head slowly in a full circle….” A scene from The Exorcist immediately came to mind. In other stories, eyes have dropped, clung, and skewered other people.

Thanks for listening to my rant. Now that I’ve listed a few of my (many) pet peeves, I must confess. My writing is far from perfect. One of my (many) bad habits is overuse of the word that. I just don’t notice it! Luckily, the members of my writing groups aren’t shy about pointing out my overzealous that usage.

Do you have pet peeves when it comes to writing or reading? Do bad habits crop up again and again in stories you've written or read?

Source: Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. "Man hanging from a breaking tree limb." 
The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1889.


  1. As a reader, I skip a good share of the narrative if it's description and no action. Okay, all of it. As for body parts, unless the wandering glares at me, I'm good (and sometimes it's really funny!). Fewer words are usually better, IMHO. Get back to the witty banter--that's what keeps me engaged in the story.

    1. I love dialogue! It's like eavesdropping on people at the next table in a cafe. I tend to skim (or skip) long descriptions, too.
      Thanks for your comments, Jacquie.

  2. Great review. I find wandering eyes distracting. Guilty of skipping long passages.

  3. Sandy, my all-time pet peeve is "nodded her head". What else would she nod? I'm guilty of skimming long passages. I try to break up mine with dialogue. When I'm writing I get caught up in my story and often make terrible errors. Hopefully, they're edited before the story is published.

  4. Using she/he asked after a question mark. A question mark only has one function. One. To inform the reader the previous words were asked in a questioning manner. Why insult your reader by slapping on Bob asked or Emma asked as if you feel your readers are too stupid to know what a question mark means. I'll give a writer 3 times, then I'm tossing the book no matter how much I'm enjoying it. Those said tags really annoy me. It's lazy writing.


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