Minor changes, major difference

31 May 2011 16:30

A while ago I read a post on Andi Judy’s blog regarding troublesome words and phrases that kept turning up in her writing. Obviously, examples of what not to do should trigger only 1 response: check your own writing if you make the same mistakes. And boy, did I make those mistakes! I’ve been spending all my writing time the past few weeks correcting them in the Revenant Rising draft, and I haven’t even started checking the sequel for them. By themselves, these mistakes are relatively minor, but when you make the same mistake all over your manuscript, it gets annoying.

In this post I will first highlight Andi Judy’s examples, and then follow up with some of my own discoveries.

is/was/be {verb}ing

I probably make this mistake most often. Please compare:

Brenor was drawing his sword.

Brenor drew his sword.

There is a minor grammatical difference between the two. The first form describes something actively occurring in the past, while the second is a statement of fact about the past. Usually, when using past tense for writing stories, you want the second form. The first form is suitable in some situation (such as describing an ongoing action observed by your main characters, like a blacksmith using an anvil).

Started to

Another of Andi Judy’s examples that I found scattered across my manuscript. The error is this: most of the time your characters don’t start to do something, they just do it.

Brenor started to draw his sword

Brenor drew his sword

The only reason to use started (and stopped and continued) is when you are describing something which is starting and stopping within the scope of the scene. An example of this is a scene in Revenant Rising where disembodied voice assail the main characters whenever their movement is sensed, but stopping when they remain still.


I’m still working on filtering out this example, and it’s not such a clear case as the other two. In many cases you need the word "that" to complete a sentence. However, there are many cases where removing the word will not change the meaning of a sentence, and those are the ones you want to get rid of.

Searching for occurrences of "that" I found a number of interesting language constructs that seem to be the result of English being my second language:

  • "After that" - A literal translation of the Dutch word "daarna". In most cases you want to use "next" instead, or simply remove it altogether
  • that + verb - Examples include "the terrors that awaited them". Not exactly wrong, but it simply doesn’t look pretty, and I would replace this one with "the terros awaiting them". If anything it’s easier to pronounce.

Seemed to

This is something I encountered a lot, especially in conjunction with "be verbing". My manuscript has a lot of instances where the main characters aren’t quite sure what they are seeing or experiencing (mostly the consequence of traveling through a land that has not seen humans in a thousand years). The problem with this constant not being sure is that the writing starts sounding forced. It makes it look like the writer lacks the skill to describe the things he envisions, or that the characters are on some sort of narcotics and unable to properly describe what they are experiencing.


The same problem as "seeming" really. It lacks precision, and if used too often it makes it look like the writer is unable to find the words to describe something.

Suddenly / instantly / really

The dreaded adverbs. I did a quick word count on each of them a while ago, and found I had over 200 of these 3 words combined, usually close together. I’m not sure about you, but when I read the word "suddenly" in 3 consecutive sentences, the effect of something unexpected happening is completely lost. I’ve found a much better alternative to describing unexpected events: don’t say it happens suddenly, but make your characters respond in a startled manner.

Repeated situations

Having a character wake with a start is a great way to break from one scene into another. Unless that is how they always wake up. Similarly, displaying emotional turmoil by having a character experience trouble going to sleep works really well, unless they never manage to go to sleep at once. Repeating the same descriptions over and over is going to feel forced after a while, making your work look unimaginative. There are certainly cases in which repeated situations are the way to go, but you have to make sure there is a progression to them, so they advance the story in some way.

In closing

I’ve been spending a lot of time improving my draft of Revenant Rising. I intend to release it this summer, though there’s always a chance it’ll be delayed. All the minor changes I listed above are making a major difference to the way the book reads, all for the better of course. If these changes happen to cause a delay, then so be it.a